Migraines and Astronauts: A Review of The Infinite Tides by Christian Kiefer
Astronauts are larger than life. They represent the best of us and escape the mundane bounds of gravity and atmosphere to explore the vast, dark beyond. They are adventurers traveling out to the very edge of everything that is, everything known and everything mysterious and returning as lauded heroes. But, as is all too easily forgotten, astronauts are also ordinary men and women and, as such, not in any way immune to earthly tragedy. Christian Kiefer knows this and in his remarkable debut novel, The Infinite Tides, he shows us the achingly-earth-bound heartbreaks of Keith Corcoran: astronaut, failed husband, grieving father, migraine sufferer.
Corcoran, a socially-clumsy engineer and mathematician, has spent his life preparing to go into space and, at the very moment of his success, he receives devastating news from earth that not only leaves him bereft as a parent but also ends his marriage and ushers in a cycle of migraine headaches that ends his very first mission. Crippled with pain, Corcoran cannot even take enjoyment in his brief stay on the International Space Station, but is instead forced to endure his suffering in a cramped sleeping compartment “weeping tiny diamond stars into the recycled atmosphere” as the rest of the mission goes forward without him.
The balance of the book concerns Corcoran’s sublunary struggles to come to terms with not only his profound loss and newfound, physical pain (which Kiefer neatly makes analogous to his psychic trauma) but, also, with the sudden loss of his own identity which was completely wrapped up in his concept of himself as an astronaut—a career now lost to him forever. He feels the weight of things—like gravity—as he wanders through the wreckage of his life. And that wreckage is comprised, pretty much in total, of an empty house that must be fixed up and sold and a leftover sofa his ex-wife bought and that, he realizes, he never liked in the first place. And these things are, themselves, constrained by the artificial mazes terrestrial life throws up around him in the form of strip malls and housing developments and Starbucks stores. All opposed to the airy weightless of space to which Corcoran longs to return.
Kiefer’s prose in The Infinite Tides is as muscular and assured as anything I’ve read of DeLillo, and shows the skill of not only a gifted storyteller but also a craftsman. He has a keen eye for detail and an obvious empathy but is still enough of a realist that he never allows his narrative to veer off into the pathetic or maudlin. Kiefer has said he’d put in forty-one drafts and that level of polish is apparent, especially in his uncannily precise descriptions of pain. In this passage, which has Corcoran still on the ISS, suffering with his migraines, Kiefer writes:
He could hear everything: the humming and buzzing of the whole craft where it spun in its seventeen-thousand-miles-per-hour orbit path, two hundred mils above the surface, his vision warped with white and black zigzagging lines that drifted and shook and in the midst of that shaking he pulled himself once again into that otherworld of numbers, trying now to invent mathematical situations that might serve to bring him back from whatever edge he had come to but each time he was dragged right over that edge again, back into pain.
The experience was much the same as the previous evening, this time with the anticipation of what was coming like being drawn slowly into a saw blade, unable to move, unable even to avert his eyes, but watching the blade come closer and closer until it tore his flesh at last.
In other words: God’s Own Migraine suffered at some horridly high level on NASA’s Garn Scale (named for US Senator Jake Garn, whose space sickness was so bad that a level of “One Garn” now jokingly represents the very sickest a human can possibly be without being dead).
But The Infinite Tides is not all tragedy, longing, and headaches. There is high comedy and low as evinced in the characters of a lonely, predacious and ultimately vindictive housewife next door and in Peter Kovalenko—ex-astronomer from the Ukraine, now Target employee—and his family with whom Corcoran develops a sweet friendship that gradually brings him back, if not to himself, then to the man he’s going to become post-orbit.
In The Infinite Tides, Christian Kiefer has crafted a simple story of loss and grief and disorientation in strings and sets of sentences as gorgeous as the spread of stars and as precise and freighted with meaning as any calculation of Celestial mechanics.