[1 October 2012]
I wonder why more authors don’t set their books in space. Navigating life in zero gravity, floating among the stars, changes everything. Outer space has such captivating beauty, stillness, and silence, but despite all that loveliness, it’s still a dark, strange place. Astronauts may be brilliant and adventurous, but they’re still isolated from the world, living in their ships. It’s a setting that’s rife with potential.
That’s where Christian Kiefer’s novel The Infinite Tides begins. Math genius Keith Corcoran has finally achieved his life-long goal of becoming an astronaut. When faced with the stars outstretched before him, he thinks in numbers rather than words; that’s how his mind works. We quickly learn that this mission is the crowning achievement of his life, and tragically, the experience will fall far short of expectations.
Keith has spent his years so supremely focused on landing a job at NASA that he forgets to factor his family into the equation. When he becomes Astronaut Keith Corcoran (his job becomes part of his name and identity) and blasts off for the heavens, it’s only to lose everything he took for granted on Earth. Struck by tragedy, Keith suffers crippling migraines in space, eventually becoming so sick and depressed that he’s sent back to his shell of a vacant, suburban home to mourn his palpable losses: his daughter, wife, personal possessions, and career that defined him. By the time he’s landed, Keith is left with nothing but a couch and bed in the house, eyed by curious neighbors who only know the astronaut from newspaper clippings and rumors whispered at homeowners association meetings.
Suburbia has its own kind of lovely sadness, but it’s a sadness that creeps up in novels often enough to be a lot less astounding than a story of life in space. It’s the cosmic side of The Infinite Tides that grabbed me. Space grants a buoyancy and romance that can’t be denied, but when things turn sour, the setting becomes a horrorscape for the astronaut as he’s trapped in infinite space. The beauty and strangeness are evident when he cries: “a collection of tiny stars were forming in the air a few scant inches from his face, a new and unknown constellation which he watched with curiosity as if the individual points of light had originated from some other source.” The horror appears when he gets sick, as “vomiting in the microgravity where escaped droplets would float trembling in the air before him like tiny burnt-orange planets both pearlescent and grotesque” was the inevitable conclusion to each piercing migraine.
More than anything, though, it’s Keith’s arrested state in space that’s brutally ironic and tragic. He’s floating but confined, and the achievement he’s worked for his whole life is collapsing in on itself. Space isolates him from the real world like nothing else can, and when heartbreak rends his family apart in the form of a tree, a car, and divorce papers, there’s nothing he can do from the ship but watch in crippled horror.
A job in outer-space is, of course, perfect for a man who’s always kept his head in the clouds and his eyes on the stars. Keith’s everyday life—the “here and now”—has never placated him. He’s always been focused on the next big thing, and so he moves from Princeton to Stanford, from marriage and fatherhood to training camp and, at long last, to the constellations above us. But his luminous ambitions won’t give him what he really craves.
The Infinite Tides leans on flashback to show us where things went wrong between Keith and his once-understanding wife, Barb. Shunning the linear trajectory, Kiefer takes readers from the early years of their courtship to their fledgling parenting of daughter Quinn, whose gift for mathematics both bonds Keith to his daughter and inflates his expectations for the teen—unreasonably, damagingly so. The tale is almost entirely told in the third person, but occasionally, the narration includes a rueful, self-conscious “my god” to describe Keith’s mistakes and losses, and that narrative shift provides a few surprises along the way, leading readers to inevitably wonder who’s telling this story. Sometimes the narrative shift is interesting; sometimes it seems a bit overly dramatic.
Between flashbacks, we find Keith shuffling around his empty house, reading the paper at his local Starbucks, or jogging through the maze of endless neighborhood cul-de-sacs, encountering the occasional spandex-clad “friendly” neighbor along the way. While it’s occasionally cliché, there’s enough poetry in the language to make it feel fresh enough. Kiefer paints elegantly with his words, and with every passing page, I could see and hear and feel the loneliness of Keith’s surroundings.
Vitality and comic relief also come in flashes, though, mostly in the form of Peter, a grating Ukrainian who frequents the local Starbucks and flirts with the baristas. The tonal shifts are a bit jarring, and it’s hard not to imagine 2 Broke Girls when reading the broken English and amorous come-ons. Still, he brings some much-needed friendship to Keith’s life, and his dialogue does lighten the mood somewhat.
The women in The Infinite Tides are even less generously depicted. Keith’s neighbor, Jennifer, is an irredeemably desperate housewife who could easily fit in on a daytime soap opera; she’s just evil. Barb betrays him in countless ways that outweigh Keith’s own selfishness, and then she has the gall to demand alimony. Peter’s wife, Luda, on the other hand, is endlessly doting, serving the men finger-sandwiches during their stargazing expeditions, cooking up casseroles, and spreading sunscreen on Keith’s shoulders as she imparts her ample wisdom on the beach; she’s clearly held up as the best of women, so it’s a shame she’s such a relatively feeble character, rewarded by Kiefer for her unending loyalty. She’s wise about the uncertainly of life, yes, but maybe not about her own personal potential.
Quinn is described with the most care and nuance of the women. In particular, there’s a memorable scene in which Keith asks Quinn about a math paradox she was working on, “Hilbert’s Hotel, a puzzle he had forgotten about entirely concerning a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, all of which were full, and the various guests that arrive looking for a vacancy.” Quinn describes the problem to her father proudly as he feigns confusion, explaining that the problem is solved when “they ask every other guest to move down one room.” She beams “like there was light shining from her. From her face. From all parts of her at once.” She scribbles an explanation for her dad, showing how n moves to n plus one, all the while reveling in the pride and awesomeness of discovery, and bonding with her dad as he admits that he’s heard of Hilbert’s Hotel and has his own mathematical wisdom to impart: some infinities are larger or smaller than others.
The ambition of The Infinite Tides is indeed awesome, the language is poetic, and the premise is at once romantic, terrifying, and ultimately life-affirming. But it certainly has its limitations—in its depiction of female characters, for example, and its strange narrative shifts, and its occasionally clumsy attempts at humor. But while it may not have lived up to its full potential, I think the good mostly outweighs the bad in The Infinite Tides.