A warts and all examination of a love affair so lacking in surprise that the struggle not to predict what's going to happen--as opposed to letting Roth tell you in his own time--becomes unwinnable more than halfway through, The Unknowns is respectable more as evidence of the completion of a task than it is as a novel. That might not be such a horrendous thing to some; after all, the notion of achievements, of levels, of a life tied up in self-imposed frameworks copied from video games, digital solutions and 21st Century self-improvement archana are internal to the guts of a million Americans, and the public awareness of one's accomplishments make up the dream of millions more. Seeing an American novel in full embrace of that language and fluid in that thinking makes sense. If the imagined life is a contest of accomplishments and goal-setting (as it's promoted to be in the American educational system), then Gabriel Roth did what he was supposed to do after the degree, the wife, and the baby: he got published. Where's your hardcover novel that namechecks old X-Men stories, buster?
Novels aren't dead--you'll notice that this claim almost invariably resides in the platitudes of people who don't read either way, the same way that no digital first proponent has ever been any good at recommending stuff you hadn't already heard of--but there's certain kinds of novels that aren't good at being timeless, and Contemporary Breakup is a classic example. If you want to see a 20-something cringe, have them read High Fidelity now; if you're particularly masochistic, try to re-read it yourself. The problem with giving The Unknowns the contemporary title belt in the she-dumped-me division is that the book itself is already dated, and it does it to itself, setting itself way back in the hoaried days of post-9/11 America, when Rumsfeld and Bush were aw-shucking their way into the invasion of Iraq. God bless him for trying, but on top of that: what Warby Parker wearing Arab Spring quoting reader wants to drink in the escapades of an Ecstasy-using, App-creating millionaire getting savaged by his first real girlfriend? Occupy this, motherfucker!
The Unknowns possesses a certain kind of post 90's male mania that's at times indistinguishable from the puberty-era teenage classics written by Judy Blume (and maybe Beverly Cleary). That those books often feature female characters doesn't give the comparison pause--if there's anything his shy protagonist most resembles, it's the gawky leads that populate teen high school girl fiction. The difficulty with Unknowns isn't that it's lead is too much a woman--if anything, his dextrous identity full of mixed gender cliches is actually the books most unheralded plus--it's that even if you put gender on the shelf, you're never going to mistake him for an adult. One of the charms of Blume and Cleary is in those open endings, the fact that they're books about children, which means we leave those characters before they've reached their prime--what we witnessed was the formative stuff, and outside of a macrabe, White Oleander-style riff, the formative stuff is universal. The life Roth presents--one where the crush of work is brushed off by its protagonists cursory success, one where fear and obsession are valued like postive attributes--is one that may resonate with some, but it's completely unexplored, and too curt to be fully realized. There's a great book to be made about sad nerds who won't grow up. This one isn't even good.