Jeffrey Rotter’s debut novel The Unknown Knowns concerns a pasty comic book collector whose inability to distinguish between the real and the fantastic leads to terrible consequences.
Of course, a lot of terrible things have already happened in the life of Jim Rath—his father died of a heart attack when he was six, he lost his job as a dioramist at the Center for Gender and Power in Colorado Springs, and, after his stint as a bookmobile driver comes to a crashing end against a train, his wife leaves him for parts (and men) unknown. But while the worst is yet to come, Jim likes to fake a plucky, can-do spirit in the face of adversity. He’s a thinker and, convinced by “noted visionary and scholar Elaine Morgan” that “humankind took a three-million-year sabbatical in the sea” he’s determined to be a do-er.
Which is supposed to help explain why, suspended in the neo-natal waters of the Colorado Springs Hilton swimming pool, Jim hatches a plan to build a Museum of the Aquatic Ape, where unsuspecting visitors will be shown “the social history of our former sea-faring cousins in a sequence of dioramas.”
“You couldn’t strictly classify this as Science,” Rath explains. “I saw it like a dovetailing of Margaret Atwood, Hélène Cixous, and—I don’t know—Stan Lee, maybe.” It’s a social critique, he says, “a counterweight to the blatantly masculinized Savanna Theory of human evolution.”
During his long sessions in the pool, Rath has a near-ecstatic vision of a matriarchal utopia, kind of like a graphic novel without all the blood and guts. “Nautika” is blue and calm and the women are in charge. Only problem is, it’s doomed, as are all great societies, by the jealous male rage of Earth-Man who’s had just about enough of Water-Woman.
But was Nautika destroyed before it could birth the half-land-born, half-sea-born emissary who will live to tell the upper-world (via one Jim Rath) of the paradise lost? Maybe, maybe not. It all depends on the identity of the man/Nautikon Rath encounters shortly after confirming his wife’s departure from his life.
And also, it all depends on whether the man has gills.
Operating under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, the alleged Nautikon is Agent Les Diaz, a champion swimmer whose own wife tragically drowned years earlier while he was golfing at Myrtle Beach (now there’s a black fly in your Chardonnay). Relegated to investigating the security—or insecurity—of the nation’s water-themed parks, Diaz is convinced that danger lurks beneath the surface, even at “family-fun centers” like the Radisson Hotel’s Lazy River in Denver, or the Oaken Bucket attraction at Prospector’s Bend, deep in the heart of the Rockies.
We hear from Agent Diaz primarily through transcripts of ersatz Congressional hearings sprinkled throughout The Unknown Knowns—hearings called, no doubt, to determine the extent of Rath’s terrorist ties after the inevitable catastrophe comes to pass. And here’s where Diaz justifies the obsessive caution he brings to his mundane “Pool Patrol” duties: “Do you want a teaspoon of polonium 210 in your Jacuzzi, Congressman?” demands Diaz. “What’s it going to take? Huh? Would that be a loud enough wake-up call for you?”
It’s ridiculous, of course. And not too far from the truth of our daily, national paranoia. But Rotter’s argument—that, taken to its logical extreme, the Rumsfeldian dictum of unknown knowns and unknown unknowns, only reveals the dark bogey-men within our own hearts—is by now familiar even to eighth graders learning about Gitmo in American History 001.
Once the reader picks up on this conceit, the conflicting motivations of Rath and Diaz dwindle into the predictable rather too quickly. Rath trails Diaz through Colorado hoping to discover a secret aquatic history, never suspecting, though it’s painfully, stupidly obvious, the agent’s violent dedication to his own fear. And Diaz, as puffed up and intolerable as any frat boy-cum-security guard, never believes the milquetoast tailing him is a terrorist until Rath presents an easy target for his own culpability.
As much fun as Rotter is trying to have with his characters, and with his readers, it’s all a little familiar and slight. And though the novel’s dust jacket prominently describes it as both “Vonnegutesque” and “Pynchonesque,” it is neither, and the comparisons do him no favors when he’s really after smaller, more entertaining fish.
This is not to say The Unknown Knowns is bad. It’s got a beat and you can dance to it. And the horde of bright, young literary ironists might really jive to his magico-fabulo-realist drum. But one wonders why Rotter, whose most luscious and descriptive passages describe a Nautikon journey into womanhood that would make Matthew Barney proud, opted to go Literary at all. There’s more fame and fortune in sci-fi/fantasy these days, where no one expects you to write like Pynchon.
Or why not get meta, contract an illustrator, and make a graphic novel about a sad-sack guy who spends his days in a pool imagining a graphic novel that takes place in an aquatic netherworld while the “real world” around him crumbles? It would achieve the same end, only there’d be fancy pictures to go with it.
Debating such alternatives may be useless, but it points to the foundational problem with the novel: It’s a short story.
One of Rotter’s habits is to play coy, letting his narrator hint at later developments while pulling him back from revealing too much. In the first half of the book, this is just an annoying tic—obviously, things will be made clearer, as there’s plenty of book to go. Later, however, once this aggravating gesture finally disappears, Rotter sweeps us into his tale. It’s such a noticeable transition, in fact, that it makes the first half seem like throat clearing, or worse: an inflation of the page count sufficient to turn a perfectly balanced and enjoyable novella or short story into a debut novel.
We’ll never know whether this is what happened. But we do know (or at least we think we know) that short stories don’t sell. And they don’t pay. On the other hand, we know novels sell. Especially debut novels. Especially novels from a “unique new voice in literary fiction.” So it’s hard not to wonder if Rotter felt he had no choice but to expand the tale by a few hundred pages, toss in some back-story and a few more pool-side antics, to get it into print. It’s one of those unknown knowns we’ve heard so much about.
Another one is whether readers of The Unknown Knowns will wait out the narrative hemming and hawing in order to get to the good stuff. And Rotter has some good stuff on display here. One merely hopes it’s enough, and sells enough books, to provide him the future opportunity to do more or, in the event, less—according to what the story calls for.