"There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know."
This, from misunderstood genius Donald Rumsfeld in 2002, preceded the Iraq invasion and decade-long war in the region. In the context of this fine debut novel – traversing the Nineties and our narrator's suburban school years, and San Francisco c.2003 – it's an admission of qualified ignorance.
Eric has escaped from his school computer room to become a dotcom millionaire, but he's yet to "hack the girlfriend problem". There are too many things he doesn't know about his latest crush, Maya Marcom. Like, how soon is too soon to email? What tone should he adopt – jokey, or sexy? And did her father really abuse her as a child, as she claims via repressed memory therapy? Is the truth ever really attainable – and which truth is that?
Rich yet ultimately bored, Eric has managed to invert the traditional parent-child dependency. His father, who abandoned him and left the family penniless, now wants him to invest in his hopeless start-up. Eric refuses, but pays off the fledgling company's debts anyway. At one point, this love-hate relationship is crystallised: "I'm self-invented… I had no one to learn from."
Things with Maya go well, at first, and the politics of dating are well managed by Roth. As the mask slips, Eric's anxiety narrows. "I do want to have sex with her – for the obvious reasons, and to seal the deal. But more than that I want to avoid wrecking everything."
Eric, of course, does wreck everything. When you don't have all the facts mistakes are unavoidable. It's perhaps too much to liken his relationship's trajectory to that of Iraq – the UN inspectors on a hiding to nothing; the inexorability of Operation Shock and Awe; the futility of declaring "mission accomplished" – but Roth doesn't overplay it.
Instead, The Unknowns is an altogether more human affair. "I am momentarily paralysed," Roth writes, "stretched across the gulf between my life's twin goals: experiencing uncompromised happiness and not being a loser." Eric, like most of us, is somewhere in between.
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