Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"The Unknown Knowns"

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.

He applied the “Page 69 Test” to The Unknown Knowns, his first novel, and reported the following:
Page 69 of my novel, The Unknown Knowns, contains the very first reference (beyond the epigraph) to the Donald Rumsfeld quote that inspired the title. Here we find Les Diaz, a low-level agent of Homeland Security, testifying before Congress about the nature of his work: “So essentially in a nutshell we’re in the consequence management business, the known knowns and the unknown knowns.”

The language of the war on terrorism, aside from and because of its deadly consequences, is poetry. I spent hours reading transcripts of DoD briefings so I could infuse the book with Rummy’s circular language. On page 69, Diaz says: “We’re dealing with enemies that can turn inside our decision circles, so keeping the public in the loop of those decision circles? Well, that would not be wise.”

Is this page representative of the novel as a whole? Not really. In fact, it’s kind of misleading. On one level, The Unknown Knowns is a political satire. But satire is a secondary trait. I wrote the novel as a personal story. Its protagonist is a man named Jim Rath whose disintegrating life has made him retreat to the comforts of a childish fantasy.

In complicated times we tell simple stories. When President Bush called his campaign against terrorism a “crusade,” he reduced a complex problem to a fairy-tale of East and West dating back to the 11th century. Likewise, Jim Rath blunts the complexities of his personal life with comic-book fantasies. Homebound in a blizzard, he imagines himself a survivor of Shackleton’s crew on Elephant Island. Imprisoned at a CIA black site, he pretends he’s Galactus, the Marvel-comics titan who eats planets.

Jim has long believed that an aquatic race of humanoids, the Nautikons, once settled the floor of the Mediterranean. After his wife leaves him, Jim encounters Les Diaz in a Colorado Springs hotel bar and imagines that Diaz is the lone survivor of this lost civilization. As with the war on terrorism, this fairy-tale does not have a fairy-tale ending.
Read an excerpt from the novel, and learn more about the book and Jeffrey Rotter at The Museum of the Aquatic Ape.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue