It’s been slow going with my current read, Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes. The novel is a philosophical mystery that focuses on minute detail, such as the microscopic evidence collected from a missing man’s keyboard or simulating the gesture of slowly raising a coffee cup to the lips and taking a sip. The corporate world of the narrative also has a Kafkaesque absurdity to it, and the main character, the Inspector, can’t be sure if he’s talking to the people he thinks he’s talking to, or actors hired to stand in for them. It doesn’t seem to matter though; the actors come up with excessively detailed imaginings of what the actual person might have thought or done and their testimonies appear to be just as relevant – and insane – as what passes for fact.
I was intrigued, until the Inspector got mired in the tiniest of details, while every one of his encounters seemed meaninglessly mad. He couldn’t move the investigation forward, and the plot went loopy without getting anywhere. I’m a bit of a pedantic reader so I don’t do well with absurdist narratives where you can’t take things literally the way you normally would and the whole point is that you don’t know what’s going on (or at least not on the first read). It wasn’t until I accepted that and just kept reading that I managed to make decent progress.
Then, suddenly, the pace picked up and the book piqued my interest again. Why? Because the Inspector calls Isabella, the forensic analyst he’s been working with.
She revitalises the narrative partly because comfortingly level-headed in comparison to the Inspector’s increasingly wobbly mental state. Her reappearance grounded me when I felt like I was losing my grip on the book. What really struck me though was the force of her passion for her work, and the way she gives us other ways of looking at the world:
We spend too much time looking at the fucking stars! […] I hate it. That urge to look to the transcendent. This idea that life is suddenly magical and incredible because of astronomy, the story of where the matter has travelled. Honestly, give me grandeur, give me my feet. […] We are generally, I think, so prejudiced when it comes to scale. There is enough in a simple glimpse of the ground. […] The earth surface is an infinite mesh of bio-trails. […] 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.
This passage, on page 112, is actually what convinced me to buy the book. I’d read an article suggesting that, instead of judging a book by its cover or its first page, you should read page 112. The idea is that lesser books have a lapse in the middle, so if page 112 is good, then the book is more likely to be good from beginning to end. And that’s where I found Isabella, with an idea that took me all the way to the till and, now, to Part Two of the book.
The Inspector is no less dedicated than her, but his is more of a plodding determination while she is bold, refreshing, animated. You can see her getting fired up but it’s hard to imagine him laughing or losing his temper.
In Lauren Beukes’s short piece ‘On Beauty: A Letter to My Five-Year-Old Daughter’ (2014) she writes, ‘You are interesting because you are interested, you are amazing because you are so wide open to everything life has to give you’.
Interesting because you are interested. That’s what I like about Isabella and that’s how she gives the narrative the energy it needs to get out of the doldrums.
Interesting because you are interested. This came to mind again when I was thinking about Melanie, the main character in The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey. I think she’s an easy to character to love because she’s fascinated by life. At the beginning of the novel she doesn’t even know what it’s like to be outside, but she hangs on to every word she hears from the adults around her (not realising that she’s a prisoner being held for experimental purposes) and uses that to construct a physical, moral and sociopolitical landscape. For her, even the tiniest pieces of information we take for granted – such as the date or someone’s first name – can change the architecture of the world, as Carey phrases it.
Her interest isn’t restricted to learning; it gives her a great capacity for compassion and love, but also the strength to protect what she loves or take whatever action her moral compass points to. And, like Isabella, her enthusiasm means she offers us great ideas and dynamic ways of looking at things. Someone with less interest, someone less interesting, is just going to see things the way most other people already do. They’re more likely to bore us, I suppose, because they can’t give us anything other than the stories we hear all the time.