Last night I finished The Origin of Species, and solely for the benefit of Elissa I'll share a few comments on it.
I started off feeling negatively towards it (even before Elissa said she didn't like it), simply because it's not normally the kind of story I like to read. I fought off my own early judgements and tried to keep an open mind.
It's hard to get into a story when you don't like the protagonist. Maybe not always, maybe not when the protagonist is funny, but I didn't find Alex (or anybody in this book) funny. It's probably unfair and unreal to have been reminded of Mordecai Richler while reading this (I'm not sure exactly why I did - Montreal probably), but I kept thinking about how funny Richler's unlikeable people are, and missing that in this book.
There were a lot of times where I could identify with Alex - mostly at the worst times, like the most socially-awkward times. That probably also accounts for some of the discomfort I had with him - seeing bits of yourself in someone you don't like.
I think it was a really weird choice to win the Governor General's award. It wasn't badly written in any way, but it wasn't particularly fabously well-written, either. I didn't find it moving, and I didn't feel convinced by the transformation of Alex by the end. Not that I didn't think it was believable, it was just that I still didn't like him at the end, and I felt that his breakthrough was so slight.
And then, I thought at times it was trying to be some kind of anti-CanLit model - poking fun at CanLit when Alex teaches it as a boring course, or goes on about Margaret Atwood and her book Suvival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. As though by recognizing these things it was disassociating itself with the stereotype. At the same, the book is also ultra-Canadian in details - there's even an ongoing imagined dialogue with Peter Gzowski. So much so that I thought, as I read on the subway, that people might peek over my shoulder and wonder how on earth I came to be reading something Canadian. Yes, I did think that. It made me wonder if the GG choice was political - as if they chose it because it was the anti-CanLit. Which is not to say that I think the award winners particularly exemplify the stereotype of "CanLit" - not at all. I dunno, I haven't read enough of the winners to finish this thought or make any accusations. Maybe if I get the energy I'll whip out Survival and properly think about The Origin of Species against Atwood's themes - because we all know that is the bible of the Rules of literature in Canada. That was an intentional capital R rules!
All in all, I didn't hate it. I didn't like it. I was glad when it was over, but I didn't hate my time with it. I'm a bit baffled by the overwhelming celebration by critics (and the cover blurb from Roddy Doyle - really did he think it was that funny?), but it is very interesting to note that all the reader reviews on Amazon (.com, haven't checked .ca) have been "meh" 3-star reviews.
Next on my list is Elle by Douglas Glover (2003), but only after I finish another, non-Canadian book for a book club of more than one.