PICTURE YOURSELF vanishing without a trace.

It’s not easily done. There is something so irrefutable about our own existence that the thought of vanishing into thin air seems horrifying, if not literally unimaginable. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, we are fascinated by the possibility that someone could just disappear. Think of the 43 Ayotzinapa students abducted from Iguala, Guerrero, whose vanishing did more to fuel the massive protests that fanned out across Mexico than the many shallow graves local farmers unearthed in their search for those kids. Think also of the power that the word remains holds when used to describe a body or the parts of it we can find or recognize, the lengths to which we will go to recover bits of those lost at sea or in battle, or from a river in southern Mexico. Now think of what it might be like to be a parent of one of the 43. The traces of life seem to ratify our desperate or delusional hopes by tethering them to the physical world. They serve as prompts for the stories we tell ourselves to make sense out of the unintelligible and the hard truth that some things, if not all, can be lost forever. This might help explain why a lack of traces can be so terrifying, or why stories of Latin America’s desaparecidos often frighten us more than accounts of contemporaneous torture and barbarity.

Our obsession with, and deep reliance on, vestiges of all sorts is at the heart of Forrest Gander’s excellent second novel, The Trace. The book’s plot is beguilingly simple. Dale, an English professor, and Hoa, his ceramic artist wife, reeling from the disappearance of their son, find themselves on an impossible pilgrimage to uncover the footsteps of another one of the traceless vanished: the American writer Ambrose Bierce, who in his seventies rode a horse into Mexico to cover the revolution and never rode out. As might be expected from such a premise — especially by anyone who has kept up with the sad and steady stream of bad news coming out of our neighbor to the south — their road trip takes a turn for the worse, though not quite in the way we expect.

Though technically his second novel, The Trace is Gander’s first real foray into sustained narrative. Whereas 2008’s sparsely meditative As a Friend was a novel for marketing purposes only (Gander apparently wanted to call it “a harmonic”), The Trace is a full-blooded entry into the genre. Fast yet capacious, and expertly paced with a steady 4/4 beat that moves the reader from chapter to chapter with deceptive ease, Gander’s novel surges with a degree of narrative tension, complexity of character, and psychological depth that far surpasses the fine effort of As a Friend, despite the fact that that book was a kind of character study.

Although he has now written a first-rate novel (published by New Directions), Gander is still probably better known as a poet than a novelist, and as such he is an artist of tremendous evocative power — an artist of traces, really, whose concentration of perception and profound honesty make one feel like following him into a forest or digging with him through a murderer’s or celebrity’s compost heap. I take, for example, the title of his last book, 2011’s Core Samples from the World, which really ought to have won the Pulitzer, as a kind of statement of method from a poet trained as a geologist. Just as the scientific technique of core sampling painstakingly extrapolates a bygone world from the striations in a thin cylinder of extracted soil, rock, or ice, so too does Gander coax from its traces existences that have been lost or were never really reachable out of the sheer fact of the little that remains.

With his meticulous attention to line and language and his careful imagistic touch, Gander’s poetry makes you feel as if an object — say, a burnt lectern or an iPhone — were not a mere thing, but instead a totem or, more accurately, a telescope. And yet, like James Wright, a poet with whom I have always thought Gander has a lot in common, he invests the things with a meaning that, miraculously, is revealed as having always already been there. Nothing about it appears arbitrary. Rather, when reading Gander one trusts that he, like the core-sampling geologist, has taken the time to look carefully at his sample and has extrapolated meaning, context, and history with a degree of skill that, in both geology and poetry, approaches the shamanic. And he does this always with a poet-scientist’s commitment to precision in language. His poetics are characterized by an almost moral dedication to the particularity of the thing, to the nonfungible reality of both the human individual and the inhuman world he inhabits and alters.

