21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Martin MacInnes and Celtic SF

Martyn Colebrook


Martin MacInnes’ debut novel Infinite Ground (2016) is structured around a disarmingly simple premise. At the height of a heatwave in a South American country, a 29-year-old man named Carlos is having a reunion dinner with his family at a restaurant, La Cueva. Carlos leaves the table, goes to the bathroom but does not return. As the narrator details: “Carlos had gone to the bathroom,” he writes, “and then to all intents and purposes he had stopped existing.” After his family report him missing, an unnamed inspector, a widower who is moving closer to his impending retirement, is assigned to the case and sets about trying to track down Carlos. His modus operandi includes a series of interviews with colleagues and family, and the use of reconstructions at potential crime scenes including his workplace.


Crime scenes and unsolved crimes as a feature in Scottish crime fiction

[Image by Bousure under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


Ostensibly, the deployment of a missing person and an unsolved crime firmly locates the novel in the genre of Scottish crime fiction – MacInnes was born in Inverness and now resides in Edinburgh – but on the surface this is as far from a Tartan Noir potboiler as one could possibly imagine. There is no existential patrolling of the Scottish “Central Belt” and the Celtic postindustrial spaces of MacInnes’ home country are replaced by a “sweltering metropolis surrounded by dense tropical rainforest” (Cox 2016: n. pag.).  Indeed, the novel consciously traverses many of the policed zones of popular genres including Borgesian fantasy, Marquezian Magical Realism, not to mention the work of Angela Carter, Cesar Aira and Franz Kafka, and these contribute to its imaginatively rich textual engagement. Despite these transnational generic influences, I would also contend that there is a strong element of Scottish fantasy and science fiction within Infinite Ground and this article will consider how Celtic SF/F functions in the novel.


Fantastical image of proverbial highlands

[Image by Alex Berger under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


When we consider the proverbial Highlanders of contemporary Scottish science-fantasy and its lineage, notable names that emerge include Alasdair Gray, Iain (M.) Banks, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Whilst drawing on a significant spectrum of other influences, this particular triumvirate’s shadow appears to have been adumbrated in MacInnes’ Infinite Ground. The novel’s position within the Celtic tradition is, interestingly, established in the first half of the narrative before it descents into a disorienting climactic voyage into territory the reader would better associate with “the best bits of Paul Kingsnorth’s intense interior monologue Beast filtered through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (Cox 2016: np). We can identify the first self-reflexive reference to genre and MacInnes’ literary precursors in the line: “Why should I be disgusted by the mass that came out of the cockroach” (MacInnes 2016: x). As the text indicates, this image is taken from The Passion According to GH (1964) – a novel by the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, which is written in the form of a monologue that addresses an existential crisis over the accidental crushing of a cockroach. The reference is evident and “the link back to Kafka is more than entomological” (Docx 2016: n. pag.). That is to say, it foregrounds a topic that is foremost among those that MacInnes discusses: the fragmented nature of human consciousness and the perception and construction of reality itself. As “ ‘Suspicion, Rumour, Link’ No 5” warns, the entire investigation could feasibly be “an indulgent and morbid fantasy created by a man in middle age in grief for his dead wife.” As Roger Docx suggests, “another way to read this book is [as] a meditation on the nature of the human psyche under the intense pressure of loss and isolation” (Docx 2016: n. pag.).

The novel’s formal narrative begins:

He got the call in the middle of the night, for some reason. His help would be appreciated going over a case. How recent was unusual – the man had been gone only three weeks. He was to put everything aside and concentrate, for a spell, exclusively on this. Resources would be made available. He would be given all the support they could provide. (MacInnes 2016: 3)

The use of the specific narrative perspective, in this case the third person singular, is familiar territory for those well versed in Scottish fiction, and particularly Scottish crime fiction. William McIlvanney and Iain Banks used the second person singular in Laidlaw (1977) and Complicity (1993) respectively, immediately placing the reader on the back foot by forcing them to “see” narrative events through the narrator’s eyes. MacInnes intensifies the reader’s intentional dislocation from his subject, refusing to permit us to understand the inspector from a human perspective. The use of “he” disarms the reader, intensifying the curiosity about the circumstances surrounding the phone call. As Infinite Ground plays out, the intensity of the investigation is reflected in the novel’s surroundings (both physical and psychological). Through setting, MacInnes offers a claustrophobic examination of the individual who is subjected to regulations and barriers, both internal and external, which are invisible and rooted in the bureaucratic systems that underpin the world with which the investigator must engage. 

