Lost in a wilderness of words
THE case of the missing person is a tried and tested template for crime fiction. So is the inclusion of a semi-retired detective under psychological duress. Martin MacInnes takes this formula as the starting point for his debut novel, Infinite Ground, then strikes out into bewildering and unfamiliar territory. For a first published work, there is much to be applauded. It is ambitious in scope, contains paragraphs of beautiful writing and defies convention. But, as a whole, the work is too obscure. The unsolved mysteries accumulate until what starts out as intriguing and disquieting becomes directionless and repetitive.
The novel is set during a hot summer in South America. The missing man, Carlos, goes for dinner with his family at a restaurant called La Cueva. Half way through the meal, he goes to the toilet, and doesn’t return. The nameless inspector assigned to the job of finding Carlos is as enigmatic as the faceless and nameless corporation which employ the missing man. We know the inspector’s wife has died. He is impatient and prone to trusting gut instincts. His personal life might as well consist of an empty room he sleeps in. But his elusive nature chimes with the novel’s impersonal tone.
The inspector employs Isabella, a forensics expert, to analyse the microbiological detritus in Carlos’s office. She finds some anomalies. There are certain microbes in Carlos’s body that would have lived in his gut, fermenting anxiety and paranoia in his brain, like a ‘factory producing the elements of feeling – chemistry’.
It is soon apparent that the office worker’s disappearance is as much a scientific mystery as a human one. The inspector starts to believe an infection has caused Carlos to become either deranged or, oddly, to have experienced a physical erasure of his identity and to have become at one with his environment. Worse, the inspector starts to display worrying signs that he is subject to the same illness.
He has an intuitive grasp of ecology, and how the presence or absence of people effect an environment: “when his wife had died, it wasn’t just her body that had gone…there was a frame around her, a hive, a community created by the kind of thoughts she had and the way she spun her hands and moved her feet. It wasn’t just that she had gone; more than her had been devastated. Biodiversity was weaker.” MacInnes is excellent at combining scientific writing with psychological acuity. Although we know little about the personalities of characters, we are given plenty of information about the nature of the masses.
The scientific aspects of the novel are given an anthropological twist. In the first part of the novel, Corporation, extracts from a study called Tribes of the Southern Interior form epigraphs to each chapter. They describe the transmigration of souls familiar to the tribespeople of the title: “Following signs of a vanishing, loved ones examine light for imperfections. It is far more likely that light has only subtly changed, concealing the missing person, than that this person has been voided…the afflicted individual, the one whom no one, for the moment, is able to locate, will be amused and unable to affect people, other than through atmospheric impressions.” In the second part, called Forest, we learn that the inspector has been consulting this study regularly.
This final section of Infinite Ground is disorienting and hallucinogenic. The corporation have land holdings in Santa Lucia, a rainforest that contains false corporate communities. The inspector is convinced Carlos travelled to this interior and follows him into the wilderness.
From this point on, Carlos is no longer a missing man because all of humanity is missing, and the reader knows that every strange occurrence will pass by without consequence. The last 50 pages read like an account of a primitive regression. An animal, possibly human, runs, alone and unrecognisable to themselves, through an ‘infinite ground’ covered in ‘vast trees, looped and tangled, bent into strange and impossible shapes,’ all competing for the light.
As for the reader, they are left behind, for good or ill, waiting for some light to be shed on what exactly is going on.