Tag Archives: Martin MacInnes

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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The Next Big Thing Part II: Martin MacInnes

As I mentioned in my last blog post, when I answered these questions, I’m now going to host my friend and colleague Martin MacInnes’ response to the Next Big Thing questionnaire. Martin has had fiction, non-fiction, and a hybrid version of the two, published in The Edinburgh Review and online at the Human Genre Project, and is easily the most talented writer I know. Here are his answers:

What is the title of your latest book?

Ascension Incorporated.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

A line in a psychology report written in the 1970s. The writer was talking about signals of severe mental disturbance, and claimed that certain changes in human brain-state are detectable, via scent, by rats. The particular line was about a desire to escape the body manifesting as a fascination with hands and feet, ‘terminal peninsula of the human body.’

I began writing fictional interviews with colleagues of an anonymous office worker who has vanished/become insane/ascended/committed suicide. These interviews became extremely digressive, and I used the premise – a search for an impossibly missing person – as an excuse to launch stories and experiment with many different kinds of writing, all really about the interesting difficulty of defining life and of documenting a life, ‘capturing’ a person. I wanted to sort of imply that this was an alternative world in which death was impossible – as, in this world, it imaginatively is – hence the ridiculous lengths gone to in the search. I tied the search to stories around the geography and history of a strange island I’d visited in the South Atlantic, ‘Ascension’ – making full use of the not so very discreet allusion in its name.

What genre does your book fall under?

Science-fiction (in both senses), travel writing, autobiography, natural history, even ‘literary fiction’ – in no order of priority.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie?

The main character would never be seen face-on, so it could be many different people, or no-one. For the characters who make up the stories I would like sets of people who looked similar or even related to each other.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

An extraordinary and inexplicable vanishing leads to a search spanning deserts, seas and the polar south, the deep past and the far future, astronauts and ship-wrecked sailors, as an investigating company attempts to establish what has happened to a man who has gone.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m trying for an agent and publisher; self-publishing successes seem predominantly thrillers or genre-work. I wouldn’t want to publish a book without the support of an experienced editor, and I also, possibly pathetically, could do with the professional validation.

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

I’ve written the book twice, with two different plots, so about three years, with some parts drafted many times. I scrapped the first half of the original version, and ‘wrote over’ the rest of it with a new plot.

What other books would you compare it to within your genre?

In popular writing, maybe ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell, ‘The Rings of Saturn’ by W.G. Sebald,, ‘The Songlines’ by Bruce Chatwin and ‘Sightlines’ by Kathleen Jamie. The books that most influenced me when writing it were ‘The Passion According to G.H.’ by Clarice Lispector, ‘Consciousness Explained’ by Daniel Dennett, and most of all J.G. Ballard’s short stories and interviews.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Mainly the feeling that time is always running out, and that the world is stranger and more various than I’ve regularly been able to express. Specifically, I’ve felt it’s important to write about absolutely natural, routine processes – the way the body makes itself, the slow radiation of species, two people sitting in a cafe – in a way that gives them all the imagined wonder of space exploration. I think too much writing – especially ‘literary fiction’ – is limited in its curiosity by being anthropocentric and dualist. The mind can be ‘nothing but’ an organ working, a piece in cooperation with the rest of the body and the organic world, and yet still without significant limitation.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?

Quite a lot of it is ‘true’, in the sense of having happened.

Next Big Thing

This questionnaire has been doing the rounds amongst unpublished/recently published writers in Scotland, and thanks to Kirsti Wishart I’ve been tagged on the list, so here are my answers below:

What’s the title of your latest story?

The last thing I finished was a novel called ‘In Borderlands’.

Where did the idea for the story (or, in this case, novel) come from?

It came mostly from a single image that just popped into my head many years ago, of a man tied to a tree and waiting for something terrible to happen. (In the end, this image doesn’t appear in the book at all, but it was the source for everything that followed.) In addition, I was interested in the idea of someone failing to be punished for something terrible they had done, and how you would deal with that if you didn’t particularly care. (Again, this doesn’t really feature in the completed book. The ideas that get the ball rolling are rarely what make it to the final cut.)

What genre does your story fall under?

Although I don’t think of it as a ‘genre’, I’m aware that plenty of people do these days – so, it could be part of that much-maligned category called ‘literary fiction.’ I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s ‘experimental’, but it’s broadly non-realist.

What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie?

I think that one of the most pernicious trends of recent cultural history is the idea that no work can be fully validated until it has been converted into a film. Cinema, for purely monetary reasons, is seen as the apex of cultural achievement, and books and comics (especially) are rarely seen as anything other than templates or rough drafts for the movies. No one would think that a novelisation of a film is anything other than money-grubbing trash, but you rarely hear people saying the opposite. Not everything could or should be filmed. It’s one of the reasons why poetry, as a form, will last longer than anything else; because it resists this kind of cultural appropriation. But saying all that, Werner Herzog would be an obvious choice to play one of the characters, and whichever generic British actor in his thirties happens to see the script would do for the main character – the blander the better.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your story?

