Unusual Play: A Conversation with Martin MacInnes by Stephen Sparks

The Infinite Ground novelist on detective fiction, Borges, end times, and the impermanence of bodies.

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Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground (Melville House) revolves around an absence: while eating dinner with family at a restaurant in a nameless South American country, a man named Carlos excuses himself from the table and is never seen again. From this opening act, the plot spills out centrifugally, bursting the boundaries of a typical thriller while pulling the nameless inspector attached to the case into a whirlpool of conjecture, microbiology, and the dissolution of identity. It is a frequently uncanny work, with passages that linger long in the imagination: during a disorienting search for a medical office, the inspector finds himself drawn toward a crowd of jostling people. He assumes by their arrangement that they are gathered around some sort of altercation and wends his way into the crowd, only to find that, after a laborious struggle, he has come out the other side of the mass.

The novel also has moments of exquisite and estranging beauty, and has earned comparisons to a number of writers we now almost quaintly refer to as “postmodern.” There are echoes of J.G. Ballard, Clarice Lispector, César Aira, and Borges resonating through these pages, but MacInnes manages to keep these echoes muffled so that his voice, one of the most promising in contemporary fiction, rings clear and true above his influences.

Stephen Sparks Infinite Ground seems to be as much about the disappearance of a particular view of humanity as it is about the disappearance of a single human. It feels like a book for this moment, when we—as a species—are forced to reconsider the values and beliefs that have led us to the brink. Was apocalypse on your mind when you were writing the novel?

Martin MacInnes The book tries to dissolve the idea that humans are discrete things—shapes entirely made of this “human” quality, entirely ourselves, with a solid skin border separating us from everything else, bound as a species with a clear origin point, sufficiently removed from all other life. Safe, secure, permanent. That kind of human has never existed. We are inherently unstable, fluid, various (it’s interesting how this language emerges in psychology, as if the body were pushing out structural metaphors), able to exist only through co-operation, both inside and outside the body, with an enormous range of other organisms. 

Our species is a recent branch of hominin group, whose beginnings are still contested. One million years ago, or two hundred thousand years? Is “human” the same as “modern human”? What meaning does “non-anatomically modern human” have? The central character doesn’t appear in Infinite Ground and what I was trying to do is challenge the idea that this loss of identity is necessarily a bad thing; to suggest that a humbler perspective and a more inclusive attitude to the life around us can be enriching.

SS In what ways might a more humble and inclusive perspective alter our view of the world and our place in it?

MM Human exceptionalism is complacent; it’s not interested in the world. In old English, the word “weorld” means “the age of man.” Originally being conceived to imply a temporary human residence, it’s come to mean everything, as if the planet only became active with humans. “Weorld” also implies an ending. Obviously, this is a time of ecological collapse, almost entirely based on hubris. A new species goes extinct every six minutes, while we’re fawning on social media or on public transport over dogs that have had their intelligence and noses bred out of them, gasping for air. Those things are directly related. Insect populations are more than decimated—how soon until that results in widespread crop failure and further, geopolitical conflict? 

One of the scenarios in the “What Happened to Carlos” chapter is that the novel is a hallucination taking place in the moments following a nuclear detonation. There’s a very cynical argument to be made—not completely serious—that one possible reason for the apparent emptiness of space is that every life-supporting planet necessarily self-annihilates. “Great filter” theory posits that there is a single step that makes this inevitable, and that it either comes early in life, a problem, say, in cell-binding—Earth, having passed this, is the outlier, the single example of post-filter activity—or it comes later, Earth having not reached it yet, still bound to it. Could the filter be technological, cultural? The development of language creating a direct, necessary line ending in nuclear annihilation? More seriously, I was thinking every day about apocalypse. Matter is illogical and so is the removal of matter. Trying to imagine that kind of silence, afterward, provokes a retaliation. All traces of the history of the planet get removed, leaving a smooth, neutral space. 

SS Throughout the novel the borders between the so-called natural and man-made regions are dissolved. Is it fair to say that Infinite Ground radically recognizes the role of nature in human affairs? 

MM I’m not sure if it’s fair but it’s generous. Obviously, everything is natural, man-made is just nature at one false remove. I like failed containers, failed borders, the maddening intrusion of dirt, somehow, into a “sealed” environment. I particularly like writing about symbolic, psychological, internal events—speech, thought, imagination—in a way that recognizes them as part of an ecological landscape. The drift of dampness around the conversation in a cold room; insect behaviors affected by human breathing rhythms and blinking speed during REM sleep—all happening in one place. 

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The novel is steeped in unreality: there are actors, duplications, proliferating theories of truth. These elaborations lead the reader into murky ontological depths, from which it seems there is no escape. I found this technique fascinating, perhaps especially following the 2016 U.S. election and its attendant and ongoing debates over reality. Was there a particular impetus that led you to layer the work in this manner?

