In Gabriel Roth’s elegant and keenly perceptive debut, The Unknowns, a nerdy software developer faces a steep learning curve when navigating his first real romantic relationship.
What were your inspirations for this novel?
The first was the voice, which I developed in some earlier nonfiction work—[a voice] that had the property of thinking about and overanalyzing everything. When I adapted this voice for fiction, it turned into this acute self-consciousness about social interactions and eventually became the voice of Eric Mueller. The second is the scene at the end of chapter one where Eric is at a party, sees a girl he recognizes, and pretends not to recognize her, unsure the whole time if she even recognizes him. In some sense the whole story grew out of that moment.
Eric is definitely a geek with moments of terrible awkwardness, especially in the middle school chapters, but the adult Eric is rather charming. How did you approach this contrast?
The novel is in part an observation of the process of learning and making your brain better at something, which Eric manages to do from the middle school scenes up to the modern chapters—and also something I was doing as I was figuring out how to write a novel. As Eric learns to interact with people, he has some failures and some successes. I hadn’t really seen the latter represented as much in fiction and so I wanted to give him those moments of triumph and have them be satisfying and thrilling for him and the reader, because that’s what those experiences are like in real life.
The novel takes place in 2002 amid the debate surrounding the case for war in Iraq, which parallels Eric’s growing confusion about his new girlfriend Maya’s complicated past. How did this political aspect get worked into the novel?
When I began conceiving the book, it wasn’t too long after this period when everyone was having the same argument about whether the U.S. should invade Iraq. I became interested in the different levels of ignorance in these debates. Everyone taking part had only read some of the available information, which was really only a subset of the existing material. And even if you could magically have perfect information, thinking about a project such as an invasion involves speculating about a chaotic system that’s nestled within a bunch of other chaotic systems; there’s just no way to avoid becoming suffocated by uncertainty. And yet, everybody had a firm opinion on it, including me, and within a couple of years, it became clear that one opinion was right and one was wrong. It was that reality that first got me thinking about the nature of uncertainty and having to act in uncertain situations.
How would you characterize your novel’s genre?
People might begin reading the book and get the idea that it’s a particular kind of romantic comedy but then you read on and realize it’s a book that starts as a comedy and transforms into a tragedy. I’m hopeful that will prove to be a satisfying experience for readers.