“Collateral damage” is a term once in wide use amongmilitary strategists as a clean, clinical term worthy of PowerPoint briefings andPentagon press conferences—though its bland vagueness now signals a realitywe’d like not to dwell on, horrific images of men, women, children torn asunderby bombs or remote-controlled missiles, their bodies scattered like doll partsamidst the rubble of what military intelligence planners might have believedwas a terrorist hideout. We’ve all seen collateral damage play a role in ourdaily lives as well: the small, bad choices we make which spread in concentricripples to those around us.
In his fifth novel, A Geography of Secrets,Frederick Reuss plots the course of both kinds of unintended consequences. NoelLeonard works in a windowless office at the Defense Intelligence AnalysisCenter on Bolling Air Force Base, spending his days consumed in the tightparameters of his work as an “image scientist” mapping coordinatesfor military units tracking and capturing (or killing) terrorists:”geospatial imaging, photogrammetric engineering, and remote sensing, downto the specifics of multiparametric sensor fusion and integration, datasmoothing, noise removal, pattern extraction.” As the novel opens, helearns he’s partly responsible for an errant missile strike on a school inPakistan—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 burdenof 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 daughteris about to get an abortion and he’s not supposed to know about it (though thefact that he does becomes yet another secret Noel must harbor throughout thecourse of the book).
Meanwhile, a second narrative thread weaves its way through A Geography of Secrets: a geographicinformation scientist is also living in a family clotted with lies. Thisunnamed character tells his half of the book from the first-person point ofview—a distinction which helps because he and Noel are otherwise similar intemperament. 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 duringthe Cold War that may have been as shadowy and prevaricating as a characterfrom a Graham Greene novel. He travels to Europe in an effort to determine whyand when his father joined the CIA and what he did in Vietnam. As he searchesfor the truth about his slippery, elusive parent, the narrator says, “AllI wanted was to triangulate a location in the confusing topography of who andwhere and when.”
Both men live in Washington D.C.,the epicenter of confusing topography and whitewashed lies. As the book’s titlesuggests, the physical and emotional geography of its characters charts theroute of the story—right down to each of the chapters beginning with a precisegrid coordinate. The narrator is literally disoriented while crossing theFourteenth Street Bridge in the novel’s opening paragraph: “I got off atthe next exit, parked on Ohio Drive, and sat in the car staring out at theunfamiliar landscape. I didn’t know what to make of it.” He and Noel spendthe rest of the novel attempting to pinpoint their location in life without thebenefit of anything as precise as GPS. How does one man’s snap decision killdozens of innocents thousands of miles away? What are the moral implications ofa father’s secrets to a son standing in his shadow decades later?
The key to the whole book, whichunfolds in a style that’s as cold and calculated as the plotting of azimuthsand grid point triangulations, lies in what Reuss calls a fourth dimension ofcartography “that extended deep into the self” and being able tothink of maps as existential projects, “a one-to-one encounter between aperson and a terrain.”
One of the novel’s biggest flawsis that Reuss spends nearly the entire length of A Geography of Secrets holding back the way in which the two halvesof the novel will cohere. A good deal of the reader’s imaginative energy isspent spinning mental wheels wondering what each of the main characters has todo with the other, except in the broadest thematic terms. It’s only in thefinal paragraph that Noel and the narrator converge like longitudinal lines atthe 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 mapof an unpredictable battlefield.