This is difficult, murky territory. The easy answer is that epistemological uncertainty as a philosophical concept is one thing, while the Trump administration’s lack of regard for things that have clearly happened—”alternative facts,” etc.—is another. You wonder how much of what they’re doing is strategy and how much is just disdain for other people, and the feeling that will hopefully be proven wrong, that the president is untouchable, can do and say whatever he wants, can claim any reality, irrespective of evidence. I listened to a Radiolab episode recently about voice and facial manipulation software which aims to convincingly edit any footage and have any person appear and sound as if they are saying anything. Do these programmers just mine Philip K. Dick novels? I don’t really know where to go after that.

I was also writing about shock, the inability, in certain emergency situations, to believe what is happening around you. I’ve always been interested in this; it’s so irrational. I discovered a fire once, in the flat beneath mine; their dog was distressed in the stairwell and I knocked, tried the door, and opened it onto a large fire. My first thought: “This is a good version of a fire, a good production, quite fire-like.” So the initial prompt was in pursuing some of this, extending it absurdly, even to the idea that all of life is an emergency, something that is only contacted in a kind of shock hallucination. How are we alive? What do 4.58 billion years feel like? What is it like, at the very end of a life?

Thomas Metzinger said we are “vigorously dreaming at the world.” Not even dreaming of the world, but dreaming at it, like in retaliation, or in denial. The world, and its opportunity, is too big. So I was playing with some of this, and putting it up next to forensic analysis, hard, evidence-based science, looking for tone clashes, ideas.

You’ve spoken elsewhere against traditional novelistic teleology: the belief that the novel exists to develop plot and character. Does avoiding that kind of development necessarily make a writer “experimental”?

I think what I mentioned earlier about the non-human world being considered a stage or a set, a place in which the primary human drama takes place, also applies here. It’s a frustratingly conservative perspective and it dominates fiction. Landscapes as emotion-houses, whose colors and shades literally change according to the feelings of a protagonist are the standard in fiction. It’s entrenched, applauded, parochial. You couldn’t pay me to read another, say, Julian Barnes novel.

I suppose you have to trust that enough people might want something different. As a reader, I want to be entertained, but entertainment is various and doesn’t have to mean formulaic. An idea from Lispector, a rhythm from Bernhard, a fragment of memory from Jorie Graham—these things can entertain me for years. I don’t think that taking any one of the infinite options beyond “plot and character” deserves to be called experimental, as it implies some similarity between all those different ways of doing things, and also seems to accept the idea that that one way of doing things—”plot and character”—is natural, and the default option, when there’s no reason for that to be so.

What led you to set the novel in a nameless South American country?

I had to set it in the tropics because of the forest plot, and primarily because I wanted to feature ambient biology, and in the temperate world, it’s more common to see the air as a vacuum. We don’t sweat as much, we have fewer insects, maybe we observe what’s on the ground less often too. It’s a reference to Lispector, though I used occasional Portuguese and Spanish names to make it clear the territory isn’t a coded single country. Broadly, I was aware that some of what I was doing—unusual events presented in a matter of fact manner—borrows from magical realism, and though that wasn’t intentional I thought I should gesture to that with the location. I don’t like putting in names—characters, places, supermarkets or whatever; I instinctively reel from it, I realized I would find it inhibiting.

The epigraph to the novel comes from Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. What influence has Lispector had on your writing?

I started reading Lispector about ten years ago, beginning with The Apple in the Dark. I was tired and frustrated with fiction and Lispector was completely new. The Apple in the Dark is so strange, direct and allusive at the same time. The translation was full of copy errors, like mutations on the page, which seemed apt. Lispector writes with a really unusual play on objects and subjects; she goes from these deeply expressive monologues to abrupt aphorisms on place and time. A passage from midway through that novel, about houses built with no sense of their own impermanence, then evoking this brief image of civilizations passing like circus tents, seared onto my brain. The point, I thought, was that this was urgent, purposeful; Lispector’s characters and narrators are always trying to fully wake up to where and what they are, and this might have promising creative and even moral possibilities.

I only thought of this recently, but The Apple in the Dark begins with a typical crime set-up, which is then all but discarded—that might have influenced Infinite Ground.

Your writing has earned comparisons to Borges, Angela Carter, Tom McCarthy, J.G. Ballard. If there’s a unifying element to the work of all these writers, I would argue that it’s curiosity and a willingness to follow a thought to its logical conclusion. How important is curiosity to a novelist? To a reader?

I suppose it can result in a kind of exaggeration or amplification. It’s a genre staple that the detective tries to take on the perspective of the person they are looking for, hoping that understanding them leads to an insight into what they have done, where they might be. In Infinite Ground, the inspector attempts this with Carlos, but not just as a thought experiment. He goes to absurd lengths, working literally, building a replica office in a rented garage, reproducing the chair and desk Carlos worked at, accurate down to replica coffee rings. Following these thoughts through—in this case about empathy and mimicry—is useful for generating unanticipated material, the above example, for instance, ending in the idea that you might clone someone through rebuilding their environment.

Curiosity is the most important thing. Without curiosity there’s no empathy, the world becomes smaller, harsher. You’ve got to imagine that the reader is curious; they’ve opened the book.

Stephen Sparks is a bookseller and writer in San Francisco. His essays and interviews have appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, Music & Literatureand elsewhere.

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