The semifictional memoir of a 42-year-old astronomy professor, following the underlying philosophy of his choices amid an existential crisis.
Peter Langman starts out at a university in Boulder, Colorado, as a tenured professor who challenges his students to find unconventional answers to basic questions of existence. He’s fond of asking them open-ended questions, such as “Why the universe?” Though surrounded by attractive young women, Langman is principled enough not to get involved with students while they’re taking his courses. He has any number of desirable liaisons to choose from, including an open relationship with a woman named Susan Calder who lives in Denver. He enjoys stoned, philosophical conversations and seems to have all the creature comforts in order, a stable path ahead of him. But something dissatisfies him. He sees his colleagues stuck in a rut, not living freely or to their full potential, and debates whether to make a drastic change, to quit and just drift wherever life takes him. That’s where the titular surfing reference comes in: Langman is a body surfer, which he conflates with his interests in astronomy and philosophy. After much debate, he decides to quit and winds up driving around in a van, having somewhat random affairs and communing with nature. He also confronts larger questions when his father dies, visits his faraway family, climbs mountains, talks to strangers, and goes wherever his whims take him. Geographically, Langman covers a lot of ground; intellectually and emotionally, he doesn’t go very far. He starts out questioning whether he should ditch it all and just surf, on a cosmic level, and in the first half of the book he repeatedly decides that’s what he should do before he finally does it. Nearly every conversation deals with the same topic and ends with the same decision. Then, when he does finally leave, he has that same conversation with a new group of characters, about how one needs to surf through the universe and not fight the waves: “…if you don’t ride the waves, nothing happens. And the cosmic surf doesn’t necessarily end on any beach. It rolls forever.” It does finally bring him to the mate he was searching for, someone he called “Jenny,” whom he’d seen in his dreams. Evidently, the philosophy is that there is a random design to things, so when Langman does fulfill his quest to be happy, there hasn’t been much of a real arc. The path he’s going to take seems obvious nearly from the start and comes to a predictable end.
A repetitive central metaphor and a trajectory that’s clear early on, which makes the journey feel short.