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The Trace opens with a scene of an unnamed man and woman calling to one another through the bathroom door. Their exchange is unremarkable, which is to say, immediately identifiable. “Can I come in?” she asks. “En el trono,” he says: I’m on the throne. But in the next instant the scene transforms into a kind of small-scale, personal apocalypse culminating in what is perhaps the novel’s most memorable — or at least most unforgettable — scene involving the man’s head, a soccer ball, and a narcotrafficker with a floppy neck nicknamed “El Palomo.” This is not the last we will see of the Cock Pigeon; he haunts the action of the novel in chapters interspersed with those describing Dale and Hoa’s pilgrimage until the two narrative lines intersect, though once again not in the way we see coming.

Much like the novel’s harrowing overture, Dale and Hoa’s road trip putatively in search of Bierce begins as something almost quotidian and evolves into something almost otherworldly. (So much hinges on this “almost” for Gander, who is at heart a deep kind of realist, and for whom nothing of experience can be either too ordinary or too strange to be worthy of note or belief.) In fact, a large portion of this road novel is dedicated to the banalities of car travel, the recurrent conversations — “Want me to drive?” “Sometime. Not now.” — the ways that long drives can turn boredom to silent resentment between lovers, and the way that the landscape spinning by can unspool all the questions and accusations you’d so assiduously tried and failed to let go of. As a reader, one is made to feel the long stretches of empty time, to think himself into them. No other writer that I know of has so accurately and carefully depicted the tiny internecine battles of two lovers on an interminable drive as does Gander in this book.

Dale’s idea was to rent a car and drive back and forth across the Mexico-Texas border, stopping along the way at sites significant in the lore surrounding Bierce’s death, particularly the three places he is reputed to have died: Marfa, Texas (from wounds suffered at the Battle of Ojinaga), Icamole, Nuevo Leon (summarily executed by revolutionaries under the command of Tomas Urbina), and Sierra Mojada, Coahuila (mistaken for a spy and shot). All goes well, or at least more or less according to plan — that is until Dale decides to take a shortcut back to Texas through the Chihuahua desert and the mythical-sounding “Zona de Silencio,” so named for its lack of radio or cell phone coverage and the apparent failure of even compasses to get a bearing there. Of course the Zone of Silence is anything but — the chorus of insects is deafening, the cries of coyotes sound eerily significant. Rather it is a place completely inhospitable to human life, a vision of a world that is unneedful of humanity, if not actively malevolent.

As we might have expected, the car breaks down — another opportunity for Gander to depict the trace elements of animus in even the most loving relationship with a deft touch and a generous sense of humor. The pair is stranded in the desert. It is here, among the endless vistas of ochre and umber, that Gander’s prose really scintillates. It seems that Gander has always had an affinity for this place where “what crosses […] goes fanged or spiked and draws its color from the ground” (“A Clearing”). The desert — a place that more than any other rewards careful attention — where when first you look “it seems absolutely still. And then you look again and every centimeter is vibrating” — comes alive in the second half of the book. The world of the miniature, the cosmos of bugs and bats, is so meticulously and vibrantly rendered that the impression is of an almost overabundance of life chirring around Dale and Hoa, who have been forced to part ways to survive in a land that seemed at first marked entirely by death.

You can sense that Gander, who spent time living in the region, looked at the desert not as a landscape, in the way a painter or another novelist might, but rather with the eyes of a geologist, one who sees narrative, history, and future in the obdurate fact of the things themselves. (I do not think it’s a coincidence that another contemporary author often celebrated for his humanity was similarly trained in the study of rocks and earth and not in one of the so-called “humanities.”) There is something about the desert that strikes us as particularly hostile to human life, and perhaps it is for this reason that the desert has for centuries been the setting for visions, for testing one’s self and the natural limits of one’s sanity (activities that seemingly have little to do with terroir). Anyone who has spent time in such a landscape can attest that it makes immediately clear and problematic one’s status as a foreigner in nature — a jungle can swallow you, but the desert always holds you apart.

