Book review: Geek as good as it gets

By Nicky Pellegrino

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Gabriel Roth is a master of  angst-ridden male monologues.
Gabriel Roth is a master of angst-ridden male monologues.

Geeks are the in thing in literature this year, or so it seems. First there was Graeme Simsion's highly amusing The Rosie Project, about a romantic hero with undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome. And now New York writer Gabriel Roth picks up on the trend with his memorable debut, The Unknowns, a sharp, funny and often slightly disturbing insight into the male mind.

There are some big differences to The Rosie Project. The star of this novel is all guile when it comes to his relationships, hypersensitive to social cues and a chronic over-thinker.

Eric Muller doesn't want to be a geek. He loves girls just as much as computer programming. The trouble is he excels at dealing with only one of those things - and no, it isn't romance.

The novel follows Eric through two periods of his life - his hapless years of high school and his early 20s after he has become a dot.com millionaire.

We cringe when his bid to decode his female classmates goes horribly wrong and his journal of detailed observations about them falls into the wrong hands. And we cringe too at his studied attempts to hit on girls at parties when he's all grown up and successful in San Francisco. There is a lot of cringing but it's all very enjoyable.

Then Eric meets a woman he really cares for; gorgeous investigative journalist Maya Marcom. He woos her with carefully composed snappy dialogue and, miraculously, she falls for it. The trouble is that Maya has a clouded and difficult past. And Eric, with his propensity for self-sabotage and his obsessive need to hack into problems and discover the formula to solve them, struggles to leave these "unknowns" alone.

It's still fairly unusual to find such upfront fiction about relationships and emotional issues from a bloke's perspective. This is rarely challenged literary territory that previously belonged to a small cache of writers who include Nick Hornby, David Nicholls and Jonathan Tropper. For my money, Roth is as good as any of them when it comes to angst-ridden male interior monologues and quirky, ironic humour.

He tackles his share of issues too - principally the shifting sands of privacy in the internet age and the trend for recovered memory syndrome in abuse victims - without a wobble in the authenticity of Eric's nerdy, neurotic voice.

Roth is a former journalist now working as a software designer so presumably understands what makes an obsessive geek tick. He gets what makes them appealing too and so, despite poor Eric's failings, you'll find yourself cheering for him just as much as you cringe. Part romance, part coming-of-age story, snappily written, brilliantly observed and as amusing as anything I've read, The Unknowns is a cool little book. And you'll never look at geeks in quite the same way again.

- Herald on Sunday

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