Sunday, October 7, 2012

THE INFINITE TIDES by Christian Kiefer: A Review and An Analysis

First the review:

The Infinite Tides is a very good first novel by author, poet, scholar, song writer, teacher, and musician Christian Kiefer.  Kind of a renaissance man, and a fellow longtime member of the Cormac McCarthy Society to boot.

It is a novel of a man named Keith, who becomes lost in space, an astronaut whose teenage daughter dies while he is in orbit, and then before he can return, his wife of seventeen years has an affair and moves to Atlanta.  Keith returns to an almost empty house, having lost his family, his worldly possessions, his identity as an up-and-coming astronaut, and his sense of direction.

The novel slides into flashback and provides clues into Keith's personality and into his fascination with numbers, fractals, zero sum equations, infinity and the void, lack and the like.  Kiefer's forte is in creating images, describing altered states of mind, dwelling on analogies.

We soon meet the neighbors, for on the surface this is a tragicomic midlife crisis novel of the suburbs.  Think of Richard Ford's The Sportswriter, or Richard Russo's Straight Man.  But I prefer to read Kiefer's novel at the level of parable, considering the supporting characters as archetypes.

Why?  Because we don't judge archetypes.  They are what they are.  Refuse to consider them as archetypes, and they either become stereotypes or characters who must stand on character, and with one exception (Luda), Kiefer's people don't do well in this regard.  But The Infinite Tides works just fine as a parable of damaged materialist Man seeking purchase with no solid ground to walk on.

There is no furniture to fill the emptiness of the house.  There is no material substance in the protagonist's mind that he can hang his hat on.  As in outer space, he discovers himself floating in the internal vacuum of his mind, with little furniture to cling to.

It is a damn good novel and has already been widely read and widely reviewed--acclaimed by esteemed critics and such authors as Pam Houston and T. C. Boyle.

Here's a link to the author's soundtrack for the novel, over at the Largehearted Boy website.  Among other things, Christian Kiefer says, "The headspace of The Infinite Tides needed to be vast and beautiful, even while the landscape of the novel itself was sometimes claustrophobic."

Picture that and take a good look at the dustjacket on the hardcover first edition. 

Here's a link to the Washington Post review.

And here's a link to the book trailer.

And some nice links provided by Largehearted Boy:
the author's website
The Brooklyn Rail review
Dazed Rambling review
Entertainment Weekly review
Huffington Post review
Kirkus review
Lance Weller review
Of Books and Reading review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Tzer Island review
Sacramento Bee interview with the author

And now for some analysis, just a sidebar rant.  If you have not yet read this excellent book, do not read beyond this point, for there are spoilers ahead.

There are so many good things in this book that I don't feel bad ranting about the one thing I do not like about it.  I feel this way about some other books I praise too--Cormac McCarthy's novels are prime examples.

While I enjoyed and admired Kiefer's musings on the math equations, emptiness, the infinite, and the ethereal, I decry the lack of love in these characters--except for Keith's friend Luda who points out to him, at the end of the novel, that she loves her husband even though she recognizes that he mostly loves himself and may be untrue to her.  She blames it on his being a man, as if all men are macho egoists and incapable of love.  Which made me think of Pam Houston's Cowboys Are My Weakness.

Does the protagonist, Keith, learn anything from Luda's talk with him?  We have no idea, but the tide is coming in, and that would be our wager.

Loving is the one thing that lets us rise above the finite.  As on the dustjacket, Kiefer contrasts the infinity above with the cul-de-sac below,  but if and when love exists in a house in the cul-de-sac, infinity is there also.

Unconditional love sees no bounds, no end to it.  We look through love's eyes into eternity.  If Keith loved his wife before he went to space, he should still love her when he comes back, regardless of whether she loves him or not.  Whether she's with someone else or not.  Shakespeare had it right in the sonnets--true love does not alter, it is unconditional.

What passes for love in our popular culture is possessive love, a conditional agreement and hence temporary.  Just another capitalist trading commodity.  Too many people say "I love you" when what they really mean is "I desire you."  As lovers age, a lot of people decide to trade them in like cars, seeking out the newer, sportier models, say--a better bargain.

But not all people are like that.

The word "love" appears in The Infinite Tides, a midlife crisis tale, just 13 times, seldom in the context of love.  By comparison, the word "love" appears in Richard Russo's first novel, Straight Man, also a midlife crisis tale, 48 times.  It appears in Richard Ford's The Sportswriter, another midlife crisis novel, 72 times.  I'm not sure what this means, but it is interesting.

Some authors deliberately understate the love in their novels and depend upon nuanced implications and the reader's own inferences.  Some authors almost expunge love from their writing vocabularies. Cormac McCarthy has yet to write the word "love" more than a dozen times in any one novel, in any context.  Not in All the Pretty Horses and not in The Road, though we know through his other words that the love between father and son in The Road is unconditional.

Love is not real estate, it is no material thing.  But it is what matters.

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