Phineas G. Nanson, a disenchanted graduate student, decides to immerse himself in the messiness of ‘real life’ by writing a biography of a great biographer. But a ‘whole life’ is hard to find. Everywhere he looks he discovers only fragments – strange notes, boxes of marbles, undated postcards.
As Phineas’s research continues, his mind roams from the deserts of Africa to the maelstroms of the Arctic. Along the way he meets others building wholes from bits and pieces – taxonomists, ecologists, even travel agents – and begins to puzzle out his future. But who will guide him from the labyrinth and back into his own life?