The Short Version: Ellis Barstow is a reconstructionist by trade. He and his partner Boggs go to crash sites and reconstruct what happened, for legal cases and what-not. Boggs is also, might I add, married to Ellis’ dead half-brother’s former girlfriend… and Ellis’ half-brother died in a mysterious car accident many years before. A novel about the way we crash into each other’s lives and one man’s attempts to reconstruct how he got to where he is.
The Review: There’s a line in a song on the new John Mayer album where he sings that he “can’t trace how [he] got here” – and it’s a rather fitting line to summarize… really everything about this novel. I mean, the whole concept of the ‘reconstructionist’ is that idea of finding how something got to where it ended up: someone who goes out and, using photos and tape measures and plumb-bobs, manages to piece together exactly what happened at a crash scene. Sort of CSI meets Macgyver. But, because novels can’t be written without at least two layers of meaning these days, it’s more than that. It’s about how ELLIS in his LIFE got to where he is. What a coincidence that he happens to be a reconstructionist for a living!
The novel starts off well enough. The first extended sequence – Pig Accident 2 – is masterfully quirky and odd. The Macgyver part comes in when they recreate a pig (long story) with a skin and some Home Depot supplies. It’s just funny and weird and establishes a certain set of rules for the universe of the book. After all, there are plenty of jobs that have odd quirks to them that we don’t ever realize. So this quirky job feels right. I dig it.
We quickly get a sense of the scope of the odd background here – the coincidences like Ellis running into Heather after so many years and all of that. It starts to feel like a not-so-nihilistic Palahniuk novel – and the concept is, honestly, one that Palahniuk could’ve used as one of those now lost-to-history sequels to Rant. It would’ve been a cool addition to that world, I think. But in Mr. Arvin’s hands, unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out so well. Not to say that it turns out poorly, per se – although I disliked the last 50 pages quite a bit – but it just doesn’t turn out well either.
So the Big Question behind the novel is “what happened to Christopher?” even though the novel spends most of its time trying to ignore that question. Still, consider its the one thing that connects all of the main characters and the ending devotes so much effort to revealing the answer, you have to believe that’s the Main Question driving the action. After all, doesn’t it make sense that such a Question would drive Ellis into reconstructionism? Does this all feel a bit heavy-handed to you too? Okay, just making sure I’m not crazy.
See, we can predict most of what happens (as opposed to getting to the end and wondering how we got there) and that’s what makes the book flawed from the get-go. It’s not a spoiler to say that Ellis ends up having an affair with Heather – hell, it says so in most synopses – and as a result, very little seems surprising about what happens. Boggs’ break with reality (if I can call it that/save you from a lite spoiler), the eventual realization of what happened to Christopher… the only true surprise was the resolution to Pig Accident 2 and that gets brushed over almost without a thought. Which is a shame because I found myself most engaged by the reconstruction of these accidents, in the same way that I suppose people continue to tune in to watch CSI every week.
There are a few interesting comments made about fate/the way our lives work. “The only miracle is that there aren’t more miracles” and that whole concept of 1 in a million not actually being so rare is bandied about quite a bit, the obvious “coincidence” angle is a common trope throughout the novel, and that sense of needing to look back in order to figure out what happened/the unreliability of memory – these things are all scattered throughout. They don’t necessarily say anything new but they don’t wear out their welcome here either.
The one thing I will say this book made me consider was the actual physicality of car accidents. I’ve been in one in my life – my car was totaled but I was okay, as were the passengers of the inciting car. Still, I drive through that intersection and can’t not think of the moment. My dad, a few months before my parents’ wedding, was t-boned at impressive velocity in his Jeep and still carries a slight PTSD memory of it today. But it wasn’t until I read this book – the way Arvin describes accidents – that I suddenly understood what it means to smash two cars together so hard that one flips over three times. Cars are terrifying things, man. And then the news of Michael McKean getting hit by a car yesterday on the UWS? Strange timing and strange understanding.
Rating: 3 out of 5. The book is pretty solidly run of the mill. I wish it hadn’t ended like it did. I wish it hadn’t been so repetitive in the middle to be honest. The characters are pretty flat. But the overarching concept – the world that has been created – is interesting. In the hands of another writer, perhaps they would’ve taken it to a different place and created something else entirely. Here, it’s just sort of ‘eh’. Not bad or good, simply eh.