It is not only the forbidding landscape that is hostile to human presence and connection, however; history and humanity can be equally deadly and surpassingly inhuman. Indeed, a deep ambiguity between the human and the inhuman permeates The Trace. The traces of each in the other can never be fully eradicated or, perhaps, adequately explained. For instance, in Gander’s description of Hoa keeping watch over her comatose son, Declan, in the hospital: “Hoa would stand at the bed staring at the movement under his eyelids. They were like minnows, she thought, wiggling over sand, iridescent and fleshy and alive.” But when he finally wakes, the boy is “alien, interior, angry.” She feels a deep need to know her son as a human being, but the irony is that it is at his most human that he is most foreign and most dangerous.

Similarly, there comes a point when Dale, alone in the middle of the desert, on the brink of death, and delirious from pain and dehydration, finally crosses paths with El Palomo. He goes out from the cave where he has sheltered in hopes of finding water, and on his way back he sees two men loading black bales into the bed of a pickup truck. These men, he understands, are narcos. Dale’s first thought is to hide from them, to avoid detection at all costs, the implication being that these men pose him a greater danger than the desert, which is no more than a few hours away from destroying him. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that if these men do not present him a greater threat, then they give him more to fear. In any case, it is hard not to see Dale’s cowering instinct as a kind of failure, even though we, unlike Dale, know exactly what El Palomo is capable of.

When Dale leaves his cave he thinks to himself, “Look out you rattlesnake motherfuckers,” but when he returns and sees the two men, his only real hope for salvation, he drags himself on his belly beneath a creosote bush.

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Earlier in the novel, as Dale and Hoa drive through the liminal desertlands, Dale looks up to where some caves call to him from the sides of the mountains, and he cannot help but think himself into those prehistoric holes in the rock.

What would it be like living in such a landscape? You couldn’t help but imagine dropping yourself off out there in the primeval wilderness as you drove past in your air-conditioned capsule of a twenty-first-century car. Did everyone have that same fantasy? Was there something intrinsic to the ego that it had to project itself into spaces from which human presence was missing, into a terrain so brutally indifferent to human beings that, but for the road, it managed to repel almost any trace of the world’s most aggressive species?

Within days, Dale will be forced to seek refuge in a cave indistinguishable from those he had glimpsed from the parallel universe of the air-conditioned Prizm (surely not a coincidental choice of model), bringing him face-to-face with the practical limits of his imagination. Similarly, what begins as a matter of curiosity and ends as a test of survival for Dale sounds from the beginning in a more demanding register for Hoa, who understands, or at least intuits, that there is no terrain more brutally indifferent to human beings than history.

Walking through an abandoned settlement in the middle of nowhere called “Hacienda de los Muertos,” a place reminiscent of Juan Rulfo’s indelible Comala, Hoa fantasizes about the possibility, without really believing in it, of scientists playing an ancient vase like a record, of using lasers to tease out the long lost sound waves immortalized in the woof of the thrown and fire-hardened earth. And, thinking perhaps once again of her missing son, even if it turns out to be impossible to hear the voices captured in the ceramics, “she thought it should be possible” (emphasis mine).

And here, now. She could hear the ghosts of the past. Miners and whores, married couples and their children, who made brief claims against the desert and oblivion. People who, with every muscular contraction, every embrace, every swallow of pulque and water, proclaimed that they themselves were, among all those who had come before them, the only ones privileged to their particular moment. Their now. They were the living. They filled their lungs with dry air, they walked and slept and dreamed. And now, in her own now, Hoa thought, not so many years later, those others were snuffed out. And their last readable signs were being subsumed by the desert.

What is it that compels both Dale and Hoa separately to think themselves into the traces that they find? (And this before Dale, dying of thirst in the desert, builds cairns to “stay found”; before Hoa, also alone in the desert, makes arrows with rocks in the sand.)

