Written for The Guardian
A Borgesian Maybe-Murder Mystery
Towards the end of this impressive and finely textured debut, there is a chapter entitled “What Happened to Carlos – Suspicions, Rumours, Links”. This is the only named chapter and it lists a series of variations related to the disappearance of the novel’s missing person – 29-year-old Carlos. These range from Carlos not being Carlos, to Carlos never having disappeared at all, or Carlos being the victim of a “sudden and giant molecular distortion”. The final speculation is No 29: “Carlos isn’t here. Carlos isn’t gone. This isn’t everything. This is a brief light.”
Of course, the list is no more or less of an account of Carlos’s disappearance than fiction itself accounts for reality. And, in a sense, that is the point; Infinite Groundtakes place in an unnamed South American country, and Martin MacInnes’s first novel is deep in sub-Borgesian territory. This is fiction as a metaphorical labyrinth of the mind – wherein what happens may or may not have actually occurred; wherein experience and imaginings are indistinguishable; and everything is equally true and untrue.
The opening citation, meanwhile, is from The Passion According to GH – the 1964 novel by the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, written in the form of a nightmarish monologue detailing an existential crisis following the accidental crushing of a cockroach. (The link back to Kafka is more than merely entomological.) Foremost among MacInnes’s subjects – thus we glean – are the fractured nature of consciousness and the fabric of reality itself.
Ostensibly, though, Infinite Ground is about an unnamed inspector trying to find Carlos by way of interviews and crime scene reconstructions. And for a while, MacInnes somewhat craftily benefits from the plot-pull of this setup. But if the inspector is the protagonist circling Carlos’s central absence, then “Suspicion, Rumour, Link” No 5 warns that the investigation might well be no more than “an indulgent and morbid fantasy created by a man in middle age in grief for his dead wife”. Another way to read this book is as a meditation on the nature of the human psyche under the intense pressure of loss and isolation.
Twenty years ago, this review would, by now, have used the word “postmodern”. And certainly, there are meta- and micro-games afoot. At roughly the midpoint of the narrative, the inspector gets lost in the unnamed city and finds himself in an “excited jostle” of people circling some incident. But “he hadn’t even noticed he was in the middle of it … [he] had passed right through it and missed his chance, seeing and learning nothing”.
Similarly, the inspector has “a problem of perception”. He starts to believe that his dreams of being in a forest, the “intensity of his exertions” there, might explain everything else. “He played with the old childish idea that the relationship between dreaming and waking life should be inverted, the experience of the former comprising the more significant period.” The last section of the novel, part three, is duly called “The Forest”, and its dream-like lyricism is by far the best writing in the book.
Throughout, MacInnes’s prose demeanour is slightly antiquarian – people “purport” and “assign … temporary monikers”. In the forest, while others are occupied with cameras, the inspector’s “leather pouch” contains “his own set of optical lenses”. This sets up a tone that creates a necessary out-of-time feel; but that sometimes chafes against modernity so that, for example, MacInnes has to clumsily append “and he didn’t have his phone” to an explanation of why the inspector cannot find the address of a hospital.
In terms of word selection, however, MacInnes is clearly a serious artist. There is a skilful and delicate cadence to many of the paragraphs. Images are novel and precise. The jungle air is “antic” with mosquitoes. The inspector’s forest tour group lacks the “shrill buoyancy” normally associated with such parties. A mechanic, Miguel, “threaded wire while he talked, his words small and conservative next to the fluency of his hands”.
Occasionally, MacInnes pushes too far, perhaps: “The words were mute, like the hummed melodies remaining in the ground surfaces of nightmare-weathered teeth.” But even this image is interesting and – on closer reading – a restatement of his main theme, if slightly off.
On the broadest point – to this reader’s mind at least – the novel feels more like a recapitulation of the literary ideas of its progenitors than a pushing forward. All the same, MacInnes often renders familiar existential observations afresh – not least on the nature of modern office work: “The meaning of [Carlos’s] work was concentrated in its finishing. What he was doing he was doing so that it could no longer be done.” And there are several moments of real and well-earned profundity – after a boat had been lost at sea, one character explains to the inspector, local people would wait on the beach; which was “more than madness and consolation … Because the information that expressed the lives came originally from the sea, where it was now deposited. It is still there.”