In A Geography of Secrets, Frederick Reuss’ dual protagonists know their precise locations at all times. So does the reader. Technology—GPS, satellites, detailed maps—identify their coordinates: latitude, longitude, time, space. Noel Leonard and the nameless mapmaker are emplaced in their lives, as familiar and comfortable driving the streets of their adopted Washington, D.C. as they are traversing Europe.
Yet neither man truly knows himself. Each carries a burden of secrets, whose weight bears down on both their internal and external landscapes.
The reader, if she wishes, may literally Mapquest her way through the book; indeed, the book’s publicity include walking tours of A Geography of Secrets well, geography. While the mapping is clever, I’ll stick my neck out and confess the entire notion was a little pomo for my tastes. The GPS coordinates struck me as “meta”. diverting undue attention to themselves when Reuss’ fine writing keeps us amply informed. The device is amusing, clever, and ultimately unnecessary.
Of A Geography of Secrets’ narrators, the unnamed mapmaker, a “geographic information scientist”, is comparatively less troubled. His secrets are not directly his, but those of his recently deceased father. The mapmaker thought his father worked as a diplomat in the Foreign Service, that his career, which took his family around the world, was straightforward. After his death, however, the truth begins leaking out.
The mapmaker’s mother, a bitter, reclusive alcoholic, repeatedly insists on showing him the packet of letters his father sent during time spent in Viet Nam; then there is the stranger named Blake, who claims the mapmaker’s father was his best friend. He denies the man was ever in Viet Nam: it was Laos. When the mapmaker begins investigating, his applications for information under the Freedom of Information Act are categorically denied.
Noel Leonard’s story, like the mapmaker’s, is rendered in present tense but told in third person. Unlike the mapmaker, Noel is initially not given to introspection. He is a Washington man who has spent his life working for Defense Intelligence Analysis Center, mapping terrorist enclaves for bombing. He loves golf, his Lincoln Navigator, his wife, Pat, and daughter, Hannah. However, a lifetime of coasting along life’s surfaces is beginning to tell on his marriage, his relationship with Hannah, and his work.
When his mapmaking goes wrong, and he discovers that his wayward technical skills result in targeting and killing schoolchildren, his supervisor, überbureaucrat Geoff Cowper, sits down with him to compose a memo. The moment allows Reuss to unleash some of the most chiseled, damning sentences ever written about the United States Government and its covert violence. Ruess is a master wordsmith, and his caustic observations make A Geography of Secrets required reading for anybody with a moral conscience.
As Noel’s email in-box begins filling after the bombing:
“It takes surprisingly little time for things to drift down to these lower depths. The bigger the catastrophe, the more leadenly it falls as the larger vertebrates swimming overhead voraciously consume responsibility while spitting out little pebbles of blame.”
“They (Cowper and Noel) craft the memo, couched in enough classified material to guard against its being released while leaving the requisite chutes and ladders open for the downward transference of blame.”
“Today’s meetings concluded with somber acknowledgement that the common mission absolves them individually. In the end, people don’t kill, the state does.”
BP oughtta make Reuss an offer. Though I suspect he’d refuse.
As the men seek their truths, they begin in their respective journeys in Washington, D.C. Both are quick to identify themselves as non-natives who chose to call Washington home. Each has an intimate relationship with the streets, homes, parks, and bridges of the city. Time has given them the possessiveness of natives.
The mapmaker’s quest will take him to an aging veteran of Guadalcanal and to Europe, where Blake lives out his final days offering up bits of truth mixed with verbal jousting and too much cognac. Noel’s journey is more overtly painful. His wife, Pat, doesn’t bother to hide her disdain and rage at him. His relationship with Hannah is not damaged, as he thought, but non-existent. Even his work changes abruptly, leaving him at sea. In desperation, he will turn to the only man left who will listen: his Priest.
It’s impossible not to be wowed by Reuss’ writing. A puppy is a “wriggling black smudge.” As for secrets, “Secrets don’t keep, they putrefy.” The novel is filled with observations about place and the existential meaning of a self in a place, a self in a map, a self in the making of a map:
“The moment we begin to apply scale, we distort and alter our relationship to the world.”
“For me, the point of mapmaking is to establish linkages and relationships on a terrestrial and human scale, to see where one is (italics author’s) in the fullest sense possible.”
It’s fascinating to consider maps at this level, the way we now take for granted that we may locate ourselves in space, in place, at any given second. That to read a map is to impose oneself on it, for why consult a map if you haven’t some vested interest in what is purports to represent?
A final note. Much is being made of A Geography of Secrets as “The Washington Novel” the literary world evidently lacked. While A Geography of Secrets is a love song to Washington, D.C.’s architectural and psychological monuments, and in that regard it is most welcome, few of us sat around lamenting the lack of a “Washington” novel. After all, there is so much real Washington we must contend with on a daily basis, information ranging from the annoying to the enraging to the heartbreaking. This is no way detracts from Reuss’ effort. However, to dub A Geography of Secrets a “Washington” novel is unfairly reductive.
What begins as both an indictment of government actions and the corroding impact of secrecy on personal lives ends disappointingly: both men learn something about themselves, and attempt change, but the reader is left unsure how much progress either man makes in creating a more honest life, and the final pages are either completely bewildering or a brilliant flash of postmodern writing. Whatever the case, the strengths of A Geography of Secrets merit serious attention, as does Frederick Reuss. May Geography bring him, and his work, the accolades they deserve.
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