“I have never felt any active emotional link to my hairy ancestors. Claudia Casper has changed all that.”—Steven Ward (on The Reconstruction)
Review by Steven Ward
Claudia Casper’s first novel, The Reconstruction—which is about a sculptor who builds a detailed model of an ancestral human based on fossil bones—met with an unusual response from publishers: several wanted to print it right away, and a bidding war erupted. When Penguin Canada won, they chose to wrap the book in a clear plastic cover in a chi-chi attempt to present a pictorial version of the contents. It’s like reading a heavily packaged food product. Rest assured the cover jacket is the most troublesome aspect of this novel. Casper’s explorations of evolution and life’s details transcend the clumsy packaging. [My note: I disagree intensely. The cover was beautiful.—CC]
You might think that trying to explain our personal lives in terms of the evolution could only lead to the conclusion that we are absolutely insignificant players in the great scheme of universal development. Even to grasp, in any real sense, the idea that I am descended from a serious of apes-becoming-human demands a cognitive contortion perhaps more difficult than the leap into religious faith. In its most elementary principles, evolution is simple enough to understand, but the fact is I have never felt any active emotional link to my hairy ancestors. Claudia Casper has changed all that.
In 1974 paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson found the “Lucy” skeleton, a 3.2 million-year-old example of the first apes who walked on two legs. Casper’s The Reconstruction draws these bones into the intimate present. The vast and fragmentary story of human evolution becomes the background for Casper’s story of two individuals: the unsuspecting Australopithecus afarensis Lucy, and the recently divorced Margaret, a sculptor commissioned to create a detailed model of Lucy from casts of the fossils.
In The Reconstruction, Margaret finds herself spanning the millions of years between herself and this first hominid. Lucy comes to haunt her, instigating Margaret’s own transformation from fossil to living being. When we join her she is only bones, about to begin the personal reconstruction following her divorce. It is a familiar theme, involving the excavation of personal history, renewed contact with lost values, and the subsequent creation of an autonomous self no longer dependent on outside structures for support. The result is predictable but the process is satisfying. Rather than merely leading us through Margaret’s journey of self-discovery, Casper’s writing captures moments before they can pass away and by doing so saves the reader from Margaret’s own malady, in which “the present moment fell continuously away before her and devoured her puny impulses before a decision to act even formed.”
As Margaret becomes more absorbed with the reconstruction of Lucy she begins to feel ghostly connections with her predecessor. This imagined relationship with her vision of Lucy becomes the driving force behind her personal redevelopment. Although evolution, both of the species and of the individual, permeates this novel, Casper’s attention to the moment deliberately disrupts the linear processes of development in order to dwell on palpable details. While Margaret despairs, Casper described the details of her condition, layering minute observations and emphasizing the uncertain significance of “small things”. Often, I found myself almost drowning in this precise description, which seemed to sacrifice vivid effect for repetition. The first quarter of the book produced a kind of trance; it left me caught in a static mosaic of stark dreams and morbidly detailed moments—which is, of course, precisely what Margaret is experiencing.
Eventually, Margaret, like Lucy, lurches to her feet. She throws herself headlong into the reconstruction. The layers of detail and metaphor become more interesting and essential. Connections are made across millions of years as Casper reveals the possibilities of contact between humans and their forebears. It is these connections, Margaret finds, that allow us to locate ourselves as individuals, and it is these connections which provide the impetus for continued development. Perhaps the writing sometimes tries too hard to summon these delicate links of timelessness and wonder, but in the end Casper’s ability to fill particular moments with significance—to focus the reader on the necessary details—reveals the power and significance of Margaret’s growing connection to Lucy.
Casper portrays Margaret through the scattering of details and the forming of subtle connections, and Margaret develops as she comes into contact with her own body—with her own sensuality, growth, and decay: her evolution is haphazard and intense. We are reminded that evolution is no certainty, but occurs in fits and starts, with numerous dead ends and long periods of stasis. We are reminded that the current state of human evolution requires our personal adjustments to continue. Casper shows that growth happens only in moments of real consciousness, in the pauses wherein we question our place and role in the timeline of humanity. It is in the midst of such a pause that Margaret finally sculpts Lucy:
“What she wanted was to sculpt a face that in some way showed a human female and Lucy like palimpsests of each other. She wanted to sculpt a human female and make her face melt into Lucy’s features, to reveal concretely, explicitly, the genetic echo Margaret was beginning to feel in her own cells, her own muscles, in the small movements of her face.”
In Casper’s vision we are momentarily beings, inexorably linked to our decaying bodies. Lucy pauses in the savanna with a portent of her imminent death, but in that same moment she enters the eternal. In the moment lies the autonomy of the individual: “Everything will conspire to keep you from listening. It’s not easy. I’m not asking you to do the easy thing. Listen. Listen. Listen.”
Casper took what could have been just another story of personal growth and tied it to the great and speculative story of human evolution, neither reducing the personal story to insignificance, nor exalting it unnecessarily. By connecting Lucy (and thus the entire spectrum of our evolutionary ancestors) to the life of the individual, Casper caused me to consider that it is not DNA that binds us to our ancestors so much as shared experience; a common anxiety and curiosity bridging millions of years.
The Reconstruction manifests in me now as a single image: Lucy pausing to listen, superimposed through time and space on the awakening of Margaret’s curiosity. In the face of decay, only the pause can stop time—the link which, when noticed, locates us in time and in the world. The Reconstruction, as it turns out, is a wonderful exploration into this sort of momentary anthropology, and certainly worth the effort of a pause from readers.