THE UNKNOWN KNOWNS by Jeffrey Rotter

Book Quote:

“To quote a personal hero of mine, it’s the unknown unknowns that are going to come back and bite us. It’s all those scraps of intel that we can’t confirm and we don’t know. All those evil schemes that reside outside the perimeter of our Western mind-set. They’re like some kind of scary fish with thousand teeth and a fluorescent thing hanging in front of its face like you see on nature specials. What kind of lure do you use to catch them? Where do you drop your net? You don’t know, because you never even dreamed a fish that ugly could ever exist.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (MAY 23, 2010)

Jim Rath brings a single-minded (almost obsessive) dedication to everything he does. When, while working at a gallery job at the Center for Gender and Power, his interpretations of the museum’s exhibits routinely become controversial, he gets fired from the job. As The Unknown Knowns opens, Jim is recently divorced from his wife Jean, whom he still loves.

We find out that Jean has really left because Jim has a larger obsession—he is convinced there is a secret underwater world called Nautika. Rath is convinced that its residents, called Nautikons, are part of the human evolutionary system. Determined to prove his theory is right (he has some real science to back it up), he spends countless hours in the shallow pool of the local Colorado Springs Hilton, recording observations in a waterproof notebook. He believes he is achieving “ooeee” –a meditative trance in which he becomes one with Nautika—through these pool adventures. Ironically enough, Jim can’t swim so he wears all kinds of protective gear (including a snorkel) even in shallow water. Through these observations, Jim hopes to eventually establish the “Museum of the Aquatic Ape” –a permanent repository that will prove his theories right once and for all.

One day during his usual adventure at the Hilton pool, he runs into a man who Jim is sure has all the characteristics of a Nautikon. He is even wearing a high collared-shirt probably in an effort to mask gills! Jim’s suspicions lead him to follow this “Nautikon” all around the Hilton and even across Colorado as the “Nautikon” checks into one hotel after the other across the state.

As it turns out, the suspected Nautikon harbors delusions of his own. Agent Les Diaz has a pretty routine job as a federal agent inspecting hotel pools for safety but is convinced that the next terrorism threat to America is going to be through its water recreation facilities. So as Jim and he cross paths with increasing frequency, Diaz’s suspicions are confirmed: Jim Rath is a homegrown terrorist out to poison the nation’s water recreation facilities.

The title for this book, of course, comes from ex secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld’s (in)famous quote: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Jeffrey Rotter in this, his debut novel, carries the general paranoia of the Bush years to its logical conclusion: Acting upon the advice of the delusional agent Diaz, the delusional Jim Rath is captured and held as a terrorist. Diaz, for his part, is free to continue exercising his paranoia.

The novel’s plot is really fun and even if things take a darker turn at the end, there are many comic elements throughout, which Rotter handles extremely well. The one problem in the novel is that the central thesis quickly gets old. Both Jim and Diaz play out their delusions well but after a while, you just want the story to move on and get to its larger conclusion already. Rotter intersperses chapters that detail Jim’s imagined Nautika in the book. These chapters, with elaborate characters, are fun at first but quickly become a drag and a distraction from the plot. This whole subplot feels stuck and stationary and does nothing to move the narrative forward.

Overall, The Unknown Knowns is very clever and well written and shows us some of the extreme craziness behind our nation’s war on terror. It also succeeds in shining light on the closed nature of our own private perceptions and ideas. “The world,” Jim argues, “is actually the museum of your world. Your own personal museum of everybody and everything that’s organized into dioramas that suit your own expectations.” Mothers, for example, “live in a museum of sharp corners and electrical outlets and bullies.” Jim saw only what he wanted to see in Diaz. The reverse held true. In other words, The Unknown Knowns wonderfully illustrates this theory: When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 9 readers
PUBLISHER: Scribner (March 2, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Jeffrey Rotter
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another one you might like if you like this one:

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May 23, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Posted in: Debut Novel, Humorous, Reading Guide, Satire, Speculative (Beyond Reality)

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