Tracing one man’s desire to uncover the secrets of his father’s past, this cryptic novel charts the emotional geography of Noel Leonard, a mid-level Washington defense analyst who remotely records data from predator drones as they fly high over the desolate mountains of Afghanistan. When an errant bomb detonates on a school, killing several children, the series of images spiral into an ever-blacker vortex of "justifications and repercussions," forcing Noel to question his role as a purveyor of government authority.
What follows is Noel’s carefully crafted memo couched in enough classified material to allow for the “open transference of blame.” As computer screens detail exploding bodies and slow-motion debris falling back to earth, Noel’s only obligation is to be resigned to “the mysterious engines serving politics and fate.” Seeing, shrinking, and keeping at a safe distance are Noel’s chief preoccupations.
On the home front, Noel has been noticing a shift in his marriage to Pat, his wife of over twenty years. Gradually drifting away, Pat’s dissatisfaction seems to
open up like a can of worms or a “little patch of gray,” a situation made all the more noticeable since their teenager daughter left for college. With
so many challenges at work and at home - and now this accident in Afghanistan - it's not surprising that Noel
gets caught up in a confusing topography of who and what he is.
As Noel searches for structure and a place in the world, Ruess’s strange novel, a triangulation of geography and psychology,
follows an unnamed cartographer driving around Washington’s Beltway, aimlessly looking for distraction and thinking about his father, who died a few weeks earlier. Long retired, the man’s father had been living in Switzerland. Close but not really intimate, the cartographer - in Bern for the funeral - meets Blake, his father’s oldest friend. While his aging mother admits she has no knowledge of Blake, a series of letters kept in an oversized manila envelope swarm over the man's memory, jumpstarting an investigation that takes him back to Bern
then on to Germany.
Projecting his characters onto a symbolic grid of hidden relationships, the centerpiece of Ruess’s novel is the strange connection (if any) that exists between the cartographer and Noel. Whether they are united or not, both men are confused and disenchanted at their distorted, altered relationships with
the world, relationships that only begin to make sense through the adoption of "a fourth dimension of cartography."
While the novel is loaded with bureaucratic jargon and laden with government acronyms, somehow it all coheres into flashes of beautifully
written illumination. A man of intense Catholic faith, Noel questions the
structure the church has bought him, while our conflicted cartographer -
previously inflicted with wanderlust - returns to Washington to ponder the group of clustered government buildings spread out beneath him in their “closed crucibles of power.”
Drawing us physically and metaphorically into the impervious realms of obscure government hierarchies, Ruess maps out the darkest parts of the human heart. Weaving together the inner lives of his disillusioned protagonists, their daily lives are an incongruous presence that moves silently and at high speed though a pictured, storied landscape.