Why have a daughter only to be told of her death two hundred and seventeen miles above the surface of Earth? Why have a wife at all if the end result is a house without furniture? Why become an astronaut only to end standing in a cul-de-sac in the darkness?
A black ocean above him. Stars cut into that false firmament. And Keith Corcoran standing there, drunk, maybe even smiling, the ring of the cul-de-sac and the lit orbit of streetlamps circling him, and when he stumbled forward toward the dark edge of the sidewalk he did so without conscious thought, only with a drunken sense of curiosity or perhaps not even that. Perhaps instead only the drift, the alternating sense of heavy stumble and high floating that drew him back and forth across the concrete. He nearly lost his balance stepping over the chain that blocked the empty lot from the sidewalk but did not fall, moving forward into the shadows, his feet crunching the thistle and stumbling some on the uneven ground. "Shit," he said as he regained his footing, his voice a hollow in the slow flat darkness of the field. (p. 102 e-book, near the end of Ch. 6)
There is something about space that we can never comprehend. Miles? Sure, we can grasp the time/distance involved there because of stops along the way. There are limits, no matter how huge they may seem at the time, to the longest roads and the biggest nations. But space? After a while, it becomes numbers and models and relative scale (light years and astronomical units in place of miles, kilometers, meters, or feet); it enthralls us and yet denies any scrying into its depths. Space, particularly that beyond the earth's outer atmosphere, seems to be a great big empty that never can be filled, no matter how hard we try. Infinity can only be approached, never reached.
In reading Christian Kiefer's debut novel, The Infinite Tides, this sense of a cold, distant space kept creeping into my thoughts. Some of this is due to the story revolving around a decorated astronaut, Keith Corcoran, who seems to be more at home in the mathematical figures and approximations of astronomical physics than when he is "grounded" on Earth, in Houston or Georgia, where his wife moves to after she divorces him. The distance of space finds its parallel in the distance in the relationships that Corcoran has with his wife (seen both in flashbacks and in the literary present) and his daughter, over whom he and his wife fought to define and control before her tragic death in a car accident. At times, this metaphor is realized eloquently, but sometimes it is strained to the breaking point, leaving a novel that can feel just as cold, distant, and unknowable as infinite space.
The Infinite Tides depends heavily upon Corcoran's character. Kiefer takes a major risk here in having a character that seems to have profound difficulties in understanding other people be his protagonist. Corcoran comes across as self-driven to the point of self-harm, pushing himself further and further in order to return to space, all at the expense of his relationships with his family and friends. At times, he engages in self-recriminations, but there is the sense that this is just a temporary measure before he drifts back toward his first love, that of infinite space. This type of character can make for dull passages, as they themselves seem to be only going through the perfunctory motions of eating, sleeping, working, and having sex, all while being detached from mundane quotidian concerns.
Kiefer's prose fits Corcoran's character almost perfectly. Consider the passage quoted above. Corcoran has just learned of his daughter's death and his wife's filing for divorce. Yet his deepest fear seems to be being trapped in the cul-de-sac, into bourgeois standards of what constitutes a "good life." The prose here strives for the profound in an attempt to capture the fleeing sense of the infinite in Corcoran's thoughts, but quickly it crashes into the colder reality of his situation. Corcoran is no hero; he stumbles about, blindly searching for a substitute (including an empty affair) before he finds something to latch on when he gets to know an Ukrainian couple. Yet even there the yearning does not seem to cease. Instead, it transforms itself into something even more metaphorically distant and yet somehow paradoxically closer than before.
How one receives these final scenes will depend upon the reader's patience level. Kiefer does take his time building to the final revelations (or perhaps final stages to a different perspective would be more fitting?) and at times the narrative does seem to stall, drifting through the various requisite stages of mid-life crisis before discovering itself again. Yet there are enough moments of insight into Corcoran's character and his love for space that The Infinite Tides may be an enjoyable, rewarding read for those who do like narratives that are a bit more "distant" than in most literary fictions. For myself, it was a read that was beautiful at times, yet surrounded by passages that felt too perfunctory in its treatment of Corcoran's family/career issues for it to be anything more than a flawed yet promising first novel.