Jeffrey Rotter The Unknown Knowns: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9781416587033

The Unknown Knowns: A Novel

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9781416587033: The Unknown Knowns: A Novel
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Jeffrey Rotter’s "brilliantly comic" debut novel has "earned him every kind of comparison—Kaufmanesque, Vonnegutesque, Pynchonesque" (New Statesman, U.K.).

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 government inspector—a man harboring his own strange fantasies. What follows is a riveting story of two delusional and quixotic men who stalk each other toward a bloody showdown—a spectacularly moronic act at an aging water park. In The Unknown Knowns, Jeffrey Rotter takes everyday domestic fixations and turns them into a stunning portrayal of the human condition.

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About the Author:

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.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE

The obvious way to describe water is with adjectives. People like to say water is murky or dappled or turbulent or calm. They call it brackish, crystalline, emerald, white. Deep, shallow, filmy, or unfathomable. But all those adjectives don't even come close to describing water like it really is. They just float across the surface, like dead leaves or algae.

You could also try describing water with action verbs. You could say it rushes, or pours, or drips. You could also say it seeps, for instance. Water can boil or it can freeze or it can steam. But it doesn't matter how many verbs you throw at the water; they don't stick either. Trying to describe water by what it does is kind of like telling a story by throwing a book at your wife.

Another way people sometimes describe water is in context. I'll give you an example: a man walks by making water noises. His tube socks are drenched and they're going squish, squish, squish. With every step he takes: squish, squish. But when you ask the guy if he wants a dry pair -- you have the socks right there in your hand; you even offer them to him -- he shakes his head no. And that's when you hear it: you hear the fluid slosh inside his skull like milk in a coconut.

Here's another example of describing water in context. A little kid is pulled out of a swimming pool. His skin is red and raw. He's crying without making a sound. Something bad has been done to the water.

Or here's an even better example of water in context: two women go over a waterfall in a big bucket. The water is so crazy all around them that no one can hear them screaming, not even the women themselves. An ambulance backs up to the edge of the water. The lights are insistent, swirling. They paint the mountain red, and to look at them makes you feel like you don't have enough pockets to put your hands in. There are probably other examples that I'm sure you could come up with. But here's the one I keep coming back to, the one that's relevant to my present circumstance. A guy jumps into a swimming pool, pointing his toes to mitigate the splash. Water knifes up inside his swim trunks, it pinches his nipples. He blows bubbles through his nose to prevent the water from entering his skull. The water floods his thinning hair and his body hangs limp in the pool light. The body hangs limp while the guy thinks about water.

That guy is me. I am the guy in the water thinking about water.Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey Rotter

TWO

More context. My name is Jim Rath. I was born in Columbia, South Carolina, where I grew to my current, completely uninspiring height of five foot six. Five years ago, for reasons that were obscure at the time, even to me, I moved to Colorado Springs. I am currently age thirty-eight, though that number seems to be changing rapidly and time hasn't been especially friendly to me. I'm hairy-armed and cowering, a guy you'd expect to see squatting by a campfire just a few weeks before the beginning of history. People say I have a high forehead, but I know what that means. I'm losing my hair. No great loss; I was never all that handsome or brave anyway. And my balding caveman looks never matter much when I am standing underwater.

It was after hours in the hotel pool at a Colorado Springs Hilton. The month was August but the water felt more like March or April. I descended, eyes closed behind my scuba mask, until I felt the grout and the grit of the tile floor against the balls of my feet. The pockets of my Jams were lined with lead fishing weights to keep me from floating away. I drew down the intake of the snorkel so it would barely breach the water. My presence would be difficult if not impossible to detect from above. Then I opened my eyes and described what I saw through the lens of my diving mask, writing everything down in a waterproof notepad.

My goal was a thorough understanding of water. But not on a chemical level. Not in any way that you could test. That wasn't of any interest to me. I had more consequential interests. I wanted to know why the water is always calling to us, what it wants to tell us. Where do we belong in relation to it? I asked. What is the water hiding down there? I was in the pool to ask the hard probing questions that no one else would ask. Because I figured out some time ago that the truest and most singular way to know the water is by getting right in it. By reaching in with bare hands and pulling out a couple of its slippery monsters.

For six months in 2006 I spent every free night I had at the Colorado Springs Hilton hotel, standing for hours at a time on the swimming-pool floor, my head totally submerged, just gazing into the water. I was fortunate enough at that juncture in my life to have a lot of free nights, so I was at the Hilton about six or seven times a week. At first all I saw looking into the water was water. But as time passed and my senses got more acute, I started to see other stuff. Crazy stuff. Edifying stuff.

