A Geography of Secrets

"Collateral damage" is a term once in wide use among military strategists as a clean, clinical term worthy of PowerPoint briefings and Pentagon press conferences—though its bland vagueness now signals a reality we'd like not to dwell on, horrific images of men, women, children torn asunder by bombs or remote-controlled missiles, their bodies scattered like doll parts amidst the rubble of what military intelligence planners might have believed was a terrorist hideout. We've all seen collateral damage play a role in our daily lives as well: the small, bad choices we make which spread in concentric ripples to those around us.

 

In his fifth novel, A Geography of Secrets, Frederick Reuss plots the course of both kinds of unintended consequences. Noel Leonard works in a windowless office at the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center on Bolling Air Force Base, spending his days consumed in the tight parameters of his work as an "image scientist" mapping coordinates for military units tracking and capturing (or killing) terrorists: "geospatial imaging, photogrammetric engineering, and remote sensing, down to the specifics of multiparametric sensor fusion and integration, data smoothing, noise removal, pattern extraction." As the novel opens, he learns he's partly responsible for an errant missile strike on a school in Pakistan—an event that his military employers immediately try to downplay by "spitting out little pebbles of blame" and tamping down the truth.

 

Noel is left to bear the burden of his secret on his own, not even telling his wife of the mistake. Meanwhile, his family is feeling the impact of another secret: Noel's college-age daughter is about to get an abortion and he's not supposed to know about it (though the fact that he does becomes yet another secret Noel must harbor throughout the course of the book).

 

Meanwhile, a second narrative thread weaves its way through A Geography of Secrets: a geographic information scientist is also living in a family clotted with lies. This unnamed character tells his half of the book from the first-person point of view—a distinction which helps because he and Noel are otherwise similar in temperament. Early in the novel, he learns that his father, a career diplomat, led a life in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and then in Europe during the Cold War that may have been as shadowy and prevaricating as a character from a Graham Greene novel. He travels to Europe in an effort to determine why and when his father joined the CIA and what he did in Vietnam. As he searches for the truth about his slippery, elusive parent, the narrator says, "All I wanted was to triangulate a location in the confusing topography of who and where and when."

 

Both men live in Washington D.C., the epicenter of confusing topography and whitewashed lies. As the book's title suggests, the physical and emotional geography of its characters charts the route of the story—right down to each of the chapters beginning with a precise grid coordinate. The narrator is literally disoriented while crossing the Fourteenth Street Bridge in the novel's opening paragraph: "I got off at the next exit, parked on Ohio Drive, and sat in the car staring out at the unfamiliar landscape. I didn't know what to make of it." He and Noel spend the rest of the novel attempting to pinpoint their location in life without the benefit of anything as precise as GPS. How does one man's snap decision kill dozens of innocents thousands of miles away? What are the moral implications of a father's secrets to a son standing in his shadow decades later?

 

The key to the whole book, which unfolds in a style that's as cold and calculated as the plotting of azimuths and grid point triangulations, lies in what Reuss calls a fourth dimension of cartography "that extended deep into the self" and being able to think of maps as existential projects, "a one-to-one encounter between a person and a terrain."

 

One of the novel's biggest flaws is that Reuss spends nearly the entire length of A Geography of Secrets holding back the way in which the two halves of the novel will cohere. A good deal of the reader's imaginative energy is spent spinning mental wheels wondering what each of the main characters has to do with the other, except in the broadest thematic terms. It's only in the final paragraph that Noel and the narrator converge like longitudinal lines at the pole. It's a rushed and contrived merger but, A Geography of Secrets engages the head and the heart, throughout, offering a thought-provoking vision of ourselves as tiny pins embedded on a map of an unpredictable battlefield.

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