Gabriel Roth’s The Unknowns follows Eric Muller, a young computer programmer and newly minted Silicone Valley millionaire (thanks to the sale of his software to a larger consumer company) through the peaks and valleys of his relationship with Maya Marcom, a young reporter whom he first meets at a friend’s party. For most of his life, Eric has been a socially awkward outcast, and has only recently learned the basics of navigating complex social situations, like parties, dates and friendship. He does it by carefully analyzing other’s responses and calibrating his own to achieve his desired results (mostly finding attractive young women to either sleep with or, briefly, date). This painstaking methodology has garnered modicum of success, but falling for Maya leaves him unsure of what to do – she anticipates his every move – and he becomes even less certain as he negotiates her dark history, and the vagaries and contradictions of falling in love.
I pretty much read The Unknowns with my heart in my throat, very nervous for the main character. The novel alternates between Eric’s newer more polished millionaire version of himself and the geek in high school who had no friends, an awkward relationship with his father, and an idea of keeping a notebook cataloging the attributes of his female peers which just seems destined to go painfully wrong. It is easy to make the connection between the boy who was searching for a way to understand women, and the man who will inevitably run into problems because he hasn’t figured out the values and nuances of trust, loyalty, love and other equally complex notions.
The problem that surfaces with Maya is unique in that there aren’t any clear answers that Eric can see, and his nature makes it impossible for him to leave well enough alone. The Unknowns made me think a lot about the trust, or the appearance of such, we put into people we know and their interpretations of their own histories, and how important our interpretations are of them. So much is “unknown”, and can only be negotiated in the attachments we form with one another.
Eric’s highly evolved problem solving nature, and unambiguous thinking is put to severe strain. I loved the relationship analysis and commentary on modern culture. Roth is spot on. He places the reader so firmly in Eric’s head space that it is a little painful to be cognizant of the problems he’ll face in ways he cannot imagine, but that’s also part of the fun in this astutely observed, intelligent novel. Recommended.