There is -- and this sentence is the threshold of plausibility that I will ask you to cross if you dare to read the rest of my story -- a lost civilization in the water.

I'll say that again, and invert the sentence, so you can get used to the idea: in the water there's a lost civilization.

And what I've seen over the past twelve months has me totally convinced that it's been down there for thousands and thousands of years just waiting for us to discover it. I have a name for it, which I made up myself, but it fits. Nautika.

Though I arrived at this discovery almost a year ago, and all kinds of negative circumstances have intervened since then, my eyes still ache with the marvels I beheld down there in the Hilton pool and in hotel pools across the state of Colorado. I've been diagnosed with a chlorine condition, and I still take drops. But I'd trade both my eyes to see it all again. I'd trade my wife (again). I'd trade my happiness (again). And (again) I'd trade my freedom. Again, again. Even though the ankle bracelet doesn't fit like they said. You don't "get used to it like a new pair of dress shoes."

I was standing on the bottom of the Hilton pool. I looked up to see the surface rippling overhead, responding to the whims of the central cooling unit like a kind of weather. Up through the varying strata of water I studied the domed roof of the hotel solarium, its brown steel ribbing and frosted glass expanding against the moonlight like the room itself was taking a deep breath.

We're in the habit of calling it the surface of the water, but couldn't it just as easily be the boundary of the air? Because it all depends on your perspective, where you're coming from. And either you cross the air-water boundary in the spirit of humanity and good faith or else maybe you should just stay in your lawn chair with your beer and tell your wife how pretty the ocean is.

I consulted my watch. It was a Helvner, waterproof and pressure-resistant to a depth of five hundred meters. Only three thousand of these babies are made each year by special appointment of the Saudi navy. You won't believe what they retail for. I'm lucky to have a generous uncle with connections in the Mideast naval community and cash to burn. Of course I don't have the Helvner anymore. That was one of the first things I had to sacrifice.

I made a note of the time in my waterproof notebook: 10:49 p.m. Then I focused my eyes on a light burning at the far end of the pool. I thought simple thoughts; I thought about hydrogen bonding and refraction, basic properties of water. And slowly, so slowly it seemed to happen in reverse, I entered the semiamphibious state of advanced consciousness known to the Nautikons as ooeee. This is not the place to divulge the secrets of ooeee, but suffice it to say it's a regimen of circular inner breathing designed to stimulate the latent man-gills. And in my case I also use a snorkel.

It is in this altered state of awareness that I receive certain "reports" from the annals of Nautika. They come to me like radio waves but thicker, with colors and bodily sensations attached. I have visions, smeared and echoey, but visions nonetheless. I get the narrative and absorb the granules of sociological detail that are critical to my knowledge of our lost aquatic ancestry.

Yes, our lost aquatic ancestry. You think I can't smell your suspicion? Oh, I can smell it, all right -- the fruited stench of unbelief, even through the supposedly impenetrable membrane of the page. You have your reservations. The scrutiny in the eyebrow area? I'm painfully familiar with it. Jilly did that too, the director at the Center for Gender and Power. She was afraid of my ideas. So was my wife. You think I'm crazy too.

Jim is a damaged person, you think. His reason has been cracked by emotional pressures exerted from his social milieu and from his inner makeup dating back to a codependent childhood with a single mom. That's probably what you're thinking, or words to that effect. You're figuring this guy's life went sour so his mind retreated somewhere less stressful. Maybe he has a chemical deficiency or a surplus, or both. Maybe his wife contributed to this imbalance through negligence. It happens.

Believe me, I understand your doubts. I'd have them too if I weren't me. But I am me, as evidenced by my being held accountable for actions widely perceived as mine. And besides, if you think this is hard to swallow, just wait; the curve of credibility doesn't get any gentler from here on out.

There are questions that demand answers. Sure there are. Why was a guy named Jim Rath spending hour upon precious hour in a hotel pool in a city called Colorado Springs? What motivated him? I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking my behavior was out there, or even antisocial. I wouldn't even blame you for concluding, circumstantially, that I did all those terrible things they say I did. My wife talked to CNN. So did some regular lady from my hometown who I'd never met, about intubation, paralysis, how I'd never understand what that felt like. They all say I'll be judged. And they're right: I am being judged. But bel...

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