19 July 2013
A week or so ago, Janet Maslin gave The Unknowns, a debut novel by Gabriel Roth, an indulgent review, suggesting that the book was good in spite of itself. The snips that she excerpted seemed literate enough, and as I was still in the mood for holiday reading, I thought I’d give it a try. I found a copy at Barnes & Noble, which I haven’t visited in quite some time, preferring to do my in-person book-buying at Crawford Doyle. I made the exception in order to buy a better Chinese dictionary (which indeed I found). As long as I was there… That was on Wednesday, and by late afternoon yesterday I had read the novel. It’s scrumptuous: engaging, smart, winsome, and funny. It’s also startlingly candid about human opportunism, or at least unusually frank about amatory calculation. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to like Eric Muller â€” I don’t think I’d like him in person â€” but I did. And The Unknowns is no mere holiday read. Even though we don’t have the rentrÃ©e littÃ©raire, publication ought to have been reserved for the fall.
Roth tells two stories in The Unknowns, separated by a stretch of time. We first meet Eric in San Francisco, after he has made his Internet fortune. He and a high-school classmate have put together a data-mining program and then sold it to an established firm for millions and millions. This has left Eric with nothing to do but tackle his long-time problem with love. It is a problem that many men seem to have, but Eric is bright enough to describe it cogently. Brief: How do you achieve intimacy with a creature so alien as a woman? Do you really want to? Eric is tantalized by the second question, because, no, in fact, he doesn’t want to â€” but he’s afraid of missing out on something. At a party, he meets a girl whom he thinks might make a suitable intimate, and, although it takes a little while, he establishes a romantic relationship with her. There is an unforeseen problem, however. I’ll come back to that.
The other story is about Eric’s high-school career. This takes place in suburban Denver. To say that there are no undiscovered adolescent humiliations is like saying that every piano has eighty-eight keys; Roth plays the horror of high school with an uncommon virtuosity all his own. Like Jennifer Egan, he can charge his scenes with enough unstated meaning to make it very easy for the reader to proceed from one to the next with a minimum of explanatory fuss. You might, like Janet Maslin, dismiss Eric as a geek or a nerd, or whatever â€” someone hopelessly clueless about social interaction. But all teenagers are hopelessly clueless; the lucky ones are merely cynical. You bring what you have to the problem, and what Eric has is a fine mind. In pursuit of a girlfriend, he constructs a database. Unfortunately, the database is contained in a notebook, and the notebook falls into the hands of others. A romantic pariah, Eric devotes himself to writing computer code in compensation. But, not to pity: Roth manages the tonal registers so beautifully that the genial narration carries us happily along: disaster recollected in tranquility.
Back to grown-up Eric. (Well, he’s in his twenties.) There are always unforeseen problems in romance, but the one that Eric has to face seems designed to put him at a disadvantage. It turns out that the girl he has chosen, Maya, was sexually abused by her father, beginning at the age of nine. At least, that is what she thinks must have happened. With the stupefying grace of an Olympic skater, Roth addresses the issue of repressed-memory, and he makes you forget that it’s an “issue.” There are two nightmares: the former child’s, of course, but also that of the parent who is blindsided by the sudden destruction, possibly for no good reason, of his or her relationship with the child. It is the uncertainty of these nightmares â€” it seems that both cannot be legitimate â€” that gives Eric a nightmare of his own, one that he experiences when he has sex with Maya. He cannot forget what she claims to remember, and yet he cannot be sure that what she claims to remember really happened. Being Eric, he has to try to find out. Next stop: intricately satisfying dÃ©nouement.
I myself am inclined to be skeptical about repressed memories of sexual abuse, but I also suspect that boys and girls deal with the trauma of abuse in different ways. What stuck in my mind as The Unknowns wound down was a question about the meaning of “sex,” which I take in a direction opposite to that of the last impeached president. To me, sex comprises all physical intimacy, at least potentially, and it is not for one party to determine whether sex is involved in any given contact. It’s for both. Once again, I see a fundamental difference in the way men and women define sex. For men, sex must involve at least one of a number of specific acts, and the acts must engage erogenous zones other than the mouth. For women, sex is not so limited. Where the sexual contact might be unwanted, men and women seem to disagree about the contact that precedes what men mean by sex: for women in such cases, this contact might be an assault. As a man, I’m included to the menu view: at least one item must be checked. As a human being, however, I understand that women can feel very differently. So, unlike Eric, I would dispose of the either/or conundrum posed by Maya’s repressed memories (more precisely, her formerly repressed memories) by resolving it into “and.” It’s possible that Maya and her father are both right. This seems to be Eric’s position near the end, when he asks Maya for permission to touch her like this and like that. His requests are vaguely ironic, but her welcoming responses are unambiguously robust.
I’ve got a memory, too.
I remember the bedroom, so it must have happened when I was between seven and twelve. Eight or nine, I’d say. The other thing that I remember is my mother, perched on the side of my bed in her nightgown, clearly intoxicated (after a dinner party or somesuch that ended long after our bedtimes), telling me how much she loved me. I remember her embraces, but not very clearly, because I was so confused and frightened. It goes without saying that a carnal assault never occurred to me. I did not know how to respond â€” how to make this unwanted attention stop â€” without making her angry. I dreaded her anger, not because it was violent but because it could be so existential: I myself was its object, not my bad behavior.
I don’t recall how the scene came to an end; I don’t remember any further embarrassment. I am certain as I can be that it never happened again. If you asked me to speculate on my mother’s motivation, I would say â€” speaking as someone familiar with morning-after remorse â€” that she got wound up at the party and wanted it to continue. My father, I suppose, didn’t want to play anymore, so she hatched one of those plots that seem so plausible and unobjectionable and indeed revelatory when you’re really loaded: she decided to be the doting mother. Or maybe it was one of those spells, not quite rare, when she was dissatisfied with her husband. In any case, what she was doing, perched on the bed, was trying something out as a way of keeping the night going. It was very inappropriate and also very harmless. The situation might have been unprecedented, but my discomfort was not: there were years and years of not knowing quite what to say or do, and being made to feel wicked and worthless. (Later, almost as smart as Eric, I had my revenge, and got very good at saying the cruelest, most painful things. I ought to be ashamed, but I’m glad I got it out of my system. I’ve met too many unhappy adults who didn’t.) This lurid experience was a unique moment. I recount it merely to suggest that, had our genders been reversed, I might have grown up to be Maya.