Feel like getting outside of your own head for a while? It’s too hot to go running. Sometimes cooking is a good way to do it, but my Brooklyn kitchen turns into a sauna if a single burner is turned on, and the AC drives me mad. So it’s a good thing Christian Kiefer’s book The Infinite Tides is the kind that swallows you right up.
Astronaut Keith Corcoran returns to Earth from his first mission, but it’s not the homecoming you’d expect. His house is dirty and empty, except for a couch that he hates. His wife and child gone, one by choice and the other by tragedy. He lives deep in the heart of Texas sprawl-ville, where neighborhoods aspire to be gated, and predictability rules in the form of green Starbucks awnings, endless parking lots and one identical home after the other. – WELCOME TO EARTH.
Some descriptions of Keith’s new world feel straight out of the film Blue Velvet. Here Keith watches a bird above and wonders what it sees:
A landscape like a huge and multicolored intestine. Self-similar. Fractal. Maybe there were empty fields elsewhere. Eyes searching for death hidden in close-cropped lawns.
Keith desperately wants to go back to space (Take me with you!). It’s not that he wants to escape his stagnant environment nearly as badly as he needs to push off the gravity of memories. Yet migraines fill his head and for now he’s grounded and alone, kind of alone. One busty neighbor has her hungry eye on him, and another is annoying, but endearing enough to draw Keith into a nightly routine. Living on a cul-de-sac amongst other cul-de-sacs has few perks, but Keith discovers one: an empty lot down the street perfect for stargazing.
Keith is a math genius and it ran in the family. Like his daughter, he sees numbers as colors with precise relationships that have a logic as clear as any language. Only not many people speak this language. Keith is so deep in his own head that you’re not sure he’ll get out or if he even wants to.
There’s not a whole lot of action. The plot seems inconsequential to Keith’s internal struggle with “the fear and terror of loss”. You root for him to pull through because beneath the bad decisions and frustrations is still the same man who dedicated his entire life to becoming an astronaut.
Strangers who recognize him ask one question hoping to get a glimpse of what it’s like to be in space. He tries to describe the indescribable, but keeps the true experience to himself. A memory shows you what Keith can’t say:
…that moment was so stunning in its beauty and purity and complexity that it could not be believed.
This is Christian Kiefer’s first work of literature. Some parts read like they had to have been written by a math genius astronaut, but no, Kiefer is just that good. He’s a Doctor in American Literature, musician, music lover, poet and probably building an underground space program, which I’d like to be a part of. I make excellent freeze dried noodles and could live off of astronaut ice cream if we happen to crash with a lifetime supply of it, fyi.
While not exactly a light summer read, I really enjoyed this book. The humor is smart, not Ha Ha funny, but well-timed and striking. My favorite line could be quoted in fortune cookies (now and post-apocalyptic) :
What had once been was already gone and it was likely best to accept that and move on