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08-09-13: Gabriel Roth Examines 'The Unknowns'

Boundaries of Knowledge

Humans are a narrative species, but most of us manage to push our narrators to the back of our minds and keep them out of everyday interactions. Not everybody can do this, and for those who can't the squeaking hamster wheel of consciousness can become an almost unbearable burden. Eric Muller does not simply think about his life. He narrates it, telling a story in Gabriel Roth's first novel 'The Unknowns' that is by turns hilarious, heartbreaking, light-hearted and dark-minded.

Eric tells his story in the first person, of course. He could never, ever, get away from "I," but that's just the beginning of his problems. When we first meet Eric, he's a hyper-self-conscious twenty-something millionaire. Turns out the hamster wheel is good for something after all, in this case, computer interface design and programming. By virtue of talent and luck, being in the right place at the right time, he and a partner managed to sell their work for millions of dollars. Having solved the money problem, he's still not managed to find a girlfriend. This proves to be much more difficult for Eric than getting rich quick in Silicon Valley.

'The Unknowns' finds much of its strength in Eric's narrative voice, and Roth has this nailed perfectly. Every page offers readers the sorts of sentences that they will want to write down or read aloud, especially if you, like Eric, have that sort of voice-over narration running in your mind. Roth is particularly adept at humor; 'The Unknowns' will make you laugh out loud a lot, but this is also because Roth balances his humor with splashes of darkness and authentic human pain. And that pain is made all the more real by virtue of the smart prose that captures those feelings of uncertainty and doubt that we can ever really, really know those around us. In the end, they are The Unknowns.

Eric's story is a quick read that lingers long after you finish the book. Roth takes a fairly simple plot and cuts it up into a sophisticated psychological examination of modern moirés and foibles. The book begins as Eric meets his first true, deep, love, Maya, at a party, where he is desperately trying to feel comfortable. But as the novel progresses, we meet his father, now divorced from his mother, and then ratchet back into Eric's formative years in high school, when he tried to "hack the girlfriend problem." Roth's storytelling and plot tension are seamless and endlessly entertaining. He has a lot of fun with post-millennial romance, before social media. Part of the appeal of the novel is its vision of accelerated history. It's set just ten years ago, but in what is clearly a very different society.

Along the way, Roth crafts a gallery of characters whom the reader really enjoys being around even if they're not people you'd want in your own life. Fathers don't fare well here, but Roth knows how to bring you to the edge of the embarrassed wince without plunging into an abyss of repulsion. He might let you glimpse that abyss, though.

But most of the characters you'll find in 'The Unknowns' are entertainingly-rendered denizens of Northern California and Silicon Valley, and they're a lot of fun to be around even as seen through Eric's hyperactive eye. The romance arc of the novel is fun, perhaps enlightening if you've not been there in that time, and achingly bitter and sweet. This is a fantastic portrait of a time and place that is under-represented in current literature, given the effect that these folks have on our lives. Roth has a real feel for the mindset of computer programmers and software designers. A number of readers might feel that reading this book is akin to glancing in a particularly accurate mirror.

'The Unknowns' is set against the backdrop of the early portion of the Iraq War, and takes its title from Donald Rumsfeld's famous quote about "known unknowns and unknown unknowns." While this is clearly in the running as the lamest excuse in the history of war, there's also a very important and true nugget here. In order to behave responsibly, in order to make good decisions, we need to know the boundaries of our knowledge. We need to know that when we label an ocean with the tag HERE BE MONSTERS that we're declaring our own ignorance.

This is the ultimate problem not just for Eric, but for all of us. That hamster is running on its squeaky wheel in a cage all by itself. Unless or until we can take a leap of faith, of love, all we can truly know is in our own minds. If we're not careful, if we're not able to take risks, then every other human being out there, the potential friends and lovers, the future wives and husbands — they're all out there beyond our ability to know. If you can't hear the voices of others over the sound of the voice in your head, than those others will always and forever be The Unknowns.

08-07-13: Revisiting Christopher Moore's 'Fool'

Fixing the Index

Editor's Note: Christopher Moore has a new novel coming out in the winter, 'The Serpent of Venice.' Digging through my archives, I realized that the predecessor, 'Fool' had been left out of the indexes. 'Fool' is non-stop brilliant, and readers will want to have enjoyed it before 'The Serpent of Venice.' And thus, here is the newly-indexed review of Christoipher Moore's 'Fool.' And here is a link to my interview with Christopher Moore about his novel 'Fool.'

Check your preconceptions at the door; Christopher Moore may not have been an English Major, but he could certainly put most of those who were to shame, though he's a lot more likely to make them laugh. Moore's latest novel, 'Fool' is nothing less than the story of King Lear, as told from the fool's perspective. In point of fact, it is much, much more, a comedic mash-up of British history, Shakespeare, every form of written humor you can imagine and a few that Moore himself invents just for this novel. All of this might be great but still fall flat were it not for Moore's gift of investing even the silliest of novels with genuine emotion that allows readers to connect with the characters and the laughs to last.

Don’t let unpleasant memories of high school or college English courses daunt you from opening the book in the first place. In seconds, Moore establishes a kooky comedic tone that he sustains for the rest of the novel. It's as if the author is telling us there's nothing to be afraid of; he warms up the audience with few easy laughs. From the beginning, 'Fool' offers the first-person narrative of Pocket, a diminutive Jester with grand plans and even grander appetites. I'll save the plot summary for the Cliff notes, but it's important to note that Moore sets several real plots in motion that keep the pages turning briskly until you find yourself reading the author's note ("You Cheeky Git"). Shakespeare provides the scaffolding for Moore's plot, but 'Fool' offers both new perspectives and new plot twists to keep the reader riveted.

