Space Oddity

Christian Kiefer
The Infinite Tides
(Bloomsbury USA, 2012)

The Infinite Tides opens with mathematical genius Keith Corcoran arriving aboard the International Space Station, where “the swing of the hatch felt…like a sudden outrushing of the tide.” In fulfilling his lifelong ambition of becoming an astronaut, Corcoran’s 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, tragedy befalls his family back on earth. His powerlessness in the face of personal loss is amplified as he gazes down from space on the world scrolling beneath him, and the language of numbers is suddenly no longer the comfort it had been. 

Corcoran’s grief is further compounded when his failing marriage cannot withstand the tragedy or his absence. He returns to gravity to find his family gone and his house empty. This might be more bearable if he could escape into the mathematical equations of his work, as he has always done. But NASA has put Corcoran 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 big-box stores as he tries to rebuild a life that seems both as mysterious and vacuous as space itself.

At the core of this book is the subject of man dealing with grief, which Kiefer handles with grace and honesty. Despite risking sentimentality, the story never descends into melodrama. There are a handful of scenes that are arresting and haunting, such as the elegant one in which Corcoran weeps aboard the I.S.S., his tears floating around him like diamonds or stars.

Without positing an overt socio-economic agenda tied to the relationship between personal 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 may 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, in the stunning climax of The Infinite Tides, the answer is far too much.

With intelligent and lyrical prose, this novel is at times heartbreaking, as in Corcoran’s remembered final exchange with his daughter, when “he said what he would regret all his days to come: ‘I’m disappointed in you.’…Even in that moment, standing in her doorway, he could feel his heart crumbling inside the cage of his chest.”

This is a remarkably self-assured debut. This isn’t just the best first book I’ll read this year; it may be the best.

Contributor

Michael Spurgeon

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