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Book review: ‘Infinite Ground’, by Martin MacInnes

Full disclosure – I’ve known Martin for years (it would be too strange to refer to him as ‘MacInnes’ throughout this). He’s my closest friend, so any pretense of objectivity will have be abandoned at the entrance to this review; which isn’t to say that I’ll approach it in the spirit of back-scratching favouritism either. In many ways, having watched Martin’s thinking evolve over the years, I feel like this book’s ideal reader, and I would feel positively towards it regardless of whether I knew him or not because it does exactly what most excites me in contemporary fiction. It presents a sequence of extraordinary ideas and startling imagery in a prose style that is both precise and hauntingly elusive, and it maintains a tone of bewildering strangeness and threat that manages to make reality seem more interesting than it did before you picked up the book. It encodes its central theme in its form, and manages to radically destabilise the concept of narrative coherence while masking this destabilisation behind an ostensibly straightforward noir plot – one that rapidly and thrillingly spirals out of control into something far, far more disturbing.

At the beginning of the book, Carlos, a 29 year-old office worker, has gone missing during a family meal at a local restaurant, in an unspecified South American country. A semi-retired inspector is called in to solve the case, and he begins by piecing together an idea of the missing man through interviews with his co-workers and by examining his working space at the temporarily unnamed corporation where he was employed. Uncovering dark hints of corporate malfeasance in the country’s rainforested interior, the inspector soon finds his investigation focusing on the physical, forensic traces that Carlos had left behind in his office; a bio-trail of microbial disorder that initially points to a psychological or possibly biological breakdown on Carlos’s part. As the inspector begins to feel similarly disordered, the city around him, suffering under a punishing heatwave, begins to feel threatening and unnavigable; a maze that throws surreal events into his path, and that seems to generate shattering trains of thought in his increasingly fevered mind. Finally, convinced that Carlos had felt compelled to track his way into the distant rainforest, the inspector traces his imagined journey into the interior; a destination that will generate in him a radical unmaking.

Martin told me that he had always tried to find a virtue in his limitations, and that being uninterested in verisimilitude or feeling himself incapable of writing psychologically rounded characters meant that he had to find his own techniques to convey the ideas he was interested in. In Infinite Ground he uses the rough scaffolding of the narrative to turn his gaze deeply inwards, to ignore the psychological development of character that the 19th century realist novel has trained us to believe is the pinnacle of literary art and to focus on the material development of character instead. This biological imperative takes us into a narrative world where the broiling system of the human body is an environment in itself, where the inspector’s investigations are as much into the ‘edge-life’ of the microbes on Carlos’s skin, shedded and left behind on the keyboard of his office computer, as they are into his day to day life. The inspector’s obsessive need to reconstruct, to create a facsimile version of Carlos’s office in order to recreate the conditions in which Carlos would have experienced his breakdown for example, are revealed as so much shabby artifice, incapable of illuminating the true condition of the missing man. The temptation is always to find a psychological correlative for biological events; ‘It was difficult to think about’ the inspector admits, ‘to consider in any way that wasn’t grossly reductive.’ Instead, he has to find a different mode of approach, ‘thinking via the life of the room.’ Isabella, the forensic specialist who assists him, scorns the idea of a neat division between the self and the environment that forms it, ‘the front-facing third person. A man and a landscape clearly defined.’ ‘There is no clear distinction between him and his room,’ she later says, ‘inside and out.’ Once that perspective has been lost, the book suggests, and as we become crushingly aware of our own fundamental incoherence, we dissipate and are blown away on a fertile wind.

Within the framework of the main narrative are situated two sections of freestanding speculation; one, ‘Flying to the Interior: Case Notes on the Forest’, is an unattributed account of what dark and surreal communities the rainforest might be hiding under its canopy; the other, ‘What Happened to Carlos’, is a sequence of 29 numbered paragraphs (the same age as Carlos when he went missing) hypothesising the possible means by which he disappeared. Both of these sections are some of the most innovative pieces of fiction I’ve ever read, the ‘What Happened to Carlos’ section in particular a fount of disturbing invention, each separate paragraph reading like the summary of the alternative experimental novel Martin could have written in place of the one he actually did. Here we see the theme of biological fecundity given concrete shape, with its suggestion that the novel’s final form is only one possibility among many. It also negates the idea that a mystery could or should have a solution; that a novel should pick up the ball it has set rolling. ‘What Happened to Carlos’ (presented as a statement rather than a question) suggests that there is something metaphysically as well as narratively banal about the need for resolution.

With its Ballardian combination of sparse lyricism and the brute poetry of the medical report or corporate account, Martin’s style is perfectly suited to convey both the inspector’s gradual degeneration and the more abstruse scientific information, without the latter seeming like mere didacticism. Here life can be ‘A temporary euphemism hung upon a large amalgamation of disparate biological material, memory and feeling’, or, at a more human level, he can pick out the office worker’s calves which ‘thrummed a walking impulse that was suppressed by the desk.’

All of this might make the book sound forbiddingly austere, but this is a playful and generous novel that is alive with, and intoxicated by, its own invention. Mad speculation is whipped along to its logical conclusion, and scenes of cinematic clarity are followed by dense considerations of the wilder side of microbiology (which, as the afterword assures the reader, is ‘always speculative, and sometimes wholly invented.’) Perhaps the key achievement in Infinite Ground is that Martin has managed to write a novel which is fundamentally about science without relying on that tired stand-by of the scientist-narrator, the omniscient hero who can explain exactly why the world should be seen as so consistently awe-inspiring. Here, the science is threaded through every sentence of the book, and gives the novel not just its form but its sense of pitiless unsentimentality. It isn’t nihilistic by any stretch of the imagination, but it refuses to fall for the false consolation of transcendence, ‘This idea that life is suddenly magical and incredible’ as Isabella says, ‘because of astronomy, the story of where the matter has travelled.’ The sense that human beings, that life, is ‘just’ matter though is wholeheartedly rejected. ‘Listen, I am not saying we are merely this, in the pejorative sense. I am saying we are exclusively made from this and that there is nothing more extraordinary.’ This is a major work that will surely inspire a generation of young writers, demonstrating to them what is possible when you cleave wholly to your obsessions and refuse to compromise your intent, when you make ideas your master and follow them wherever they may lead.

(Infinite Ground is published by Atlantic Books, £12.99)

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