The Trace, New Directions

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Michelle Lancaster at Rain Taxi

Forrest Gander’s The Trace follows history professor Dale and his wife, Hoa, on a Chihuahua Desert road trip on the trail of Ambrose Bierce, the American writer and journalist who disappeared while reporting on the Mexican Revolution. Employing the equivalent of a split-screen, the novel recounts the couple’s travels through the desert while the casual, daily violence of the drug cartels unfolds.

Dale and Hoa embark on this road trip hoping that it will be just what they need to heal— to become again who they once were, individually and collectively— but they find themselves unmoored by the loss of the familiar. Hoa suffers from depression and Dale is excruciatingly careful with her, a solicitous dance of advance and retreat. Hyper-aware of her every move, he constantly evaluates her emotional state, but his attempts to engage her are painfully awkward. Through their relationship,
The Trace explores how tragedy involving a child affects a marriage; the solitude of the individual within relationships; and the membrane that separates our mundane lives from nightmare.

Gander is also a poet, essayist, and translator, so it’s no surprise that he is so gifted at creating metaphors that produce visceral sensation, and at evoking the precise xeriscape of the Chihuahua Desert. “The morning had barely begun, but the sun already sizzled, and the hill, heating up like a loaf of bread, exhaled at him.” Hoa’s reflection on the place is especially eloquent:

It occurred to her that people were wrong to call
the desert monotonous or monochromatic. Most
of it took on a lion-colored tinge, that was true,
but there were variations in every outcrop—
sandstone reds and basalt blues, creamy schist,
and burned whites. Green shadings of candelaria,
creosote, mesquite. Yellow exclamations of yucca
blooms.

Beyond its lyrical language,
The Trace is haunted by a pervasive foreboding; even banal actions are tinged with menace and the suspicion that anything could easily go wrong. As this tension builds, Dale and Hoa’s rental car breaks down, and a series of seemingly small decisions invite disaster when the formerly parallel paths of the couple and the cartel suddenly cross. Unfortunately, these decisions are nonsensical and reckless to such a degree that they invite disbelief, which may alienate some readers. Still, The Trace is a well-wrought novel: the characters are realistically flawed; the concept is original and engaging; the pacing while a touch slow in places, moves the plot forward satisfactorily; the language is spare but precise, the description evocative; and the overall impression is intelligent and genuine.