Eric Muller has been trying to hack the girlfriend problem for half his life. As a teenage geek, he discovered his gift for programming computers-but his attempts to understand women only confirm that he's better at writing code than connecting with human beings. Brilliant, neurotic, and lonely, Eric spends high school in the solitary glow of a screen.
By his early twenties, Eric's talent has made him a Silicon Valley millionaire. He can coax girls into bed with ironic remarks and carefully timed intimacies, but hiding behind wit and empathy gets lonely, and he fears that love will always be out of reach.
So when Eric falls for the beautiful, fiercely opinionated Maya Marcom, and she miraculously falls for him too, he's in new territory. But the more he learns about his perfect girlfriend's unresolved past, the further Eric's obsessive mind spirals into confusion and doubt. Can he reconcile his need for order and logic with the mystery and chaos of love?
This brilliant debut ushers Eric Muller-flawed, funny, irresistibly endearing-into the pantheon of unlikely heroes. With an unblinking eye for the absurdities and horrors of contemporary life, Gabriel Roth gives us a hilarious and heartbreaking meditation on self consciousness, memory, and love.
A geek turned dot-com millionaire tries to hack the irrational pathways of love in Roth's memorable debut. For high school computer nerd Eric Muller, discovering the opposite sex is a "revelation." Determined to apply the scientific method to landing a girl, he begins "gathering data" on the opposite sex, only to have his embarrassing research exposed. After college, however, a Silicon Valley windfall gives Eric enough confidence and money to help even a geek get a girl into bed. But when Eric meets Maya, a reporter, real intimacy is complicated by Eric's attempts to "solve" her unresolved past, putting his first real relationship at risk. This story is set in 2002, against the backdrop of the pending invasion of Iraq, with Americans at odds over an unknowable future, a subtle and illuminating parallel that underscores Eric's own uncertainty. Roth presents two narrative threads in alternating chapters and is equally adept at inhabiting both adolescent Eric and the smoother adult he becomes. Wry observational humor and captivating internal monologues make this promising new voice reminiscent of Ben Lerner and Joshua Ferris.
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Computers are Cool in 'The Unknowns'
Note: I won this book in a Twitter giveaway from @littlebrown
Have you ever read a book that has you wanting to tear your hair out because you are so torn on how you should be reacting to it? This is one of those books. On the one hand, I loved it. I read it, more or less, from start to finish and could not put it down. Plus, it takes place around Denver, where I live, and a lot of the locations are real, so it was easily to visualize. But…. I feel a little disconnected from the decade that I grew up/went to high school in.
Let me explain. The Unknowns is the story of a computer geek named Eric. A total nerd in high school who had his fair share of embarrassments, he becomes a multi-millionaire by the age of 24 by doing exactly what he was previously made fun of for doing. Of course, with money comes more opportunities for social exchanges, and this awkward kid learns to navigate the world of women. But soon he learns that not everything is as it seems and, at the root of things, there are unknowns (when I first started reading, I thought The Unknowns were people, but of course, they aren’t – they are the things about others that we don’t know, and in hindsight, this was fairly obvious).
But back to my point. In the book, Eric is only four years older than I am. While I could relate to a lot of his high school agony, whether on behalf of him or his antagonizers, most of his high school days are about the desire to conceal his computer geekiness. The problem with this is that I don’t remember computers being so foreign in 1996. I had a family computer with AOL and chatrooms and word processing at that time. And I certainly don’t remember dark dungeon-like classrooms for the computer nerds to run off to during lunch. Perhaps this was the case when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were doing their thing, but I don’t remember this being an issue when I was in high school. Then again, maybe my school just had an inordinate amount of technology and so it wasn’t as taboo as it was in other schools.
Either way, Eric ultimately makes computers look cool. Maybe it’s because computer sensations are cool now and so I’m backdating their coolness based on fame and success, but it happened none the less. Plus, Roth does a great job of making the reader see the beauty in a software that works. Here’s a quote that demonstrates this much better than I could:
“Most software makes people struggle, and so when they notice it they see it as an enemy. But if a designer can anticipate not only the user’s goals but the user’s instincts and assumptions, user’s will feel that the software cares about then, pays attention to their needs – loves them. And they’ll start to love the software back. All feelings of love toward technology are this kind of reciprocal love, I think.” (p. 90)
But where I’m unable to connect with Eric on a technological level, it is made up for in leaps and bounds on a social level. I remember being awkward. I remember being gawky. I remember (probably because this still happens) saying or doing the wrong thing in social situations. His ability to delve into the human psyche is incredible, and Roth manages to put onto paper a perspicaciousness rarely found these days (perspicacious is also my favorite word right now and Roth is only the second author I’ve ever come across to use it).
Another quote (because Roth says it best) to demonstrate this is:
“…. we see others from the outside, all smooth surfaces and fixed appearances, and ourselves from the inside, with our subjectivities and histories…”
The Unknowns has a way of threading its way into your inner self and thrusting your doubts and questions to the surface. Because we, as people, are social beings whose current lives are crafted by our histories, each reader will have a different experience – but each one is worthwhile.
I thought the book was well written and enjoyed it until the end. It is not the ending or want. A good book, but strange.