Lucy and Todd

Infinite Ground–Martin MacInnes

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 3, 2016 at 9:33 am

Infinite Ground is a very sharp novel about sick politics, corporate infiltration of society, and good old-fashioned paranoia, a cross between Kafka and The Blob. It’s about late capitalism and spooky capitalism. It provides the frisson you get from reading about the Royal Bank of Scotland or the machinations of Essential Edinburgh.

A retired Inspector of police in a Latin American country is asked to investigate the disappearance of Carlos, a young, seemingly responsible office worker, who takes to hanging upside down in his office and then vanishes from a restaurant. Looking into Carlos’s firm, the Inspector finds that some of its workers are actors, hired to make the company look good and to spur on the real employees in terms of poise and drive.

This company, like many, has duplicate office facilities at a remove, in case of disaster or war: ‘He read it as an example of corporate anxiety. Their imagination of the apocalypse was limited and picturesque, affecting a distinct, geometrically precise land segment, allowing civilization to be transported elsewhere, uninterrupted.’ The idea of duplication, a horror genre staple, grows in the novel until neither the Inspector nor the reader can be sure of what is genuine.

The Inspector is assigned an assistant, a brilliant microscopist. She hoovers out of Carlos’s computer keyboard insect wings, jungle soil, and other substances that suggest Carlos doesn’t live only for his job. The Inspector is fascinated by her and for a while they rub along in a lively, almost rom-com exchange between police thinking and scientific metaphor.

In fact, her inventive speculations on micro-organisms exacerbate the Inspector’s growing paranoia, which threatens his investigation. At one point the playful narrative gives over to a fantastic list of what might have happened to Carlos: perhaps he never existed. Perhaps there are fifty or more of him (readers of Stanislaw Lem will enjoy this). Maybe he went walkabout because of food poisoning. Or his mother (she is one of the actresses) made him up.

The Inspector begins to wonder if Carlos was mentally and physically dissolving as a result of contact with some micro-parasite. He even wonders if he himself has contracted the same from his minute examinations of the man’s office. Eventually he decides that Carlos has wandered out of the city and into the forest.

Is the Inspector deranged? Next thing we know, he’s joined a silly tourist group in order to get quickly into the interior. He pays a lot of money, only to be faked out by phony ‘contact’ with ‘tribespeople’. One of them turns out to be the lady who runs the local coffee shop.

Now, strangely, the focus shifts from contingency and conspiracy to a story solely of the Inspector, suddenly alone in the forest, for what reason it’s unclear. (Most of the unexplained elements work here, though occasionally there’s a little too much Twilight Zone.) Is the intention to show him the near impossibility of Carlos remaining alive for long in such a place?

Thoughts of the investigation are abandoned as we watch the Inspector turn into a really icky Robinson Crusoe, eating bugs and worse, trying to keep from losing his marbles as he follows the morning sun. It’s scary: ‘There was less of him and he scouted for parts of the new vegetation reminiscent of his character.’

This novel sends up all kinds of rockets. In its South American atmosphere you will be reminded of Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps. The contemporary social and political unsureness is that of Javier Marias. Its really astute anatomization of employment itself will make you think of Ed Park’s Personal Days. In the biological and jungle horror there’s a lot of Sartre, Conrad and even HP Lovecraft.

Will the Inspector escape the forest? If so, in what condition, and into what world? This section of the novel is a little less satisfying – there’s a Planet of the Apes tedium to it. Earlier there were many exciting explorations of a lot of nasty micro-organisms that sound totally plausible and which are all ranged against us. One in particular takes over bugs’ brains, forces them to march to the sea, and then explodes their heads! You’re left hoping that this isn’t the one that bit this particular policeman.

What is the upshot of all this? You may well find in Infinite Ground’s meditations a sketch of things to come, post Brexit: ‘He took the conviction that this new, insubstantial world couldn’t be happening as proof in fact that it was.’

TMcE

This review appeared in The Herald August 6, 2016

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