Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes
Melville House, Oct 2017
272 pages – Amazon
Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes, deploys a modernist mystery against a setting of 21st corporatism and Amazonia.
The novel follows an investigator hired to find the disappeared Carlos; a young professional mysteriously dropped off the face of the planet during a dinner with his family.
Corporations are People
Carlos works for an unnamed corporation. He is an actor, hired to perform the appearance of diligence. He has an office. He arrives early and leaves late. He has no discernible duties.
The corporation has no name. Many of its offices are empty. People arrive and depart performing tasks with no clearly defined end. The corporation owns many unnamed tracts of land. These lands house vacant office complexes. Some of the lands are in the Amazon Rainforest.
MacInnes is coy and clear-eyed in his sendup. The novel captures some of the challenging ambivalence workers feel towards corporations. Corporations often appear little more than shell-games or at best, work programs for certain sectors of the economy, producing goods and services within strange economies of affectation. People are alienated, and it’s jarring to engage with organizations that seem to exist outside of any traditional concept of democratic sovereignty. MacInnes provides a complex treatment of the way that organizations like corporate bodies are made up of many individuals, operating within a certain kind of social contract. Corporations exist within larger systems of coherence, and are socially defined.
I’m in the middle of a mystery and it’s all secret.
There are many popular examples of more complex discussions of personhood being couched within ostensible modernist mystery plots. Blue Velvet is an excellent mainstream example of this kind of nesting; Paul Auster’s City of Glass arrives at a similar place. As the investigator unravels the skein, things become less certain.
“My mistake, I used the predicate instead of the past tense. Yes, we’re past tents, we’re living in bungalows now.”
There’s an advertisement on the box of Honey Bunches of Oats in my kitchen cabinet advertising a chance to win a Nintendo Switch. There’s Super Mario standing grinning, giving the victory sign. And the ad is apparently sponsored by “Post Consumer Brands.” Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about Bladerunner 2049 and its treatment of “post-humanism.” This movie envisions a world inhabited by various stages of artificial humanity. It raises “big questions” about personhood, and when lousy A.I. becomes fully human and fully alive. The question of lousy A.I. has a great deal in common with the question of lousy poetry. What James Schuyler described as, “No innate love of words. No sense of how the thing said is in the words.” And fully human Artificial Intelligence doesn’t arrive because fully human people, persons never arrive. The bravery of clear-eyed discussions in these matters has to do with the way post-humanism has already happened. Our creaky sense of information ubiquity (an unfinished revolution) prevents any coherent or totalized expression of self. We don’t have totalized identities, and our language has not yet come around to recognizing the technological artifacts that already necessarily form people, personhood. Infinite Ground is wiley and multivalent in its treatment of personhood. It’s probably better than Bladerunner 2049, because Bladerunner 2049 is fundamentally a B-movie without any sense of humor. It’s also strangely chauvinistic with Harrison Ford, for the second time in two years, starring in a film as an aging protagonist with his romantic love interest from thirty years ago arriving completely computer generated (Editor’s Note: My editor informs me CGI Princess Leia happened in Rogue One not Star Wars 7) Post-humanism is an awful phrase, even as it’s a pretty straight forward concept. Our projection of the world is one of many. Individuals exist within systems of social signification. Social systems of perception and meaning cannot be totalized.
Down These Mean Streets
During the 20th Century, the Amazon Rainforest represented the possibility of exploration, of unknown territory. David Grann describes this in his 2009 title, The Lost City of Z. Explorers as recently as the 1920s and 1930s headed into the Amazon searching for “lost civilizations.” Grann’s account of British explorer Percy Fawcett, and his ascetic drive into unmapped territories describes a very obvious compulsion. There is definitely something of Stendahl in the accounts of explorers talking about their shuddering revelations against the majesty of forests.
MacInnes perfectly captures the way the performance of these “quests” inevitably becomes the meaning explorers sought. A central tenant of the novel of the last fifty years is this sense that any solution to the modernist mystery resides primarily in the seeking and the sleuthing. The Amazon as a kind of primeval frontier persists across contemporary language, even as every hectare has been long cataloged and leveraged.
In a masterful sleight of hand, the notion of untouched Amazonian tribes and virgin forests is undermined by the idea that even the performance of culture is mediated within a system of legibility. There cannot be parcels or wildernesses outside of the farther reaching influence of multinational corporate organizations. And increasingly, wilderness spheres in the Amazon only continue to persist as a kind of being offset by corporate activities elsewhere. They are protected, and preserved, but completely accountable. This fuzzy line of the soma incorporates us too, with all our contiguous technological systems, so that the soma reaches from the corporate organization into the organization of bio diversity or the performance of ethnographic cultural diversity in the service of tourism. The mystery persists across these tensions, even as it is never any kind of mystery at all. The notion of rapidly dispersing systems of information exemplifies our current moment. An experience of decay that can be pathologized: this is a microbiological or microchemical experience. This is an experience across the face of a social organism. All of this is true.
There’s an element of body horror in Infinite Ground that evokes the best Cronenberg films. Silent, invisible, flesh eating bacteria seem to envelop characters. Or at least the possibility of silent, invisible, flesh eating bacteria.
Infinite Ground also features a body that is deteriorating. In this too, it resembles many of the Amazon travel adventure narratives. Characters compulsively file down their nails and clip their hair. There’s an engagement with the experience of the body, shrinking and disintegrating, or else growing and becoming, always in concert with other bodies. Localizing social experiences within bodies highlights the paradoxes of bodies, always changing, within rigid systems.
A champion of the Amazonian quest, H. Rider Haggard spoke about the narrative pull of adventure as a kind of grip, something that pulls us through a text or story. The disappearance of Carlos acts as the grip, the initial pull through the looking glass. The investigator encounters a bizarro world. It’s traditional making strange. The segment that relies on the making strange of contemporary corporate life imagines an anthropological study of the new organization man. These are tribes, and tribal lives determined by the social ties of multi-national corporations. The questions around body coherence and the relationship between individuals, and systems of social exchange ripple.
The movement from the modernist detective story, with a resolution, and a solution, to something afterwards has been a long documented trend in narrative. More important than any coherent mystery with a clear end in sight, is the evocation of the possibility of a mystery. The sense of more balls being in the air. The sense of too many solutions. This is the mystery of 2017, comprised in part, by a general fragmentation of media streams, so that no single system of social information designates a singular whole.
The core of Infinite Ground has to do with social contracts between bodies. In the novel, these contracts are hyperarticulated and exaggerated, but also familiar. MacInnes imagines a world where organizations can be nameless, and exist outside of national jurisdiction. He imagines vast work programs without clearly productive services rendered. These social organizations persist. And inscrutable bodies, indigenous bodies for example, cannot exist within contemporary systems of legibility and so they are systematically dismembered. The detective story is the defining genre conceit of modernity. And the possibility of an answer, a solution, inevitably draws us through this narrative too, even as the disappearance of Carlos becomes less important. The real mystery is revealed as a questioning of these social agreements. The decaying biological affects treat us to a slow decline, and it’s our own decline.