It begins like a caper story. A young man named Carlos went missing from a family dinner when he stepped out to use the bathroom and never returned. An investigator is given the case to track him down. But his search almost immediately folds in upon itself when he starts searching the restaurant/Carlos’ office and interviewing people connected to him. The woman he speaks to who he believes is Carlos’ mother is not really his mother and many people at his office are only actors hired to look like productive employees. A scientist named Isabella analyzes traces of Carlos’ biological makeup and expounds upon an increasingly improbably multitude of chemical factors which could have led to him departing. The borders of reality collapse as the investigator struggles to analyse, research and report. Nothing is what it seems. The closer you look at things the more the world becomes an absurdist fantasy. Martin MacInnes’ compelling debut novel is a story of existential crisis and irreconcilable loss.
There’s a wonderful fluidity to MacInnes’ writing so that, although his narrative makes surprising tonal shifts from the comic to the horrific to exhaustively detailed analysis, I felt entranced by his skewed perspective of the world. It all resonates with how the investigator is not just searching for a missing person but for a way to wholly capture experience. By the time all the details are accounted for, time has moved on and the moment has passed and we must mull over it all again trying to faithfully recreate/understand it. If you think of these things as obsessively as the investigator then “it was a marvel, he thought, that any of them managed to do it all, to get from one day to another, to keep everything going just like that.” The novel artfully expresses the fallibility of memory and the clunky mechanics of consciousness. It’s interesting reading this so soon after César Aira (a quote on the cover compares this novel to his work) because Aira equally uses dream-like logic as a way of highlighting the futility of accurately representing reality.
The investigator frequently looks for a more primal understandings of human motivation and behaviour as a way of explaining our actions. Many chapters of this novel are prefaced with quotes from a fictional book about tribal behaviour. The second half of “Infinite Ground” entails the investigator’s travel to “the interior” of a forest where he believes Carlos has slipped away to. Here he embarks on tours to find others who have become lost in this wilderness as well as searching for more authentic modes of life. Hilariously reality here turns out to be as simulated as that in urban life. This is also where the investigator becomes more psychologically revealing as his civility is stripped slowly away. Some time ago he lost his wife and instead of dealing with her loss he seems inspired by Isabella’s proposition that “If it were up to me I would spend my whole life digging up the lost civilization of a single vanished person. There would be no end to the project, Inspector. No end to what may be discovered.” Instead of narrowing down possibilities, the investigator opens his mind to an infinite amount of them. It becomes apparent that “He was out of his depth in a case he couldn’t understand and would never resolve.” This was never about finding out what really happened to Carlos, but accounting for the totality of life when we’re caught in the unstoppable flow of time.
This is an experimental novel whose imagery and ideas challenge our modern sensibilities. In an age when our understanding of other people’s lives are mediated through how they are represented on social media it seems more pertinent than ever to question how we can really understand or know about another’s experience. At the same time there is something pleasingly retro about the novel’s style and earnest manner (perhaps because its action isn’t located in any specific time or place). It harkens back to post-modern literature like Joyce Carol Oates’ phenomenal novel “Mysteries of Winterthurn” which is more about the process of investigation than the crime itself. No matter how objective we try to be in understanding the world it is always refracted through a personal perspective leading the investigator of MacInnes’ novel to see he was “so naïve as to believe in the authenticity of the investigation and the autonomy of his own role.” The totality of the investigator’s being is caught up in searching for answers (which might be why he has no name), but he can only start to see what’s true when he looks hard at himself.