For Hoa, at least, her relation to the trace does indeed take the form of an ethical compulsion. Like Gander, I think — whom critics have praised for the “ethical impulse” in his work without adequately explaining what they mean by that hefty encomium — Hoa believes that the irreducible individuality of a human existence ought to be retrievable from its traces, even if we know that the quest is, at least in one sense, a fool’s errand. From this, then, something like an imperative follows concerning the individual’s — and the artist’s — orientation to the given world, which recalls to my mind a speech the German writer Siegfried Lenz (with whom Gander shares some deep ethical, if not aesthetic, sensibilities) gave in which he spoke of memory and imagination as a “defense against the indifference of history.” Of course, as the Mexican stories and novels of Roberto Bolaño also repeatedly remind us, novels and poetry cannot stop the violence ravaging Mexico and elsewhere. Literature is not a defense in the same way that, say, a border fence is — but it is not exactly powerless, either.

Even though The Trace is wonderfully self-contained, as a work of art it still manages to reflect the reality of the world from which it departs. As Dale and Hoa move through the queue to cross over the Rio Grande and back into the relative safety of the US, we cannot help but feel hopeful and relieved. This sentiment quickly begins to look perverse, however, when on that very border bridge they pass slowly by a female mannequin with its breasts chopped off, a memorial to Mexico’s feminicidios, the women who have been killed and raped and disappeared without a trace in such staggering numbers that it gave rise to a whole new term of law and justice: femicide. Though Dale and Hoa’s story closes with an unexpected gesture of authorial generosity and an omen of reconciliation with Declan, a sense of dread creeps back in unabated in the afterglow of Gander’s happy ending. There were bodies in all those bags, we remember. Those women are still vanishing without a trace. The men they left in the desert will probably die.

Gander’s work demonstrates another way that literature, and more specifically language, can serve as a defense against, or repudiation of, the indifference of history — especially in the case of those to whom history is most indifferent, the marginal and the disappeared. Just as the demands of justice called for a new, more precise word to describe the deaths of women in Mexico and to confer a degree of dignity upon them by differentiating what they suffered from homicide, so too does Gander’s rigorous commitment to precision in language evince a kind of ethical commitment to particularity. (Once, when I asked a Mexican woman why the need for the new term to describe what seemed to me like homicide, she replied: “Because the women were lost inside that word.”)

The rebuke to the indifference of history that Gander’s work offers is a celebration of the particularity of individual artifacts and lives — it is the sacred rejoinder that everything particular is irreplaceable. This ethos can be found on almost any page Gander has written since 1988’s Rush to the Lake. Take the 2004 poem “Burning Tower, Standing Wall,” for instance, in which Gander bridges the divide between what “was” and what “was once” — or rather marks the gap illusory — by looking deeply into the traces made and not simply left by pre-Columbian masons, and by listening to the sounds that reverberate off the stones in order to hear “the memorial ache inside the walls.” In this light, Dale and Hoa’s quixotic voyage takes on a nobler aspect, even if it is doomed from the start and they fail repeatedly along the way. Their quest also calls to mind a similar chronicle of Mexican-road-trip-as-literature in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, as well as Bolaño’s aphorism about literature being beautiful because it involves knowingly fighting a losing battle (to which Gander’s work suggests a necessary addendum: a losing battle, but for a noble cause).

Whether describing the minutiae of kiln firing or the “yellow exclamations of yucca blooms,” Gander’s language seems motivated by a commitment to the things in the world as objective, individual, and irreplaceable. Thus, his descriptions of the changing geology of the desert landscape or the cartilage and sinew that bind face to skull are rendered with painstaking precision. Thus the monument to the feminicidios is depicted not in terms of its conceptual content but rather in the particularity of proper names: Jessica Morales, Marcela Fernández, Verónica Beltrán, Maria Irma Plancarte. To call something by its proper name is to acknowledge it as nonfungible; it is to celebrate and lament through precision the brute fact of a discrete individual’s existence and to imbue that lost presence with a degree of dignity and necessity. (Bolaño achieved a similar effect with his precise, albeit fictional, documentation of los feminicidios in 2666’s “The Part about the Crimes.”) This might be an element of an ethics of the trace: a kind of dogged celebration of the particular and a commitment to the objective existence of something or someone who has gone, who exists only in the absence she left behind.

