Kathleen Alcott moved to New York City for the same reason a lot of young people do: adventure. “I thought that many people move to this city every year, why shouldn’t I be one of them?” she says.
But there was a bit more to her decision than a simple whim; the move was also a way of challenging herself. She’d been living in San Francisco, where she found herself drifting in and out of her friends’ leases, subsisting on five-for-a-dollar avocados, and whiling away hours just sitting in parks. It was too easy. New York, she imagined (correctly), wouldn’t allow for such indulgences.
To say this choice worked out for her would be something of an understatement. She sold her first novel, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets (2012), not long after relocating and quickly started another as she tried to understand her new, very different “urban ecosystem.” That attempt eventually became her new novel, Infinite Home, which tells the story of four tenants in a Brooklyn walk-up, each of whom is, in one way or another, profoundly limited in his or her ability to cope with the outside world.
Arriving in New York, Alcott was struck by how much more important it was to have a stable home, a place to escape from the harsh realities of the city. “I had this uncle who used to say, ‘You know there’s something with New York because if you slept outside you would die,’ ” she recalls. He was joking, but she started to think about what would happen to people who didn’t have the kinds of resources you need to get by in an increasingly cutthroat city.
Alcott perfectly captures Brooklyn’s current state of flux, as rising prices have forced out the people who’ve been there for decades. Her characters are acutely aware that they’ve lucked into one of the only places in the area that they can still afford and that would accept such odd tenants. “When everything around a center is constantly changing, growing roots is a little bit more difficult,” Alcott points out.
Though its characters reside in New York, Infinite Home is decidedly not a falling-in-love-with-the-city book. The characters rarely leave their shared home and show little enthusiasm for the city’s quirks. It features no awe-inspiring views of the skyline or jealousy-inducing adventures through glamorous parties, only a small, claustrophobic corner of Brooklyn.
Or rather, that’s the case until the arrival of their landlady’s rapacious son upends the building’s fragile stasis, forcing the characters out into the natural world. Alcott writes evocatively of the forests and hills of California and Tennessee and the way that great natural beauty can alter your perspective of the world. The novel is likely to make you long for the wide-open spaces of the country’s wilder corners. Its author certainly does.
A California native, Alcott admits to dreaming of the West Coast every day and speaks with reverence about the state’s unique geography. The drama of the natural world there encourages “a certain freedom of mind,” she says. “I feel like a different person when I’m there.”
Before moving to New York, Alcott had lived in the state most of her life: she grew up in Petaluma, attended college at Chapman University in Orange County, and then spent a brief time in San Francisco (before the current tech boom, she’s quick to point out). She speaks fondly but astutely about how different it is from the East Coast, from the way people talk about themselves and their lives to what behavior is considered acceptable to the sheer newness of everything. “The process of self-reinvention is not only welcome, but encouraged,” Alcott says.
The portion of Infinite Home set in California takes place mostly at a commune in the Trinity Alps, which was started by a woman who, in the chaos at the end of the 1960s, reinvented herself so thoroughly that she erased her past almost entirely. Growing up in Northern California, Alcott witnessed firsthand the divide between the majority who settled into a normal life after the hedonism of that period and the few who decided to opt out permanently. “As the children of baby boomers,” she says, “we can’t help but be haunted a little bit by the upheaval that almost but didn’t quite happen.”
Alcott’s parents straddled the divide between radicals and realists; they were both journalists who reported on the counterculture. Her father, in particular, was a born-and-bred reporter—both his parents worked in journalism too—so narrative played a huge role in her young life. As a child, she would tell stories in tandem with her dad, inventing sentences that he would build on. “Growing up,” she says, “it really felt as though [narrative] was the talent that I had been given and that I was responsible to it.” There was even an admittedly uncorroborated family legend that they were descended from Luisa May Alcott.
Then, the summer she was 15, Alcott’s father and stepfather died in quick succession. She was bereft. “I was plunged into solitude and ontology,” she says, “and I just started reading and writing a great deal very seriously because I think that is what I felt I could do at that point.” By the time she graduated from college, she’d already written her first novel.
That novel, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, explores the relationship between a young girl named Ida and the two brothers, Jackson and James, who live next door to her. Inseparable from early childhood, the three form a sort of makeshift family unit to compensate for the fact that each family has only one parent. The question of how we cope with never having had people who love us or with losing those people fascinates Alcott and is vital to the story of Infinite Home as well.
With one exception, the occupants of the titular apartment building are all profoundly alone. The members of the family who owns it have died or scattered, leaving only matriarch Edith, who is slowly slipping into dementia. Former comedian Edward still mourns his relationship with a woman he pushed away years ago. Thomas, who was an up-and-coming artist before a stroke rendered most of his left side immobile, avoids his friends and refuses to make any new work. Finally, there’s Adeleine, an agoraphobe who takes refuge in stories and objects from a bygone era, isolating herself socially as well as physically.
Alcott’s most impressive creation is Paulie, the one tenant who is not suffering from pervasive loneliness, although he has his own affliction that sets him apart from most of the world: Williams syndrome, a rare neurodevelopmental disorder. Paulie’s facility with language and his endless enthusiasm endear him to even the misanthropic Edward, but he’s unable to care for himself in basic ways. With their parents gone, his sister Claudia steps in to pick up the slack—coming over every day to bring him food, help him clean, and take him on outings to the zoo—much to the chagrin of her husband. Claudia has always been “buttoned-up,” as Alcott puts it, but she quickly gets sucked into the others’ dysfunction, becoming a vital part of the building’s improvised community.
Alcott hesitates to pick a favorite among her characters—“I think that would indicate a weakness in terms of my role,” she says—but admits to a particular fondness for Claudia. When Alcott was about halfway through writing Infinite Home, her mother, the last member of her immediate family, died, so she felt especially invested in Claudia’s attempts to keep her family together. “When we lose people,” Alcott says, “we feel this obligation to keep their stories and to go on telling them and to make sure that the small details of their lives are not forgotten.”
Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer in California.