Hail to the Wonks

I have a brief review of Frederick Reuss‘ new novel, A Geography of Secrets, in this week’s Washington City Paper. It’s a tricky book that doesn’t occupy any obvious genre—it’s about spying and has some of the energy of a thriller, but it spends more time insides the heads of its protagonists than such books usually do. If somebody can address the book without mentioning Graham Greene, I’d like to hear about it. I couldn’t: “[A]s the diplomats in Graham Greene novels make clear, government middle-managers involved in life-and-death decisions suffer torments all their own, and Reuss has a gift for evoking the existential tensions that give Greene novels their intellectual heft.”

Reuss’ novel also makes interesting fodder for the Washington, D.C. parlor game of whether the city has inspired a great novel, and what territory such a novel would cover. I admit I may be the only person in the parlor, but I still think it’s a fun discussion—the two other cities I’ve lived in, San Francisco and Chicago, don’t need to spend a moment wondering about their literary legacies, but D.C. is such a fractured place in terms of geography, race, class, and its political swampiness that it’s been hard to contain. (George Washington University’s website recently produced a list of D.C.-themed books, mostly fiction, that’s a good place to start. Though once again Ward Just is neglected.)

I don’t think A Geography of Secrets alters the landscape of D.C. fiction, but it is a reminder of how full the city is of people employed in the military-intelligence world, and Reuss gives those people an unusual amount of dignity, describing the quiet angst such people are working through. One of the main characters, Noel, can’t help but fantasize about tearing down the city and starting over:

He crosses the Fourteenth Street bridge, gets on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. After Arlington Cemetery, the parkway begins a steady ascent along the Potomac gorge. The river narrows here, and the banks on either side become suddenly darker. Noel is sure he is not along in imagining, from time to time, plumes and towers of smoke rising from the city behind him, or, thinking forward, seeing cows and sheep grazing once again on the Mall. Why should the equalizing force of time that has made quaint archaeological sites of other great capitals spare Washington, D.C.?

Another character observes the way the city is strangely decentralized—how the work that keeps it running is done out of view, if not actually out of town:

Washington, D.C., is built almost entirely on hidden relationships. I began seeing them, in evanescent cross-section, during my comings and goings, impressions in the human dough, each occupying a place in the collapsible distance between one and the next: standing on a Metro escalator, stuck in traffic on the Beltway, waiting in line at Safeway or Best Buy—or, since most of what happens in Washington actually transpires elsewhere, at departure gate C7 at Dulles Airport with a Starbucks coffee, a laptop, and a carry-on.

No novel about D.C. could claim to be comprehensive without addressing race, and Reuss punts on that. (“The slice of Washington, D.C., known as Ward 8 may as well be another planet,” he writes, referring to the majority-black region of the city east of the Anacostia River.) But comprehensiveness isn’t Reuss’ goal, and it may be a ridiculous goal anyway. His chosen task was to look at the wiring inside the heads of average well-meaning intel functionaries, and in that he’s wholly succeeded, making those men appear not just smart but empathetic, funny, and interesting in ways they’re rarely allowed to be.