Jeffery Rotter’s The Unknown Knowns sounds promising right out of the gate. It’s title takes it’s name from a Donald Rumsfeld quote that sounds like something out of Catch-22. It’ s a political satire, and the jacket references both Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon. The author’s bio says that he got his MFA from Hunter College where he studied with Peter Carey, Colson Whitehead, and Andrew Sean Greer. OK, sign me up.
The story presents an inevitable conflict between a delusional loser, Jim Rath, and a delusional Homeland Security Agent, Les Diaz. Jim is a sad sack comics enthusiast who works constructing dioramas for museums (or what his wife calls playing with models). Jim has felt like a loser all of his life:
…whenever I cried Mom took me to the Kress for a candy bar…Which may explain my rapid weight gain in elementary school…and the names they called me. In playground terminology I was a textbook “crybaby” and also a “fatty.” Or, when facing the most ruthless foes, a “fatty crybaby fatty-fatty.” Later I was just a “fag.”
Jim begins hanging out submerged in pools, breathing through a snorkel, to escape the stresses of life. He zones out and imagines a lost undersea civilization, no not that one, a different one called Nautica. He develops a theory that the Nauticons evolved from sea apes (Tangent: Sounds crazy, right? This lady presented a similar theory at the TED Conference.)
Given his erratic behavior and overall strangeness, it is almost inevitable that Jim crosses paths with Les Diaz. Through his own demons, Agent Diaz has delusions of his own importance on the public water spaces detail in Homeland Security:
Most swimming pool areas, and even your waterslide facilities, you understand, still operate on the old Cold War model, with an architecture open to threats. But this ain’t Harry Truman’s water park anymore, Congressman.
The cat and mouse between these two is humorous and heartbreaking and it makes for excellent social commentary. I was loving every minute of this book, until…
Well, there are three chapters in the book that deal with the myth of the Nauticons. And I get that maybe their story may be the delusional imaginings of Jim Rath, but they are so over the top that I found the third chapter of their tale almost unreadable. There are references to the “Great Estrodus” of the matrilineal society, a place called the Vulvorum, a Princess Labiaxa, a hymn of the Spermata…it just took me right out of the larger and better story of Jim and Agent Diaz.
I’m conflicted about this book. Most of it is just outstanding, and other parts…not so much. I’d almost recommend that you check it out and skip the mythology of the Nauticons chapters altogether. But then, maybe I just didn’t get it. You might.
Near the end of the book, Jim is trying to make sense of what is happening to him and he comes up with the following:
The lesson is it’s okay to live in a fantasy world of your own making, but you never, ever want to live in someone else’s. Especially if they have guns.
I didn’t want to live in the fantasy world of the Nauticons, and I was glad that they didn’t have guns. As always, your mileage may vary.