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.
Like that of its predecessor, the book’s structure is symphonic, in that it is made up of separate but related movements. The opening chapter, for example, stands alone as a kind of thematic introduction to all that follows. It recounts the rapid rise and social impact of an app called Nest, a phenomenally sophisticated motion-tracking device that creates beautiful patterns from a user’s data, emotions, brain pulses and micro-reactions. From this mass information a whole new panoply of analyses emerges, and with them a new perspective on humanness.
In Gathering Evidence, his second novel after 2016’s jaw-dropping Infinite Ground, Martin MacInnes assembles the materials of what might have made a cracking Nevil Shute eco-thriller, and uses them to explore our most gruesome existential anxieties — in particular, our growing conviction that our mere presence on the Earth is destroying it. “Ideally, we’d never have the opportunity in our lives of seeing them. Every time we saw them we threatened them; every time we breathed, stood, spoke in an area they communicated with, we threatened them,” says Shel of the bonobos. The so-called reserve is named Westenra, presumably after Lucy, the character in Dracula, for we are all as good as vampires now. “I should give my thanks to almost the whole of creation — to all that isn’t human — for allowing me, and my kind, to feed off it and to kill it,” says Shel.
This is a most unusual and extremely cerebral novel. It is, I should say, also very good. It is compelling, full of intriguing ideas, and yet retains an emotional sincerity and sensitivity. It also has a surprising denouement that it would be high reviewer treason to reveal. The British have quite often rather held their noses at the “novel of ideas” – bit too French – and in some ways this is far more philosophical than ideological. It worries around thoughts and the connections between thoughts like rubbing a handful of pebbles in your fingers.
MacInnes’s writing is rigorous in its abstraction, almost stern in the complexity of its expression, yet there is a beauty to it, a quiet compassion that gets under the skin, rendering his traumatised characters not just familiar but sympathetic. For all his gathering of evidence, he offers scant conclusions and in this he is like every one of us, sharing our fear for the future even as he charts its progress in meticulous detail. This novel confirms MacInnes as a writer of serious ambition and an uncanny degree of talent.