"The airlock opened. He knew there would be no perceptible change in pressure but now that the moment had arrived he somehow expected the transition of atmosphere to be audible, for the brief symphony of thumps and clicks between the shuttle and the docking node to include the hiss or shush or sigh of oxygen exchange and yet, despite the absence of such a marker, the swing of the hatch felt to Keith like a sudden outrushing of the tide, a sensation that remained with him as he floated through the opening and entered the Harmony Module where the crew they had come to relieve all smiled expectantly back at him. It was a moment as glorious and transcendent as any he could have imagined and he would realize only later that it represented the single coordinate point in which he understood that he had done it, that at last he had entered the long incredible upward-turning arc that had been the trajectory of his life, and that he was, finally and undeniably, an astronaut."
So begins Christian Kiefer's novel The Infinite Tides. With his arrival aboard the International Space Station, mathematical genius Keith Corcoran has finally fulfilled his life long ambition of becoming an astronaut, and his amazement at his own achievement is palpable. Rightfully so. He has dedicated his whole life to this moment. Then, while on a spacewalk, at the very pinnacle of his accomplishment, his sixteen-year-old daughter is killed in a car accident back on earth. His powerlessness in the face of personal loss is amplified as he gazes down helplessly from space on the world scrolling beneath him, the language of numbers--gorgeously rendered--suddenly no longer the comfort they had been:
"Watch them now: the numbers as if stretched upon a wire. The sixes stacked astride the decimal. The seven and three and zeroes behind them. Study them all your days and then ask yourself how any such equation could describe anything at all: the water rushing across the sand, the tiny stars, the way her hand curled into his. They could not even describe the way he felt about the numbers themselves, what they had meant to him, what they would continue to mean.
"Such equations to imagine. Now watch them vanish into the spiral lemniscate of what is to come. This the black firmament. This the dark matter flowing into and out of your heart."
Corcoran's grief is further compounded when his long-failing marriage cannot withstand the piercing tragedy or his prolonged absence in this time of grief. When Keith finally returns to gravity, his family is gone and his house is empty. This might not be so unbearable if he could escape within the equations and calculations of his work as he has always done, but NASA has put him on forced leave, and he must fully confront his loss. With the help of a new friend--a Ukrainian immigrant--Corcoran navigates the suburban world of cul-de-sacs, incomplete housing developments, and shopping malls as he tries to rebuild a life that seems both as mysterious and vacuous as the vast emptiness of space itself.
At the core of this book is the subject of man dealing with grief, and Kiefer handles this gracefully, tenderly, and honestly. Despite risking sentimentality, the story never descends into melodrama. Indeed, there are a handful of scenes that are as arresting and haunting as any in literature, such as the one in which Corcoran weeps aboard the ISS, his tears floating around him like little diamonds or stars. The elegance with which Kiefer handles grief alone is worth the read. But more subtly this book is about the American need to have our identities tied to our professions.
Without positing an easy or overt socio-economic agenda tied to the relationship between identity and our market economy, Kiefer presents a man in a crisis of professional and personal identity. As the current economic crisis has shown, people who define themselves by their jobs can be confronted with an existential crisis when standing in the unemployment line. "What do you do?" is one of the first questions adults ask when they engage with each other outside of work. And we are quick to form opinions about people based upon the answers. So, what do we give up for our careers? What are we willing to sacrifice? For Keith Corcoran, the ultimate answer is far too much.
Kiefer reinforces this theme of identity in a number of ways, but his use of setting is particularly adept in doing so. He clearly understands that setting should not merely be a backdrop for the action, but another character in the story. Keith Corcoran is a man who believes that life, demonstrated through one's career accomplishments, is a vector with some clear destination of achievement. He shares the American conviction that if you work hard enough, you can get somewhere and be somebody. The problem with this belief, Kiefer reminds us, is that it fails to recognize that each of us already is somewhere and someone. Thus, Kiefer writes,
"One moment you are an astronaut floating high above a space station at the end of a robotic arm of your own design, the next you are driving through an endless suburb.... Grass-covered squares and rectangles. Seemingly identical cul-de-sacs appearing and disappearing as he passed, different only in their state of completion: the perfect model home, then the skeletal structure of a wooden frame, then a patch of bare dirt holding an unfinished foundation. Between these states: a fractal landscape of courts and ways that turned inward upon themselves, thin and many-legged spiders that had, in death, curled into their own bulbous bodies, clutching the empty, still air between perfectly manicured lawns."
There is nothing accidental about this description of place. Corcoran rockets out of the atmosphere on the way to the zenith of a career, but here on Earth we literally move in a maze of the ordinary. A career might move along a linear line, but a career is not a life. And in fact, though Corcoran has blasted into space and become "finally and undeniably, an astronaut," the truth is the International Space Station is simply circling around and around the planet. Even Keith's space walk is just to move a nitrogen tank from one end of the station to the other, something Kiefer cleverly describes in such mundane terms as "not unlike removing a huge washing machine from between countertop and floor and cabinetry."
Kiefer's prose is always intelligent and lyrical, turning the language of math into sheer poetry, but his writing is also at turns heartbreaking and breathtakingly human, such as this flashback to Keith about to leave for space and addressing his daughter, who is more interested in teenage concerns than her own mathematical gifts:
"And so he said what he would regret all his days to come:'I'm disappointed,' he told her. 'I'm disappointed in you.' His daughter who was a straight-A student, who was brilliant, and popular, and beautiful. Even in that moment, standing in her doorway, he could feel his heart crumbling inside the cage of his chest."
Surely any parent who has said something unintentionally cruel to a child and immediately regretted it recognizes the poignancy of this moment, a poignancy amplified by the fact these are his last face to face words to his daughter before her death.
Finally, allow me to comment briefly on the stunning climax of this book. There are some books that end with exploding pyrotechnics of drama and language. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Cormac MacCarthy's Blood Meridian strike me as master examples of this first category. Other books, particularly contemporary novels, often end with a virtual anticlimax. Roberto Bolano's 2666 is the first and best example that comes to mind in this second category. Both approaches, handled correctly, make for marvelous endings. But prior to reading Kiefer's book, I never encountered a novel that did both simultaneously. Frankly, it never occurred to me that a novel could do both. But The Infinite Tides proves it can be done, and the effect in Kiefer's hands is dazzling, absolutely dazzling.
The Infinite Tides is the most self-assured debut I've ever read, bar none. This isn't just the best first book I'll read this year. It will be the best book. Christian Kiefer had better strap himself in because I suspect his career is about to be launched into orbit. I, for one, look forward to watching the rocket trail of his ascent and wish him godspeed.