“Nathan Nixon is content with his solitary, directionless life, but when he is accused of manslaughter he finds himself on a strange journey from the Scottish Borders to a collapsing North African state, in the company of vagabonds, mercenaries, and a dangerous crew of guerilla filmmakers. Entering an ambiguous zone between countries, between dreams and reality, and even between life and death, Nathan eventually finds himself back where he started – only to discover that his experiences have changed him beyond recognition.”

That’s two sentences I know, but you could replace the full stop with a semi-colon I suppose? Anyway, sounds good, doesn’t it? I’d definitely read it …

Will your story be self-published or represented by an agency?

Hopefully represented by an agency – I’ve just started that life-affirming process of trying to get an agent and/or publisher interested. Watch this space. (Of course, if any agent or publisher is watching this space, then please get in touch! You’d save me a lot of time and bother.)

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

Just over three years. It was originally an insane and unwieldy 200,000 words long, but I’ve managed to scale it back to around 150,000. It’s fairly long, but not overwhelmingly so.

What other stories would you compare it to within your genre?

I found this question quite difficult to answer, not because the book is so wonderful and unique that it defies comparison (which, obviously, it does), but because you try to block out all other influences or analogues while you’re writing, and to make comparisons after the fact seems a bit artificial. Anyway, it has vague affinities with Roberto Bolano’s ‘2666’, Jennifer Egan’s work, a superb novel by Steven Amsterdam called ‘Things We Didn’t See Coming’, the poetry of John Burnside, and, in a strange and not immediately obvious way, the fiction of Geoff Dyer. I think these affinities are mostly tonal and structural, rather than anything to do with subject matter, and obviously I have to add the disclaimer that I’m not trying to say my work is anywhere near as good. And what’s odd is that these are all writers I started reading only after I was well embarked on the book; they’re not necessarily influences on my writing as a whole (of which I would include the great JG Ballard, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, William Golding, VS Naipaul, and, again in a strange and not immediately obvious way, Denis Johnson).

Who or what inspired you to write this story?

I’m wholly against the idea of ‘inspiration’, if what the term means is a generative source coming from outside the writer, forcing him or her to write. (The definition of the word, after all, is, ‘to breathe life into.’) What makes me write in general is some kind of weird inner compulsion that I wouldn’t dare to analyse, and a relentless, all-consuming obsession with words and language. At the same time, I like to think that it’s possible and necessary to convey or communicate, through language, the simultaneously incredibly profound and incredibly boring life experience of the average human being; in particular, to deal with that old existential, absurdist question, How do you find value in a world without meaning? (But funny.) Some kind of combination of the two inspired this book, as well as general notions of chance and consequence. There was also a sequence of images I had in my head that I wanted to link together, for reasons that defy explanation.

What else about your story might pique a reader’s interest?

If you like hyenas, then this book features hyenas.

What’s next?

I’m working on a second novel, provisionally called ‘Cemetery Songs’, about two poets meeting in the ruins of a bombed-out city. Thematically, it’s very broadly about the oppositions between civil and vatic poetry, or lyricism and modernism, and about the way culture is artificially constructed and used towards political ends. (But funny.)

So that’s that! According to the chain letter blog tagging rules, I have to pass this on to five more writers, who will each pass it on to five more etc etc. Unfortunately, I don’t know five other writers who have blogs, I only know three!

And one of them doesn’t even have a blog, so this time next week I will graciously grant him space on mine to answer the same set of questions – he is, of course, the great Martin MacInnes, who has been published in the Edinburgh Review, who co-edits Free State with me, and who is writing about evolutionary biology, Ascension Island and disappearance, amongst many other subjects.

Second is Glasgow-based graphic artist/writer Coll Hamilton, who is co-writer/artist of the online graphic novel ‘Amber and Chelsea’, and whose work has recently been shown as part of the Royal Scottish Academy’s Open Exhibition.

Third is Hannah Renowden – journalist, blogger, and, most importantly, contributor to Free State.

(Neither Coll or Hannah have got back to me on this yet, so very possibly by tagging them like this I might spur them to action. Or not.)

Edit: I can also now add to the list my good colleague Rosie Phenix-Walker, graduate of the University of Edinburgh’s creative writing MA programme, and ace bookseller, who writes a blog here!

Enjoy, and see you back here next week for Martin’s answers.

Terminal

Yesterday, along with my friend and co-editor Martin MacInnes, I embarked on an epic walk from Cramond to Edinburgh Airport, in self-conscious imitation of psychogeographical heroes like Iain Sinclair and Will Self. After a detour to Cammo Park, we covered the whole perimeter of the airport complex. Normally I would write about the experience and share the photographic proof here, but we’ve decided that the material we gathered – photos, notes, sound files, videos – would be perfectly suited to the relaunch of Free State. Moribund for the best part of a year, we’re going to restart the journal as a web site rather than as an emailed PDF file. To whet the appetite, here’s a couple of unexciting pictures:

Our destination

It looks like we’re almost there. Little did we know …

Break the Forms

I recently finished Geoff Dyer’s superb ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, a book ostensibly about DH Lawrence, but in reality about Dyer’s inability to write a sober academic study of DH Lawrence. In a ranting, splenetic style inspired by Thomas Bernhard, Dyer circles around his subject, procrastinating, deliberately avoiding Lawrence’s major books, taking trips to Mexico and Italy in a supposed attempt to connect with his subject, but instead finding endless reasons not to get down to work. The digressions multiply into short routines about Dyer’s hatred of seafood, his hypochondria, his failure to settle anywhere or find anywhere he can comfortably call home. In this way, by exploring his discontent and the circling depression that finally comes over him in Italy (where he can’t even conjure up his usual reliable and entirely childish fury when the local bakery runs out of his favourite cornetti integrali), Dyer ends up producing what feels like a touching and poetically truthful picture of Lawrence. More than that, it’s a touching and poetically truthful picture of Geoff Dyer. ‘Out of Sheer Rage’ is literary criticism as memoir, as fiction, as satire, and as viciously barbed humour, and it is the emblematic text in Dyer’s career as a writer who knows the constraint of no genre, and who will happily and profitably mix up any and every form in his work.

Tangentially to reading Dyer’s book, I’ve been reading ‘Reality Hunger’ by David Shields. This caused a predictable ‘controversy’ when it was published last year, with its assertion of non-fiction’s supremacy over fiction, and of the fragmentary text, collage, or lyrical essay over the linear narrative as a more authentic way of exploring life. Every five minutes it seems that someone is moved to declare the novel ‘dead’, but Shields’ approach, through a Nietzschean sequence of short, numbered sections, is far more sophisticated than that. I have one major quibble with the thesis (life does actually have a narrative thrust, and tends to point inescapably in one direction; and why should art have to mirror life anyway? ), but I think ‘Reality Hunger’ underlines how much more interesting a certain fragmentary and formally experimental style of writing can be than straight narrative, and how fiction can often straitjacket writers, who have to couch a few insights and observations within a vast, usually boring, superstructure of prose. Geoff Dyer has said that while the novel is very far from being dead, and very good novels are certainly being written now, the idea of ‘the novel’ as the ultimate testing ground for a writer is beginning to collapse, and the long-form realist narrative as inherited from the 19th century should hopefully be replaced by some sort of cross-pollination between criticism, memoir, reportage and fiction. Examples to follow would be Fernando Pessoa, John Berger, Walter Benjamin’s notebooks, the VS Naipaul of ‘A Way in the World’, WG Sebald, later JM Coetzee, and no doubt many other writers who use double initials instead of first names, like, say, DH Lawrence …

The point of all this, I think, is not that one style or one approach has to replace the other (the kind of binary oppositional mode of debate that makes the religious/atheist argument so incredibly boring, for example), but that formal questions can be more important than questions of narrative, subject, or even style. (The real concern of course is that these questions are far more interesting for the writer than they are for the reader.)

I was thinking about this, and reading these two books in particular, because of a series of conversations, emails, texts, I’ve been having with my friend and co-editor on Free State, Martin MacInnes, who convinced me that Geoff Dyer is someone I really should read in the first place. Martin is insanely committed to writing, probably to the detriment of his sanity and health, and provided me (via VS Naipaul) with one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard. I was complaining that the solution I’d finally found to the novel I want to write next might be eminently satisfying to me as a writer, but would no doubt prove reader- and publisher-repellingly complicated. Why, I moaned, can’t I ever think of ideas which can be put forward in simple, realist, narratively compelling stories which people might actually want to read. Why must there always be complexity, allusion, this weird obsession with looping three-part structures? But as Naipaul says, “If you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms, break the forms.” (This quote also appears as section 589 in ‘Reality Hunger’.) Martin is in the middle of doing precisely this, and is writing one of the most fascinating books that I’ve ever heard of. It’s not for me, here, to say what it’s about, but his approach has convinced me in a period of doubt to write the way the material demands to be written. In the end, fidelity to the material is more important than anything.

Here are a few links if anyone wants to read further about David Shields, Dyer, etc.

VS Naipaul interview in The New Yorker
David Shields’ website
Geoff Dyer’s website
Zadie Smith’s excellent essay ‘Two Paths for the Novel’
Blake Morrison’s review of Reality Hunger