Jim Rath's wife has grown tired of his hobbies: his immaculately maintained comics collection, his creepy underwater experiments, and his dreams of building a museum based on the Aquatic Ape Theory of Human Evolution. On the night that she leaves him, Jim thinks he has spotted an emissary from a lost aquatic race called the Nautikons. In truth, the man is a low-level agent of the Department of Homeland Security. What follows is a riveting story of two quixotic men who stalk each other toward a bloody showdown -- a spectacularly moronic act of terrorism at an aging water park.
The Unknown Knowns -- its title is a reference to a quote from former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- is a brilliant send-up of the insidious language and sometimes tragically comic focus of our country's Homeland Security Department. Combining the social satire of Kurt Vonnegut with the paranoid delusions of Thomas Pynchon, Rotter takes everyday domestic fixations and turns them into a hilarious assessment of the human condition. Fresh, imaginative, and deft, The Unknown Knowns marks the arrival of a unique new voice in literary fiction.
Jim Rath has a dream: to open a museum based on the Aquatic Ape Theory of human evolution. As he becomes more and more obsessed with the museum and with conducting his strange underwater experiments (standing submerged in a hotel pool for hours), his fractured marriage reaches the breaking point.
On the night his wife walks out, Jim seeks solace in a bar—where he spots a man he believes is an emissary from the Nautikons, a lost aquatic race, but who is actually a low-level agent for the Department of Homeland Security. This chance encounter sets in motion a game of cat-and-mouse between two delusional and quixotic men that leads to a tragic confrontation…and begins a countdown to what could be Jim’s last days as a free man.
From its satiric depiction of the state of our national security to its portrayal of a hapless man whose peculiar yet harmless fixation becomes his undoing, The Unknown Knowns is a darkly comic send-up of post-9/11 America.
1. What political and social commentary is the author making in the novel? How about regarding the Department of Homeland Security in particular? What is your opinion of how he presents the department, as well as the U. S. Congress?
2. At the beginning of the story, Jim asserts that “the curve of credibility doesn’t get any gentler from here on out” (7). Is Jim a reliable narrator? Why or why not?
3. What drives Jim in his obsessive quest to prove that Nautika exists? Is he crazy or merely imaginative? Why is he willing to sacrifice his marriage—and eventually his freedom—to pursue it?
4. The novel is structured so that Jim is looking back on the events that took place. What perspective does this vantage point give him? What, if anything, would he have done differently if given the chance?
5. The author develops a story-within-a-story in The Unknown Knowns. What purpose does this serve? How does the tale of Labiaxa reflect larger themes in the novel?
6. Discuss Jim’s relationships with the women in the story—his wife, Jean; his mother; and Jill, his boss at the Center for Gender and Power. Why do you suppose Jim’s vision of Nautika is a society ruled by women (and free of war, rape, and destruction)?
7. Why does Agent Diaz suspect Jim is a terrorist? Jim claims he didn’t tamper with the Oaken Bucket. Do you believe his theory that it was the handiwork of Agent Diaz? If so, what drives Agent Diaz to perpetuate the act of “terrorism” at the water park? What does he hope to gain by it and, ultimately, does he get what he wants?
8. Says Jim, “I wasn’t fair, maybe; I wasn’t nice; I wasn’t selfless or yielding; but I was right. It wasn’t the Nautikon that destroyed our marriage. It was the human factor, i.e., Jean” (61). Why does Jim blame Jean for the deterioration of their marriage? What responsibility does he bear for its end?
9. Did you find Jim to be a likeable character? Do you think the author intended for him to be a likeable character? Why or why not?
10. How is Jim perceived by those around him, including Jean and Agent Diaz? How does he perceive himself and where he is in life?
11. Jim says, “Suicide? Please. I wouldn’t give those congressional so-called investigators the satisfaction. I won’t take my own life just to keep their stupid lie alive…. I’ll be damned if I’m going to go to my grave as somebody’s scapegoat” (234). Why then does he change his mind about committing suicide? How much does his final phone conversation with Jean influence his decision, and why?
12. What do you think of the overall tone of the novel? Is the author’s use of satire effective? How about entertaining? What message, if any, is the author conveying in The Unknown Knowns?
Enhance Your Book Club
In homage to Jim’s aquatic adventures, hold your book club gathering at a local pool, lakeside, or at the beach.
To learn more about the Aquatic Ape Theory, visit www.elainemorgan.me.uk.
Former curator Jim talks about “the power of a museum.” Take in an exhibit at a local museum or gallery as a group.
Jeffrey Rotter holds an MFA from Hunter College where he studied under Peter Carey, Colson Whitehead, Colum McCann, and Andrew Sean Greer and was awarded the Hertog fellowship to perform research for Jennifer Egan. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and young son. The Unknown Knowns is his first novel.
“Perceptive and humorous… Goes beyond the obvious sendup to explore the private and at times desperate ways his characters strive to secure their own homeland… Rotter’s imagination is formidable and fresh." — Joseph Salvatore, New York Times Book Review
“Riotous-yet-highly controlled… Rotter [has] imaginative verve and eye for absurdity -- personal, literary and political.” — Kerry Fried, Newsday
"Absurdly hilarious... So smart about paranoia, so freshly observed, I feared the era of Rumsfeld had returned." — Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and TheRussian Debutante's Handbook