Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Known Unknowns

I always read the fiction reviews in each issue of The New Yorker. Maybe once a year, a particular "Briefly Noted" review will hit enough keywords to make me think, "Oooh, that sounds like something I would like." So far I've had a 100% success rate in following up those leads.

The latest discovery is "The Unknowns" by Gabriel Roth. This is a really uncanny book; early on it felt like it was being written about me, in particular, and really honed in to a frightening degree on several qualities about myself that I think of as fairly unique and that I rarely see portrayed in literature: a passion for writing text adventure games as a child that eventually evolved into a career as a software developer; a deep love of programming not only for what it can accomplish, but for the sense of emotional fullness it can create; a nervous and occasionally fraught social life, clumsily mitigated by attempts to apply systems and frameworks onto fluid emotional dynamics; relocating from the often less-ambitious middle of the country to the enthusiastic utopia of San Francisco.

The main character is also the narrator, so there's a strong level of intimacy in the way he describes childhood obsessions and humiliations. Eric is a very flawed character, and someone who is very aware of his flaws. He doesn't really apologize for them, instead presenting them (to the reader) with pure honesty and openness, often to a discomforting degree.  That's where the other part of the uncanniness started to come into play for me: after identifying so strongly with him in so many ways, I had to remind myself that I was not him and don't necessarily share in all of his shortcomings. I'd like to think that I'm a bit more empathetic, less manipulative, and more kind. Of course, that would be a far less interesting character, so I'm glad that the author made the choices he did.


This isn't exactly a plot-heavy book, but for safety's sake I'll discuss the plot down here anyways.

The setting of the book is really interesting: it just recently came out, but is set in 2002, two market crashes ago. Events in the book are backgrounded by the run-up to the Iraq war and the prolonged deflation after the millennial tech bubble burst. The protagonist has very little genuine reaction to either the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the rush to war. However, he is an astute observer of others, both as individuals and as a whole, and so he knows the things he must say about each in order to remain included in the liberal San Franciscan social scene. He isn't pretending to be a liberal when he's actually a conservative: he's pretending he cares about it at all when really he doesn't.

He has a closer connection to the tech bubble, but even this is through a thick film of disinterest. He lucked out greatly on timing: after unwillingly skipping college, he moved to SF to found a small startup, which managed to sell itself just as the markets were starting to collapse. By the standards of Silicon Valley, he is a pure success: a multimillionaire ($18.4 million dollars, and you'd better believe that anyone in that position remembers the precise figure) at age 24, with a reputation of a success that will open any doors that he wants for the rest of his life.

And... he doesn't know what he wants. He bought a nice apartment, and stays inside for days at a time. He has a small social circle, centered around people he knew from home who also moved to SF, and makes ritual appearances at parties and other social obligations. Once he finds someone he likes, though, he turns the entire force of his intelligence and latent energies into calculating how he can start a relationship with them. That relationship, in all its stages, is the real heart of this book. I was alternately impressed and horrified by his tactics and reactions while pursuing love; I can't think of another book that has presented this in quite the same way.

Structurally, the book alternates between chapters set in 2002, depicting the travails of a gifted but broken young man stuck inside his own head; and chapters set in his childhood, showing how he got to be this way. As noted above, I was a bit nonplussed by how on-the-mark some of the childhood scenes were, down to details like fantasizing about how other people will be amazed by this text adventure you're writing, or feeling deep shame after ignoring a "nerdy" friend in hopes of pursuing some higher social station. But, on balance, I had a much better time of things than Eric: his parents divorced, he didn't have the refuge of a church or other alternative community apart from school, and he suffered the kind of humiliation I would only have nightmares about.

In general, I strongly preferred the modern chapters to the historic ones, but they make the book as a whole much better than it would be without them. It gives you a more complete picture of Eric as a human being: he isn't just this borderline-sociopathic hermit ignoring his millions while playing Metroid Prime; he was a person who loved computers from an early age, who never totally fit in, and who continued to amplify both of those traits more and more as he grew older. It also shows how the relationships of his youth led to his calculated courtship of Maya; he sets out "to hack the girlfriend problem" once he begins to notice girls, and while those early attempts end in miserable failure, he never loses his faith in the idea that relationships are a problem that can be solved: you just need to learn the right words, said in the right order, similar to an incantation spoken in the Tomb of Morbius, in order to "win" your prize.

Hrm... looking over what I've written so far, I realize that I've failed to mention one critical point: this book is funny. Often funny in the discomfort-comedy vein, but it's also filled with wry exposition and clever phrasing. The protagonist is an ironist who sees his own irony and gestures towards it ironically until it becomes funny again.

It's also very well written. Here are a few sentences that particularly resonated with me: largely because of their subject matter, but also because of how well-formed they are, giving stunning clarity into Eric's personality with relatively few words:

I'm not sure exactly how much time has passed since my last unwise attempt at social contact, but the number of days modulo three must equal two because I'm getting a burrito.

I turned the fantasy over in my mind, adding details, refining the characterization. Every twist in the program's design, each new puzzle and contrivance, was tested against Bronwel Oberfell. Sometimes the dream would be interrupted by an error message, and I would get out of bed and look over the code. I caught a few bugs that way.

I still haven't found anything that keeps anxiety at bay as reliably as coding: the possibilities and ramifications branch outward to colonize all of your available brainspace, and the syntax of the language gives direction to your twitches and impulses and keeps them from firing off into panic.

For a while Hannah Provonost needed someone, and I made myself into the person that she needed, and while it wouldn't scale it was at least a proof of concept.

Fantastic stuff. The author is clearly someone intimately familiar with not only the jargon of software development, but its meaning and ramifications as well. I'm not sure how salable a skill that is (there can't be that many people out there who really grok this stuff), but I for one am delighted to read it.


The book ended up not being quite what I expected, but it was still pretty remarkable. I get the feeling that I'm one of the few people who will resonate with this story in quite the way I did, but who knows, maybe that's my own megalomania speaking. It certainly doesn't require an intimate understanding of a programmer's mind, and hey, maybe it will even help other people fathom our weird way of perceiving the world.  Anyways: apart from the subject matter, it's a darkly humorous look at a very flawed man stumbling into adulthood, and succeeds in telling a story that covers a familiar plot arc in a very unique way.

No comments:

Post a Comment