Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
Usually, a memoir is written by someone who has survived to the twilight of their life, or has lived through either a traumatic or unique life experience, which they want to share with readers. The Scientists is different. Its author, N+1 co-founder Marco Roth, was born and raised in Manhattan’s cultural elite, and spent years doing nothing much other than reading, and living off his father’s inheritance. Who wants to read a memoir of a privileged, white, thirty-something year old New Yorker? You do.
The Roth family lived in an apartment on the Upper West Side, with windows overlooking the trees of Central Park. They had rooms with pianos and violins (Roth’s mother was once a professional pianist), an office cum laboratory (his father Eugene was a scientist), a kitchen table that fit eight, and held concerts in their living room once or twice a year. Marco attended private schools throughout his life; the Dalton school, a brief stint at Oberlin—which was to be the cause of the family rupture central to his book—and then Columbia and Yale. Roth goes to Paris, ostensibly to study with Derrida, but actually “to live.” Besides working at Shakespeare & Co in his late teenage years, Roth seems never to have had a job.
One would think Roth to be wealthy, if not rich, but his father corrects this erroneous idea, telling his young son that the Roths are solidly middle-class, unlike Marco’s private school peers. Great grandfather Roth was a peddler in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the Central Park West apartment was bought at a reasonable price with an inheritance, in a time when the neighborhood was still edgy. His parents are liberals who love knowledge and culture, not money-grubbing bankers. Like a 19th century Russian novel, money and class and wealth play major roles in the undertones of The Scientists, but the main reason why Roth wrote his memoir is because his father contracted HIV, and died of AIDS.
The story went that on one unfortuitous day, his father Eugene was careless and did not wear latex gloves when taking a blood sample from a patient, who was a junkie. When Eugene removed the syringe, the junkie twitched, and the needle slipped. The puncture in Eugene’s skin was said to be the cause of a bad case of Hepatitis B, and then the little known HIV virus. Such an unlucky and random accident is similar to how Barazov, in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, goes to perform an autopsy on a peasant who has died of typhus, cuts himself, and becomes infected.
Eugene is at once admirable and despicable. With the typical expectations of an intellectual, Eugene trained his son to not be a Philistine, to love books, music, and knowledge, and to respect his Jewish heritage, without being a synagogue-attending Jew. While Roth was still in high school, he helped his father search for a cure for HIV, as if they were two heroic scientists fighting a battle against ignorance. For Roth, HIV was essentially a younger sibling, intertwined with every aspect of the household, “Blown-up photographs of lesions wound up on the table, a few places down from where we ate spaghetti Bolognese.” But the desires of father and son are often not the same, and young Marco erupts one day, breaking a set of dishes he had unloaded from the dishwasher not hours before, and he is sent to see a psychologist. After the disease has wasted his father away, Roth decides to forgo “the ivies” and attend Oberlin college in Ohio, against his father’s wishes. In an uncharacteristic, cruel display of power, his father threatens to disinherit Marco if he does not return to New York and attend Columbia. Later, Marco understands that this threat is a reenactment of scenes from Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, a book his father held dear. He also understands that this behavior of his father’s might actually not be uncharacteristic, that indeed, despite all one’s knowledge and culture and liberalism, Eugene still might never have gained emotional wisdom, and thus resorts to threats of financial abandonment rather than simply telling his son that he loves him, and wants his son to be close during the last years of his life. This nearly causes a break, but Marco succumbs, though by now he is aware of the hatred he has for his father.
It is not until a few years after his father’s death, when Roth’s aunt writes a memoir insinuating that the slipped needle story is just a story, a cover-up for the more likely cause of his father’s disease, which is a clandestine life of homosexuality. If true, then Marco’s existence would essentially “be a prop or decoy,” a display of proper middle-class bourgeois family life. Writing The Scientists is an effort to give his father revenge. Roth turns himself into a detective, obsessed with finding out the “full truth” about his father’s personal life, thereby turning the memoir into a mystery. