By Maureen Kincaid Speller
Infinite Ground — Martin MacInnes (Atlantic Books)
Of all the novels on my personal Shadow Clarke shortlist, Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground was the one I anticipated having most difficulty in writing about, partly because of its incredibly complex structure, but mostly because I wasn’t at all sure I actually had a critical language I could bring to bear on it in a way that might make sense to a reader. Back when I was compiling my personal shortlist of Shadow Clarke books, ploughing through the opening sections of each title on the submissions list, of all of the eighty-odd titles this was the one that felt ‘right’ to me. That is, this is the one that immediately held my attention, the one I would have sat down and read cover to cover right there and then if I had not had to send away for a copy.
“He got the call in the night, for some reason. His help would be appreciated going over a case. How recent was unusual – the man had been gone only three weeks. He was to put everything aside and concentrate, for a spell, exclusively on this. Resources would be made available. He would be given all the support they could provide.
“He explained his doubts and received the necessary assurances: he would have authority and resources; he could work independently or in league; though he had officially retired, to all intents and purposes it would be just as if he remained a senior investigating officer.”
Reproduced like this, I wonder if anyone else can see what I saw in those opening paragraphs. To me, there is an odd formality about them, something very deliberately detached and impersonal, that I find intriguing, that makes me want to read on. That placing of “for some reason” hints delicately at something being not quite right, with both text and story. One hundred and four words generate so many questions. Who called? Who needs his help? Who would provide resources? Who are “they”? Who is “he” other than a “senior investigating officer”, and why is he being brought out of retirement for this mysterious case?
The case, we learn in the next paragraph, concerns a missing man called Carlos, an office worker with prospects of some sort or another, devoted to his work, living a precariously contingent life, but not so different from other young men. And then we get to this line: “it took around thirty-five minutes, after Carlos got up from the table, for the party to establish that something had gone wrong” (4). By wrong, they mean that Carlos had not returned from a presumed visit to the bathroom in a restaurant. In the next sentence, the family continues to eat because “the price […] meant it was considered a treat” (4).
So, on the one hand, we have the beginning of what looks like an intriguing detective story with distinct Fortean undertones (and I admit that I find this kind of thing to be literary catnip), but on the other, what really caught my attention was that following sentence. What kind of novel, what kind of world, are we in where a meal, a treat, can trump the apparent disappearance between the table and the bathroom of a family member? One might argue that money is short, good food is not easily come by, and so on, but is a man’s life really so unimportant? As it turns out, that is not a question that is easily answered by the narrative. In fact, as it turns out, it’s not even the main focus of the novel.
And this is the point at which I pause, and wonder how best to address the rest of this story. I can continue to attempt to review this novel for you, but what should that review consist of? I can describe the inspector’s increasingly convoluted efforts to get to grips with the case of the missing Carlos, from examining the financial records of the company, seeking anomalies and irregularities, to spending hours, days even, in Carlos’s office, trying to understand a man who increasingly seems to be a cipher, who may not even have existed (because, as it turns out, one of the features of this literary world is that so much of what happens in it is a performance – Carlos’s company employs actors to be workers, to make the office look busy; they’re actually better at working than real workers. Maria, Carlos’s mother, is not his mother but a stand-in hired to pass on his mother’s words because she is too distressed to talk directly to the inspector).
I could note the point at which the inspector brings in a forensic specialist and a new theory begins to emerge, of a man parasitized, a reluctant host dancing to the tune of an unknown invader which has now led him away to facilitate the next stage in his internal guest’s development. Or perhaps, if some of Carlos’s co-workers are to be believed (and are they genuinely his co-workers; how can we tell?), he was never actually a human being in the first place, but something else, quietly disintegrating in his own office).
But what does that tell you, reading this, about my experience of reading this novel? You have to trust me in turn to convey a flavour of the novel to you, and my flavour preferences might not be yours. And in truth, the plot of this novel, insofar as it is a plot in the conventional sense, is so filled with twists and turns, it is impossible for a review to do it justice. At which point, I might be obliged to start reaching for comparisons.
Except that Jeff VanderMeer’s blurb, on the cover, has already done this with commendable economy, when he mentions César Aira (whose writing I don’t know), Vladimir Nabokov, Angela Carter and Julio Cortázar. Indeed, the fact of VanderMeer’s blurb itself might give you another clue as to the tone of the storytelling here, particularly once the story begins to move into a more vegetal phase, and one feels that nature is trying to consume both story and characters. Infinite Ground indeed has a certain amount in common with the Southern Reach trilogy in terms of that sense of the natural world being utterly beyond our ken. And I also want to say, rather as Nina Allan did in her Shadow Clarke review, that Infinite Ground feels to some extent like a translation (I also had to stop and check it wasn’t, though I can’t quite rid myself of the idea that it might be). A more careless part of me wants to use terms like ‘magic realism’, just to give you an idea of what might be happening here, even though it’s not the proper term (though VanderMeer’s evoking Aira and Cortázar confirms my sense of something South or Central American about this novel. Maybe it’s the fact of MacInnes taking an epigraph from Clarice Lispector, or the fact when confronted with jungle and rivers I automatically think of the Amazon). But then, much of this story is about things being wrong, so maybe I should just commit that solecism.
The truth is, though, that I don’t want to simply write a review of Infinite Ground, but neither am I ready to write a deeper piece of criticism because I don’t yet know the novel well enough to do that. VanderMeer’s blurb reminds me that there are other authors that need reading, while Allan’s review reminds me there are films I should perhaps think about seeing. But maybe these are evasions. Because maybe this novel is a fractal text, as infinite as its title implies, and that is why I am having trouble with distilling it into one tidy article, when it must necessarily resist that process because it is in its nature to continue endlessly.
“What, from a distance, seemed a smooth line being a mass of inlets whose true course he could never chart. Nauseous, he considered the folds of brain-maximising surface area” (68).
It was around this time, as I was pondering how best to address Infinite Ground, that I began to consider if it weren’t better seen as a novel about narrative, because what the inspector is in effect searching for is a story to account for the disappearance of Carlos. And he is surrounded by people who want to offer him the narratives they’ve constructed. The problem for the inspector lies in determining which, if any, is closest to the truth. Except, is that really what the inspector is doing? It is tempting to assume that the inspector, as a figure of authority, as the pursuer of truth, is himself entirely trustworthy, yet as the narrative unfolds, the inspector as character seems to be unravellling. He might be ill; he begins to believe he might himself be parasitised. He might be grieving for his dead wife, his life having collapsed with her death; their interdependence is referred to a number of times during the narrative. So, do we read the text as a reflection of his struggle to maintain a sense of his own self? We might.
My favourite approach for a while was to read the text as a manual of narrative possibilities. Part Two, Chapter VI offers a series of potential explanations for what happened to Carlos … but on reflection, the very fact of that chapter existing makes that approach seem a little too easy, doesn’t it? I’m slipping back into old ways, looking for a solution that is more reductive than the story deserves. Though I might come back to this idea again later, once I’ve read further.
As I struggled to find a way to encapsulate Infinite Ground in a few thousand words, one of my fellow judges flagged up a post by Stephen Mitchelmore on his blog, This Space, called ‘The disappearance of criticism’. It wrestles, rather more elegantly than I have, with similar issues concerning criticism. Criticism is as inevitable as breathing, T.S. Eliot said, ‘But what if breathing is difficult and you don’t know what passes in your mind?’ asks Mitchelmore. Why do certain authors fascinate us without our possessing satisfactory means to say why?
What especially caught my attention was Mitchelmore’s comment that ‘what is stirred in the reader is soon displaced by inviting aids. […] Focusing on a book’s genre designation and its faithfulness or not to that genre is a prime example of this iron lung approach’. You can probably see precisely why I homed in on that, given how it resonates with my increasing irritation with myself when even now I can’t resist trying to categorise my reading, though for the most part I try to ignore the weasel-word ‘genre’.
But what am I to do with a novel like Infinite Ground if I don’t have the safety net of terminology to catch me? Mitchelmore discusses critical writing as bureaucratic evasion, or perhaps as a form of protection from ignorance of the text. The fact of writing something about it stands in for not knowing about it.
Mitchelmore’s argument, then, is that ‘some books resist satisfactory critical approach because criticism cannot contain a dual and paradoxical form, cannot follow the novel over the frontier’. He says a good number of other things too that would be worth your reading and considering, culminating in an argument that criticism itself should be a creative act. Whether this essay is a creative act remains to be seen – I am by no means my own best judge – but what I’m trying to do here is to recreate, in part at least, the process of reading Infinite Ground, and trying to show something of its effect on the reader’s mind, and how problematic it becomes to try to push a novel of such extraordinary fecundity – to the point of its ideas multiplying as rapidly as cancer cells – into easily available pigeonholes. Yes, it might be ‘science fiction’ or it might be ‘fantasy’ or a ‘detective novel’ but each of these is reductive, when it can be all three and lots of other things beside. I can hint at similarities with other authors, as we’ve already seen – Ballardian and Borgesian have also been suggested, and yes, there are resonances with both those authors – but how easy it becomes to slip into that kind of shorthand without actually saying anything meaningful about the text.
So where does that leave us? With a novel that engages with the extraordinary potential of the environment in which we find ourselves, a novel about how we attempt to tell ourselves stories about our place within the world and how we struggle to comprehend that world. It’s a novel that felt ‘right’ when I read it, by which I mean ‘well wrought’, like a tool that sits properly in the hand, but a novel that questions our sense of the world’s rightness. It’s a novel that finds an underlying strangeness in the world and yet asks us to consider what constitutes that strangeness. It is a novel that overflows with questions, where all answers are suspect. It is satisfyingly impossible