If you’re like me, you have a blind faith in logic and reason as organizational principles for decoding life’s messy tangles. When you know all there is to know about a problematic situation, the answer will surely make itself clear. But how does this worldview break down when you’re dealing with human variables—does reason have any place in love?
In Gabriel Roth’s debut novel The Unknowns, Eric Muller is like me. He seeks information—about people, social situations, memory—with a computer programmer’s mathematical mind. Because a computer programmer is, in fact, exactly what he is, and when we meet him in San Francisco in the early aughts, he has just become a multi-millionaire in his early-twenties from the sale of a piece of software. Though he’s still adjusting to his newfound wealth, and a cavernous, cold, luxury condo, his not having to work has at least allowed him to focus his energies on meeting women.
At a friend’s small birthday party, Eric meets Maya, with whom he is immediately smitten, though he isn’t able to pursue her until weeks later. He intentionally “bumps” into her at an architectural convention where he knows she’ll be, and finds out that she is an investigative journalist for the local alternative weekly. A few days later he sends her an e-mail: Please now tell me three things I don’t know and wouldn’t guess about you.
Roth then dives into Eric’s own self-analysis regarding the flirtatious note:
Gimmicky, sure, but that’s the point: the obviousness of the gambit, the absence of any pseudoplatonic justification for contacting her—these convey boldness, decisiveness, as though I’m in possession of a natural confidence that obviates the need for ruses and stratagems….I have no idea how anyone managed to have sex before email.
While the book’s main drive is the relationship arc between Eric and Maya, Roth jumps back and forth, every other chapter, to Eric’s adolescence in suburban Denver, where, as a child of divorce, he finds solace in computer programming. And although these portions of the narrative provide some of the book’s most keenly observed humor, and are given equal attention throughout, they’re mainly in service of the present day story, setting up and foreshadowing various of logic problems Eric encounters in adulthood: detailing Eric’s relationships with his depressing parents; his general outlook toward gathering data and understanding people (involving a hilariously detailed and cringe-inducing notebook of collected statistics Eric keeps on his female classmates); and specific interpersonal conundrums, like a classmate’s question of “how [it is] that you can feel so close to someone and then all of a sudden find out that you don’t really know them at all?”
Back in the main narrative, Eric learns that he has to answer this last one for himself, when he finds out that Maya is harboring disturbing memories from her own childhood. The uncertainty of her foggy remembrances troubles him; but whereas Maya, as in her reporting, is able to collect disparate pieces of information—and the lack thereof—and construct an empathetic and humane story, Eric is unable to leave any stone unturned in his quest for clarity regarding her past.
As frustrating as Eric’s crusade is, it’s hard to find it unsympathetic—I recognize what’s driving him is curiosity, and a desire to get closer to what he sees as the core of Maya’s being. But maybe he never considered all of the iterations of his search for this information. Or maybe he failed to see that there is something in love that’s more important than logic—some nebulous force that has to be felt rather than calculated. And for those of us that put faith in reason, that not-knowing is a hard thing to come to terms with, but it’s a concept that Roth makes a strong case for, one that ultimately makes this book so incisive and moving.