Lost in a wilder­ness of words

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Martin MacInnes At­lantic Books, £12.99 Re­view by Nick Ma­jor

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.

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