The Infinite Tides
Author: Christian Kiefer
Number of pages: 389
Disclaimer: I know the author of this novel.
I got word of this novel early on in the process of its creation, not the manuscript mind you, but the novel itself. Somewhat knowing Christian Kiefer, I wasn’t sure what to make of the idea. This scraggly bearded, granola eating, foul mouthed, “Doctor of love” English professor had written a manuscript featuring a mathematician astronaut stuck in space as tragedy hits his life, and how he dealt with the aftermath of that destruction. Come on man, you have a fruitful career, happy wife and kids, are a local rockstar (after a fashion) and famous friends, what could you possibly know of such enormous potential loss? I was skeptical to say the least, and when I heard it had gotten picked up by a major imprint and was going to be one of their season titles, I was a little convinced I needed to see what it was about. So, the weekend of its release I picked up a copy while I was on vacation and passed it from person to person until it got in the Doctor’s hands so I could get his signature on it (the least he could do really), then shipped to me where it sat on a shelf for a while…a melancholy astronaut had lost appeal.
I eventually cracked open the book and read the opening three pages. “…that at last he had entered the long incredible upward-turning arc that had been the trajectory of his life…”, this is the realization that Astronaut Keith Corcoran has on page one of “The Infinite Tides”, this is the stepping stone into his mind and his journey as a man that was a husband, father, son, astronaut, friend, lover, homeowner and savior.
The story isn’t a matter of what happens, when it happens or even really who it happens to; the story that Keith tells us is about him as a person, how he sees the world and more importantly, what he fails to see.
If you don’t want spoilers, skip this paragraph. Keith’s daughter dies, his wife leaves him, he puts his house up for sale, him being an astronaut again is in jeopardy. The thing is, these are just things that mark Keith’s progression as a human, they are not what the story is really about. This is a story of a man, dealing with loss in the only way he knows how to.
Keith isn’t a normal guy, he knew it as a child and never forgot it, even when he was in space. He has a special relationship with numbers, sees them in ways that no one else can. Until Quinn said that 5 was upset because it was not red, it was brownish-red. It was at that moment that Keith realized his daughter was like him, that he was not alone in this world and someone would grow to understand him. She was a product of him and he loved that more than anything.
As I read I knew that Keith was an unreliable narrator, he wasn’t mentally healthy, and though he wasn’t viewing life through the distorted filter of mental psychosis, he wasn’t able or willing to help himself deal with the tragedy that had struck him, continued to strike him, he simply ambled on aimlessly until something in his life forced him to take action. A willing victim crying at the end of the day because he had already been punished for a crime he had no part in committing. He was lost, rebelled against finding his way and found himself stuck in the cul-de-sac of some sub-division off of the freeway.
The writing is beautiful, staggeringly so at times. There is a moment when he is in space and his tears are amazingly described as an “unknown constellation” floating in the ISS, I saw those tears in those words and felt Keith’s loss, but his moment of reflection and finding beauty in those tears was a powerful moment to be had. Keith is a poet, even though he has no idea that the words in his head hold that power, because words are something Keith has no grasp of, not like the numbers, formulae, planes and angles.
He is a borderline sociopath, Keith that is, certainly not Kiefer. He has a profound sense of isolation and social anxiety. He finds solace in his work, in the numbers and completion of projects and goals. So he never really sees people as people, not enough to factor them into the equation of his life to the point where they are more than variables easily divided by the totality of their contribution to his goals. Not really anyway, though he seems to try at times. That is until he meets Peter, the Ukrainian astronomer stranded in another part of the world, stocking shelves at Target.
And here is where I have to stop talking about what happens to Keith, the book does a far better job than I could ever dream of doing. I will say however that Quinn was by far my favorite character, he development and her humanizing of Keith.
As I was reading I pictured an astronaut painting his kitchen wall, I pictured Jennifer’s swollen breasts bound by her exercise clothing and I wished Keith had taken the time to sort through his mail. I wanted him to find peace and I wanted him to not suffer anymore, but as the book closes we read the perfect message to the reader “The place where you sit reading these words is the same place you have always been, your life ever-arrowing to the moment that is this moment and this one. And this”.
I can’t help but think that Christian Kiefer and Michael Spurgeon sat together in closing their books, creating a bond in writing, compadres and fellow astronauts each taking a beer out of a cardboard holder and twisting off the caps.