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Gabriel Roth
The Unknowns
Reagan Arthur / Little, Brown / Hachette Book Group
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-316-22328-7
Publication Date: 07-02-2013
216 Pages; $25.00
Date Reviewed: 08-04-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  General Fiction  

Humans are a narrative species, but most of us manage to push our narrators to the back of our minds and keep them out of everyday interactions. Not everybody can do this, and for those who can't the squeaking hamster wheel of consciousness can become an almost unbearable burden. Eric Muller does not simply think about his life. He narrates it, telling a story in Gabriel Roth's first novel 'The Unknowns' that is by turns hilarious, heartbreaking, light-hearted and dark-minded.

Eric tells his story in the first person, of course. He could never, ever, get away from "I," but that's just the beginning of his problems. When we first meet Eric, he's a hyper-self-conscious twenty-something millionaire. Turns out the hamster wheel is good for something after all, in this case, computer interface design and programming. By virtue of talent and luck, being in the right place at the right time, he and a partner managed to sell their work for millions of dollars. Having solved the money problem, he's still not managed to find a girlfriend. This proves to be much more difficult for Eric than getting rich quick in Silicon Valley.

'The Unknowns' finds much of its strength in Eric's narrative voice, and Roth has this nailed perfectly. Every page offers readers the sorts of sentences that they will want to write down or read aloud, especially if you, like Eric, have that sort of voice-over narration running in your mind. Roth is particularly adept at humor; 'The Unknowns' will make you laugh out loud a lot, but this is also because Roth balances his humor with splashes of darkness and authentic human pain. And that pain is made all the more real by virtue of the smart prose that captures those feelings of uncertainty and doubt that we can ever really, really know those around us. In the end, they are The Unknowns.

Eric's story is a quick read that lingers long after you finish the book. Roth takes a fairly simple plot and cuts it up into a sophisticated psychological examination of modern moirés and foibles. The book begins as Eric meets his first true, deep, love, Maya, at a party, where he is desperately trying to feel comfortable. But as the novel progresses, we meet his father, now divorced from his mother, and then ratchet back into Eric's formative years in high school, when he tried to "hack the girlfriend problem." Roth's storytelling and plot tension are seamless and endlessly entertaining. He has a lot of fun with post-millennial romance, before social media. Part of the appeal of the novel is its vision of accelerated history. It's set just ten years ago, but in what is clearly a very different society.

Along the way, Roth crafts a gallery of characters whom the reader really enjoys being around even if they're not people you'd want in your own life. Fathers don't fare well here, but Roth knows how to bring you to the edge of the embarrassed wince without plunging into an abyss of repulsion. He might let you glimpse that abyss, though.

But most of the characters you'll find in 'The Unknowns' are entertainingly-rendered denizens of Northern California and Silicon Valley, and they're a lot of fun to be around even as seen through Eric's hyperactive eye. The romance arc of the novel is fun, perhaps enlightening if you've not been there in that time, and achingly bitter and sweet. This is a fantastic portrait of a time and place that is under-represented in current literature, given the effect that these folks have on our lives. Roth has a real feel for the mindset of computer programmers and software designers. A number of readers might feel that reading this book is akin to glancing in a particularly accurate mirror.

'The Unknowns' is set against the backdrop of the early portion of the Iraq War, and takes its title from Donald Rumsfeld's famous quote about "known unknowns and unknown unknowns." While this is clearly in the running as the lamest excuse in the history of war, there's also a very important and true nugget here. In order to behave responsibly, in order to make good decisions, we need to know the boundaries of our knowledge. We need to know that when we label an ocean with the tag HERE BE MONSTERS that we're declaring our own ignorance.

This is the ultimate problem not just for Eric, but for all of us. That hamster is running on its squeaky wheel in a cage all by itself. Unless or until we can take a leap of faith, of love, all we can truly know is in our own minds. If we're not careful, if we're not able to take risks, then every other human being out there, the potential friends and lovers, the future wives and husbands — they're all out there beyond our ability to know. If you can't hear the voices of others over the sound of the voice in your head, than those others will always and forever be The Unknowns.

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