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25 March 2020

Martin MacInnes’s Gathering Evidence explores what it means to be human

MacInnes’s intriguing second novel deserves to cement his reputation as a bold and curious writer.

By Leo Robson

Martin MacInnes’s latest book is a reflection on what it means to be human, with the emphasis on meaning – on analysis and analogy, reflection and rumination. Though not as exciting as his first novel Infinite Ground – the winner of a 2017 Somerset Maugham award – it is also less overtly a pastiche of late-modernist and magic-realist devices, and deserves to cement his reputation as a bold and curious writer. 

Gathering Evidence asks the reader to modify expectations – about language being pleasurable, characters being rounded, and narratives possessing momentum. It begins with a 25-page account of an app called Nest that transforms human data into a pattern as unique and complex as a fingerprint. And for most of the novel we toggle between a pair of leisurely discrete narratives. John Harper, a software engineer, is recuperating after a violent attack and learning who he is (or was), day by day, step by step, while a strange growth consumes his house. His wife Shel, a naturalist, is stranded with two other women in a remote national park, home to the few remaining bonobo chimpanzees, where she has been sent on a gruelling and perilous field trip. 

MacInnes is himself in the business of primate research – eager to learn, via close study of a group or an individual, all that he can about an environment, an ecosystem, a species. As a novelist trafficking in scientific ideas, he has less in common with Ian McEwan, who is always looking to posit an argument or settle a debate, than Tom McCarthy, whose aim is to generate a set of images and motifs, linked by symbolic logic. Like McCarthy, MacInnes is interested in hitherto-hidden continuities. The words “every” and “everything” are given a frequent airing. Fungi, the human brain, computer code, the city, and the network are all invoked as fragmentary or tentacular structures that nonetheless constitute a whole. While John, reeling from skull damage, is striving to connect slices and flashes of memory, Shel wants to penetrate the mysteries of the forest and break “a single field” into an aggregate or series.

There are other living English writers who have aspired to work in this abstracted, quasi-mathematical mode – Martin Amis in Other People and Einstein’s Monsters, or Jim Crace, or McEwan himself, in some of his early stories. But in those instances, the tropes were tools of a social or philosophical vision. What distinguishes MacInnes is the retreat, in line with forebears such as Borges and Ballard, from allegory and commentary. The exercise is not referential or didactic, but synthetic and enclosed.

If Gathering Evidence appears more conventional than this description suggests, that’s because MacInnes has adopted Tom McCarthy’s habit of using the familiar grammar of the novel as a Trojan horse. But it isn’t long before you notice little differences – the lack of affect, the banal adjectives, a slipperiness to the fictional world. (MacInnes admitted in a note at the end of Infinite Ground that the details relating to microbiology were largely his invention.)

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Some of MacInnes’s riffs don’t work. A list of the traces left by a child veers from the underpowered (“Her shape was implied in the safety seat in the car”) to the overwrought: a reference to the child-friendly fittings on table corners yields first the notion that, being plastic, they are the product of “tens of thousands of years in oceans”, and then to a vision of marine life “nesting” in the areas that a little girl’s head had “nudged”. At other times, exhibiting a similar fearlessness with regard to charges of pretension, his thinking can be elegant and resonantly left-field. John points out that the number of languages in a region corresponds to its biodiversity – “as if words too were bred from the soil”. One of Shel’s colleagues alleges that an animal’s digital population is inversely related to its biological one, so that a species threatened by extinction will be amply represented by emojis.

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There’s a longer passage that neatly illustrated the pleasure MacInnes takes in the lateral, non-rational, and inconsequential. Contemplating a patch of earth around a tree, Shel wonders if it is really any different from digital information storage, or radio emissions, or the “cliché” that people are the sum of their experiences. Then, suffering a pang of professional conscience, she stops herself: “Where was the logic in this, the evidence in this?” She does her best to bring her flight of fancy crashing down to earth. She knows that she is guilty of what she earlier calls “overreaching,” and makes the necessary sop to empirical standards. But then she puts all of that aside, and smiles. 

Gathering Evidence
Martin MacInnes
Atlantic, 313pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor