What I know about The Unknowns

20 May 2014

Looking for your next read? This might just be it: The Unknowns by Gabriel Roth is a furiously funny novel about a dotcom millionaire who hasn't quite mastered the art of dating. And it has a dark side...

There are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. So said Donald Rumsfeld in February 2002, and so might you say about the twist at the heart of this novel.

Imagine Woody Allen writing A Visit from the Goon Squad and you’ll have some idea of the pin-sharp observation and playful neurosis of Gabe Roth’s fabulously funny novel, The Unknowns. Sebastian Faulks called it ‘fast, funny and never losing its poise’ and the Guardian said The Unknowns was ‘impressive, scarily assured and really funny.’ But beyond the freshness and wit of its prose (which really is some of the tightest and whip-smart writing I’ve read in a long time), I find this is a book I return to again and again because of the dark subject at its heart.

Roth has taken as his focus a social misfit, the geeky school boy and programming enthusiast who is rocketed to wealth because he was talented at just the right time. As an adult, money has equipped Eric Muller with a series of social aids, but it doesn’t help him adjust his analytical gaze on those around him, and watching this sharply intelligent plot-maker negotiate the world of relationships is both entertaining and distressing:

It’s not easy to pursue the most alluring woman in North America when you’re a misfiring circuit of over-analytical self-doubt and she has a way with a killer line and a perfectly raised eyebrow. Even, that is when you’re a dot com millionaire. But as Eric Muller refines his email technique and his date patter, he finds there’s more to Maya Marcom than meets the eye.

When Maya reveals a past of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, Eric finds himself obsessed with the texture of Maya’s memories, the missing links and strange black holes, and he looks to an old ally – the internet – to discover more. As the weeks progress and Eric and Maya’s relationship develops, Eric is plagued by thoughts of false memory syndrome and the stories of Maya’s abuse begin to haunt every level of their relationship. Eventually it becomes too much, and Eric goes in search of Maya’s father and the truth. Donald Marcom is a man charged with proving a negative, and before long Eric realises his terrible mistake in seeking him out: Eric finds himself caught between two versions of events, neither of which can be proved, but his betrayal will threaten the most important relationship Eric has ever had.

Roth’s handling of the issue at the centre of Eric and Maya’s break-up is brilliantly light. He takes a serious subject – child abuse and false memory syndrome – but identifies an entirely different focus for his novel: Eric’s own emotional intelligence being more important than the impossible-to-prove facts of his girlfriend’s childhood. It’s not just Eric’s relationship with Maya that comes under scrutiny. In fact a hollowness and deep sadness pervade the novel’s wry, perceptive take on Eric’s relations with his parents: Roth expertly leads us to consider the roles of parent and grown child, and the endless circulation of disappointment in one’s own family.

In The Unknowns Roth mines a deeply analytical mind, that of a man who approaches all areas of his life with the same code-cracking intent. In many ways this is a classic geek-meets-girl story, with all the hilarity and neuroses that Roth’s sharply witty and stylish prose injects, but it is also a peculiarly perceptive novel about the darkness of the human mind and the intricate negotiations that make up our relationships.

Read chapter one of The Unknowns

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