The missing man worked for The Corporation, an entity that remains nameless due to the number of times it has changed function and location:

Such was the protracted nature of merger negotiations, the corporation Carlos worked for had been nameless for years. The inspector believed this was deliberate, designed to exploit loopholes, circumvent various responsibilities. The corporation’s legal team as well as its administrators, its marketing department, and its front desk staff, had to adapt to their language to account for the fact the body they worked for had no name. (MacInnes 2016: 13)

MacInnes brings us to the territory of Iain Banks and Alasdair Gray with this construction. Banks’ The Bridge (1986) focuses on the life of John Orr, a resident of “The Bridge,” a dystopian entity which may or may not be the product of the coma-induced mind of Alex Lennox who is in hospital following a car accident. The motif of the mind as an underpinning structure is recurrent in Infinite Ground, where the inspector is confronted by the puzzle that “[t]he microbes, in some sense, activate change in his thoughts. Think of it like a factory producing the elements of feeling – chemistry” (MacInnes 2016: 47). This concurs with Banks’ use of the body and the mind as a motif for the dystopian structure of “the Bridge.” In Banks’ 1986 novel, the Bridge’s rules are largely unwritten and predicated on knowing and understanding erudite traditions that are never fully explained. Orr suffers demotion, social conflict, and continually struggles to learn the languages spoken on “the Bridge,” thus he is rendered alien and alienated amongst his peers. It is significant that MacInnes’ corporation is focused on “loopholes,” “marketing” and “language” since it is the element which informs the remainder. “Language” in Infinite Ground forms a fundamental barrier to both the investigation and the conclusion. As the inspector notes: “[H]e could estimate how much language had been made in the room. It was intuitive, but he tended to be right. A room would be more hectic after language” (MacInnes 2016: 37). Ignoring that this type of linguistic formation is in the territory of Don DeLillo, the notion that language can be constructed in the room infers a business-like principle in which the corporation imposes its own idiolect upon the world around it, in order to control, deflect, inform, or dictate the narrative that follows.


Language as a structure, barrier, and formation

[Image by Shannon Kokoska under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


The antecedents of The Bridge lie in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in 4 Books (1981): a novel in which we are also presented with a narrative that engages at an ecological and dystopian level with societal spaces and structures in which bureaucratic rules and nameless (or the unnamed) organisations dominate the lives of those subjected to their structures. Gray’s subject, Lanark, arrives in Unthank, a disorienting Glasgow-like city, in which there is an absence of daylight and whose residents suffer from physically disfiguring diseases with orifices growing on their limbs and body heat fading away. Lanark begins to engage with a group of younger people he cannot completely relate to and develops a skin condition called dragonhide, a disease that turns his skin into scales as an external manifestation of his emotional repression. Similarly in MacInnes’ Infinite Ground, part of the investigator’s process is to analyse Carlos’ workplace and engage the professional expertise of a forensic psychologist in order to solve the crime (arguably, the same can be said of the critic who engages their own forensic analysis of the text in order to piece together the body of work which underpins and influences).

The forensic analyst reveals that Carlos was “not held together well, and I’m not just talking about skin. The communities living there indicate an inflamed gut, and the presence of certain other organisms” (MacInnes 2016: 46). In contextualising MacInnes’ description, I am drawn here to several references in Scottish fiction – Cairns Craig identifies the motif of the parasitic organism in Lanark, and Irvine Welsh’s Filth (1999) uses the presence of a tapeworm as a second narrator to inform and reinforce the words of Bruce Robertson, Edinburgh copper, misogynist and bigot.