But the plot isn’t limited to the action. Part of the joy — and to my mind, the plot — of 'Fool' is Moore's ability to pack his novel with references to literally thousands of sources beyond 'Lear.' You'll get more Shakespeare than a graduate course with a focus on the Bard, but a lot more enjoyable. Moore references other writers and lots of English history as well. He riffs on the history of British humor, and takes jabs at political targets in the present. Every page seems to reveal a new source of input or inspiration; 'Fool' is the kind of book you could read a few times with your notebook and a good search engine to hand in order to pin down Moore's ever-shifting flow of inspiration.

In general, this reader is quite dubious of American writers who try out the written version of a faux-British accent. I don’t like it and it usually falls flat. Moore cleverly avoids this with a prose style that offers the dramatic and poetic feel of Shakespeare, even though it's a true post-modern 21st-century mash-up/remix. Moore aims for and achieves a dense, joke-laden mix that allows him put in pretty much anything he wants so long as it's funny. Moore's become quite skilled at "funny," with the result that 'Fool' is thoroughly entertaining on a linguistic level.

All of Moore's remix skills would be for nought if he didn't connect with the reader on an emotional level. And he's treading in dangerous territory, because frankly, the narrator, Pocket, is something of a rapscallion. He'll bang anything that sits still long enough, and he delights in skewering and screwing most of those around him. But he retains a core of goodness, in his loyalty to Drool, his huge, slobbering assistant and his attempts to make things right for the increasingly annoying Lear. On the other side of the equation, Moore makes despicable characters that are still enjoyable to read about. I particularly liked Oswald, who combines the worst aspects of a toady and a villain. The bastard Prince Edmund is in Moore's novel an over-the-top evil sub-genius, prone to soliloquies that might not sound out of place in a Shakespearean chat room on the Internet. Frothing should always be this fun.

Moore achieves something rather unique in 'Fool,' combining sublime silliness with significant scholarship. The results are consistently entertaining. 'Fool' fires off with a cast of characters, and those of us who haven't written an essay on 'Lear' in the past couple of years are going to need it. On the stage it's easier to keep track of the who-is-who in the large cast than it is on the printed page. Moore makes the ultimately wise but potentially confusing decision to stick with Shakespeare's overly-complex plot arc. But by the time this becomes apparent, he's earned the readers' good Will, and we follow him merrily, if occasionally scratching our heads as we try to connect A to Z. Ultimately, 'Fool' is the kind of novel that's a delight in the moment, and yet even as you're laughing, you can understand that a rather lucky group of grad students some years hence will manage to pull a thesis or two out of the work. Readers in the present have the unique joy of laughing at and with those who will follow.

08-05-13: Lisa Lutz Gets 'The Last Word'

Solving the Smart Family Mystery

Smart people always seem to have some Achilles' heel, a flaw that undermines their intellect. From her incredibly witty banter, it's clear that Isabel Spellman is extremely smart. But she is unable to "get" her family, with the result that as 'The Last Word' opens, she's actually the owner of Spellman Investigations but has no clout with the family members who supposedly work for her.

The agency is lurching forward making little progress on the bits of business it can hang onto. Lisa Lutz, on the other hand, is in full control, offering readers a hilarious comedic novel that is chock-a-block with inventive prose and storytelling. With a smile on her face, Lutz explores the darker hearts of family, friendship and minor league fraud. 'The Last Word' is a first-class example of fiction at its most fearless. Lisa Lutz is utterly unafraid to do anything, just so long as the reader is going to have fun.

'The Last Word' is a book that warrants and rewards careful reading, even though the light-hearted dialogue and prose makes you want to turn the pages ever faster. Lutz is at the height of her considerable prose and storytelling powers here, unleashing memos, dialogue, transcriptions, and even appendices to keep the reader engaged at every level. This book is simply lots of fun to read, so much so that it's easy to miss just how sophisticated it all is. Pay attention; there will be a test. For all the great jokes and funny lines, subtleties matter a great deal in 'The Last Word.'

Plotting is one of Lutz's strong points, particularly if you enjoy works that hone in on actual, regular American life at the level of the American suburb. In some ways, Lutz is the comedic mystery version of Stephen King; her economic focus is thoroughly blue-collar even when one of the major characters is stunningly rich. Lutz weaves in bits of minor crime and major familiar fights to craft suspense out of the stuff of everyday life. And make no mistake, the book lives up to its title, with a plot that takes you off the edge of the last page.

The real joys to be found in the Spellman novels are Lisa Lutz's utterly engaging characters and her resoundingly realistic character arcs. 'The Last Word' has a bit more edge, a bit more bitter in the sweet than previous entries in the series, and its stronger for this. Isabel is, against her will, growing up. Her parents are slowing down, even as they become increasingly quirky. Rae is proving to be a rather frighteningly opaque young woman, with depths that may be labeled HERE BE MONSTERS. Or perhaps "Don't tread on me." It's best to keep both in mind. And this is just Isabel's family.

It's clear that Lutz might have more Spellman files in store for readers. Or at last, enough people are left alive at the end of the novel to suggest its possible. It's hard to underestimate just how much fun these books are. Like most comedies, they're really quite re-readable. And that's what we will find ourselves doing until the next one comes out, if we're not tempted to send out memos to our family about the state of the dishes.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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