Still, Dale and Hoa do manage to make it out alive in the end. Together they cross back into Texas, into the spindling light of a future that contains them, cell phone reception, and “their bond [that] was a singular thing at the core of who they were, whether separately or together.” (The fact that Dale’s iPhone, which has been “phantom ringing” throughout the novel, finally goes off in the novel’s last sentence brings to mind nothing so much as Chekov’s rifle and, accordingly, the ambiguously destructive potential of the communication necessary for a fully human life.) And yet even the bridge that carries the pair to safety across the Rio Grande is fraught with its grotesque memorial to mutilated strangers, with nameless men making demands on Dale’s generosity and requesting his assistance. The disturbing vision at the core of Gander’s happy ending reminds us that there might always be something horrific in human connection and that bridging demands a particular kind of orientation and toll from us as human beings.

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There does seem to be something about the act of bridging — or rather, the construction of impossible bridges to other times and other individuals — that, combined with a quasi-scientific openness to experience and commitment to particularity, more fully characterizes the ethical impulse underlying Gander’s approach to image, narrative, and language. Core Samples, for example, explored the barriers to comprehension that being a foreigner throws up and the longing for understanding it inspires. Likewise, As a Friend dealt with the demands and virtues of friendship by centering its investigation on a man who was essentially unknowable. Like these works and the bulk of Gander’s poetic oeuvre, The Trace evinces a version of a recurrent dialectic, namely the desire to build a bridge to something foreign (another culture, another human, another life, another past, another other), followed by the impossibility of that endeavor, finally giving rise to a quasi- (or fully) ethical imperative to at least try and to find value in the attempt.

Note, for example, the imperative tone of this section of the poem called “Malinalco” from the Mexico chapter of Core Samples, in which Gander encounters a Maya woman through an intermediary:

To welcome the
strangeness of
strangers
not versions
simply of
my own
thought.

Through
the interpreter,
the Tzotzil shepherdess
indicates she has
some questions
too:
Tell me
how
is your lost
bird that was
found?

There is a sincerity of regard in the Tzotzil woman’s question that makes good on the first stanza’s demand. Her question looks you in the eye, as it were, even though she speaks through an interpreter, and it holds out the promise that a certain kind of orientation to the world is possible even if actual, literal communication is not. Thus, the compulsion Hoa feels among the ruins of Hacienda de los Muertos should be understood not simply as to try, but to try, as Gander puts it in one of the poems in The Trace, “As if iteration might introduce us to a sensation not limited to sameness.” There is a double-edged ambiguity in Gander’s “As if …” that seems to be at the core of his work, a paring of the empirical uncertainty and ultimate unknowability at the heart of the hypothetical “as if” with the imperative of certain strains of moral thought and make-believe (“do x as if it were true that y”). It is an ambiguity that Gander does not resolve — the poem itself begins with the lines just quoted — perhaps precisely because its force and life resides in the impossibility of its resolution.

Maybe there is a kind of ethical impulse that, like a kind of truth, dies as soon as you pin it down with a name or concept. One that, as intuited by Hoa in the abandoned town or at the foot of her son’s hospital bed, and by the foreigner in Mayan lands, insists more on communion than communication. It is, I think, just this kind of vibrant orientation in Gander’s work and its relation to the life that exists undeniably, particularly beyond it — where just now a farmer in Guerrero or Chihuahua State leans on his shovel and looks off with the expression that you too would make if you’d once again just struck what you’d recently learned to tell by feel as human bones in a shallow grave — that characterizes the often felt but rarely examined ethical strain in his work. In this, his latest book, Gander shows us once again that there is a distinctly human value in staring deeply into the trace, even if you know that traces, like the abyss, never really stare back.

As if iteration might introduce us to a sensation not limited to sameness.

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Lowry Pressly is a writer of fiction and cultural criticism.