After his lunar landing, Buzz Aldrin fell into depression and alcoholism, unable to deal with the realities of being back on Earth and knowing the most significant moment of his life was already behind him. The same is true for astronaut Keith Corcoran, the protagonist of Christian Kiefer’s debut novel, The Infinite Tides. A fictional version of Aldrin’s memoir Magnificent Desolation could be compelling, but Kiefer makes the story dull and repetitive while decorating it with nonsensical plot points and flowery language about math.
A mathematic genius whose synesthesia gives him an intimate relationship with numbers, Keith always dreamed of being an astronaut, and acted single-mindedly in pursuit of that goal. As he finally arrives at the International Space Station to install a robotic arm he designed himself, he learns that his daughter has been killed in a car accident and his wife has been having an affair and wants a divorce. He spends the rest of the mission crippled by debilitating migraines, and after returning to Earth, he’s exiled from Houston to take some time off and cope with his grief. He spends this time in a generic suburb drinking beer and smoking pot with his astronomer neighbor and getting blowjobs from the incredibly sexy young mom across the street. Also, there might be a comet on a collision course with Earth, but no one’s really paying attention.
Kiefer tries to show readers how Keith’s math skills affect his view of the world by giving him an entire internal monologue that operates in terms of numbers, trajectories, or fractals. That just serves to pad a book in which nothing really happens. There’s nothing profound in the pages filled with Keith going to Starbucks, hoping he can go back to work, then arbitrarily not going back to work, then trying to sell his house and having to talk to an exterminator about clearing up some termites. His psychologist periodically calls, but it’s never clear after the book’s midpoint whether he’s gotten a clean bill of health, has stopped therapy altogether, or is still receiving treatment that Kiefer doesn’t bother to portray.
The book is set in the height of the Great Recession, and Keith frequently moans about the state of the world around him. Yet a house is built on the empty lot he likes to hang out in, and he’s able to find his neighbor a job with one email. Kiefer’s doesn’t let the setting he’s already laid out get in the way of his symbolism, or his tiny threads of plot. His debut aims for the stars, but it never takes off.