As the inspector follows the forensic analysis he realises “he could see the parallels between the wall-like organs of his [Carlos’] body and the places where he lived. Their analysis of the empty office was the ultimate intrusion: it was as if Carlos had seen it coming all along” (MacInnes 2016: 81). Later, the reader encounters a case where a man leaves his wife and family and is later tracked to a neighbouring village where he has constructed an almost exact wife and family in the same home. The pervasive sense of the unheimlich and the double inform this scenario whereby the individual replicates their self, albeit with the uncanny sense that there are slight differences between the self and the simulacra. 

MacInnes disclosed to Robert Strachan that:

being uninterested in verisimilitude or feeling himself incapable of writing psychologically rounded characters meant he had to find his own techniques to convey the ideas he was interested in. […] He uses the rough scaffolding of the narrative to turn his gaze deeply inwards, to ignore the psychological development of character that the 19th century realist novel has trained us to believe is the pinnacle of literary art and to focus on the material development of character instead. (Strachan 2016: n. pag.)

To this effect, MacInnes uses an ecological or environmental imperative in his narrative, exploring the manner in which the physical body of the missing person interacts with and responds to the external ecosystem in which it is immersed and the pressures to which it is subjected. It significant that the critic refers to the “material development,” whether this is a conscious pun or an allusion to the underpinning motifs of MacInnes’ novel can be debated. Given that the “material depreciation” of Carlos’ body becomes such a focal point for the inspector’s investigation, it could be argued that the motif of the body in decay and the process of piecing together forensic analysis through the clues left from the remnants of Carlos’ body are broader metaphors for authorial strategies which inform MacInnes’ work.



The Kelpies horse-head sculptures representing Scottish industry lineage 

[Image by Michel Curi under a CC BY license]


We could locate this early critical reception of MacInnes’ work within a rather broader analysis that would include the work of James Kelman and, particularly, the trauma which functions at the heart of a novel such as How Late it Was How Late (1994). Here, the actions of Kelman’s protagonist Sammy (Samsa) Samuels are interwoven with the bureaucratic power structures he encounters and which restrict and nullify him. Given the tentacular sprawling of generic echoes and allusions in MacInnes’ Infinite Ground, such an approach may, via notions of parasitic exchange, be welcomed if not necessary. 


CITATION: Martyn Colebrook, “Martin MacInnes and Celtic SF,” Alluvium, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2017): n. pag. Web. 15 March 2017, https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v6.1.02


Dr Martyn James Colebrook is an independent researcher. He completed a PhD focusing on the novels of Iain (M.) Banks and co-edited the first collection of scholarly essays, The Transgressive Iain Banks with Katharine Cox (McFarland 2013). He has published individually and collaboratively within the field of twentieth century fiction with chapters including “Contemporary Scottish Crime Fiction and Terrorism”, “The Wasp Factory, the Gothic and Mental Disorder”, “Paul Auster and Alienation”, “China Mieville and H.P. Lovecraft”, “Iain (M.) Banks and John Fowles”, and “Gordon Burn, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son and the Yorkshire Ripper". 


Works Cited:

Banks, Iain. The Bridge. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986.

Banks, Iain. Complicity. London: Little & Brown, 1993.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Richmond: Oneworld Classics, 2009.

Cox, Roger. “Book Review: Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes,” The Scotsman, 14 September 2016:

http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/books/book-review-infinite-ground-by-martin-macinnes-1-4230109 (Last accessed 27 February 2017).

Docx, Edward. “Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes review – a Borgesian maybe-murder mystery,” The Guardian, 5 August 2016:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/05/infinite-ground-martin-macinnes-review (Last accessed 27 February 2017).

Gray, Alasdair. Lanark: A Life in Four Books. Edinburgh: Canongate Press, 1982.

Kelman, James. How Late it Was How Late. London: Minerva, 1995.

Kingsnorth, Paul. Beast. London: Faber & Faber, 2016.

Lispector, Clarice. The Passion According to GH. London: Penguin, 1964.

McIlvanney, William. Laidlaw. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977.

MacInnes, Martin. Infinite Ground. London: Atlantic Books, 2016.

Strachan, Richard W. “Book Review: Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes,” 26 July 2016: https://richardwstrachan.com/tag/martin-macinnes/ (Last accessed 27 February 2017).

Welsh, Irvine Filth. London: Vintage, 1999.


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