Beneath the jovial exterior of The Unknowns is a serious troubling core. On the surface, it’s about an awkward computer geek who makes a fortune to become a rich, awkward computer geek: Nerd do well. Eric Muller sees life as series of variables. Any given situation is a mathematical conundrum waiting to be broken down. Given enough information about the system’s inputs, Eric can provide something approximating a solution. Whether he can implement it, is an entirely different matter.
Eric narrates his tale from two points in time. His school days, and his recent past, just after the internet boom of 2002. He is a deliciously neurotic narrator and his tale put me in mind of one of my favourite books of 2012, Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander. The school years sections also reminded me of Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich. The backstory fills in how Eric honed his computational skills with particular focus on girlfriend acquisition. He manages to become highly knowledgeable yet remains utterly clueless. It makes for amusing reading. In 2002, now a millionaire, Eric is still single, and money has not made the process any easier. Then he meets Maya.
‘A subtle smile in her eyes that says I see through you entirely and find you benign but a bit ridiculous.’
Maya is in a league of her own, but much to Eric’s astonishment, she likes him and his quirks. A relationship ensues, which, with humorous effect, Eric analyses to the nth degree. It is in his relationship with Maya that the novel butts up against something darker. Maya was abused by her father. Her mother died when she was young, and after some years, Maya’s father began to come to her for solace, and something infinitely more sinister. Normally the use of child abuse in a novel irritates me. Firstly, I read to be entertained, not appalled, and secondly, it’s an easy, lazy device, intended to provoke a visceral reaction with minimal effort on the part of the author. This does not apply to The Unknowns
Maya’s revelation provides Eric with a set a variables that he has never encountered before. How should he incorporate this new found information into the actions surrounding his relationship? It is a subtle examination of the terrible and lasting upheaval caused by abuse, but Roth takes it one step further. Maya’s memories of her father’s actions had been suppressed. It was only through contact with a college psychoanalyst, that she uncovered these events. These recovered memories cause Eric great anxiety. A man so competent in dealing with 1s and 0s cannot come to terms with the grey, indistinct and malleable nature of memory. Eric becomes obsessed with how the unknowns become known. The novel develops into a fascinating examination of memory and trust.
Eric’s relationship with his own parents forms an important counterpoint to his relationship with Maya. His own upbringing was normal but dysfunctional. Now he has great success, he sees his parents in a different light, and sometimes he wishes he didn’t have to. As I approach middle-age and my own parents pass into their 70s, I found many parts of this deeply affecting. We outgrow our parents, yet we are always part of them. When I look at my own boys, Roth’s words feel all the more poignant. A slim but sharp volume.
My copy of this book was obtained though the Amazon Vine program