November 2014

Lee Matalone


The Trace by Forrest Gander

For those of us who prefer more literary reads, we may sometimes find it difficult to relax and simply enjoy the ride of plot. We are so passionate about devouring the language, style, and structure of a well-crafted literary book that we are often willing to forego the potential excitement that a healthy plot can provide. However, in Forrest Gander's The Trace, the more literary minded of us may have found a satisfying combination of artful style and action.

The Trace can perhaps best be described as a high literary thriller. In the novel, Dale and his wife, Hoa take a road trip through the Chihuahua Desert as he attempts to retrace the steps of writer Ambrose Bierce:

He had mapped this excursion -- part of his research on the turn of the century writer Ambrose Bierce -- to try to reconstruct the last journey Bierce took when, in 1913, he saddled up a horse, rode into Mexico to cover the Mexican Revolution, and simply disappeared, as all the scholars said, "without a trace."

Hoa, a ceramicist, decides to come along on his trip in the wake of their son Declan's "accident," which has left both husband and wife in alienating states of depression. However, their road trip comes to a halt when their rental car overheats in the middle of the desert, cell phone reception nonexistent, a trunk with a bottle of tequila and a cooler of melting ice. The fear of tarantulas, narcos, and fatal dehydration haunts the protagonists.

Gander is what many would consider an experimental writer, one who blends genre and language (he is a translator, in addition to his own work in poetry and prose) in order to get at complex questions surrounding notions such as world travel, identity, and intimacy. His 2012 Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, Core Samples from the World, combined poetry, prose (a prosimetric form of Japanese writing called haibun), and photography to discuss the experience of the traveler and his empathetic attempts to comprehend the foreign. In an interview, Gander describes the relationship of these different pieces of art -- the poem, the photograph, and haibun -- and how their juxtaposition functions in Core Samples:

[N]either photograph nor poetry is a crutch for the other. What I hope is that each is a catalyst, altering and reshaping potentialities. Each becomes different the way your lover becomes different when you are together or separate. Not lesser, but otherwise.

True to Gander's inclinations to blend genre, The Trace begins each chapter with a brief poem that functions as a respite from narrative time, a poetic break from plot to explore the emotional and existential states of these characters (and of the human experience, more generally). One such poetic moment, titled, "Equal to These Flowers," alludes to the trauma associated with their son's accident and a past that predated it. These poems provide another, different, beautiful lens by which the reader can get to know these characters. If the plot is public, an overt play-by-play of action that anyone sitting next to Dale and Hoa in one of the story's Mexican restaurants could observe, these poems feel very private, an exhuming of these characters' histories and their emotional lives that exist both before and surrounding the plot's present. As Gander points out, with such eloquence, the poems serve to both illuminate certain elements of the plot -- their son's trauma, the relationship between the family members -- and work distinctly alongside it, much like how the novel explores Hoa and Dale's closeness -- their long rides together through the desert, their history -- as well as their separateness as individuals, when they are isolated by the solipsism of their depressions, when they are forced to confront the desert's perils alone.

In addition to possessing a masterful understanding of genre, Gander also holds a degree in geology, a knowledge that he demonstrates throughout The Trace. His descriptions of the Mexican desert and its rock formations are simultaneously precise and lyrical:

There was not a human sign anywhere. Nowhere below or ahead could he see the trace of a road. No ranches, no mining operations. He saw yardangs beyond yardangs. There was a monstrous canyon to the north with side canyons and tawny battlements, its pink chimneys fading pale.... Just ahead, the trail disappeared, spooling around a hillock. It wasn't a breeze he felt at all, he thought. It was the suck of emptiness.

In the novel, a trace signifies not only an absence, the disappearing road washed away by desert erosion, but also a presence, what is left behind:

And she was with him now, wherever else she was. Traces of her skin on his skin, her hair in his hair, her fluids in his body, all the wine and saliva and crumbs that had passed back and forth between their mouths innumerable nights, and words and each other's dreams.

The novel presents and evaluates many dichotomies: the barrenness of the desert and its rich geology and ecology, togetherness and the individual will, the drive of plot and the contemplative beauty of the lyric. The success of The Trace lies in the fact that Gander presents these dichotomies and, through his adroitness as a writer, establishes a stabilizing, intimate harmony between the story's opposing forces. Readers will find much to appreciate in the beauty of Gander's novel of tender balances.

The Trace by Forrest Gander
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811223713
240 pages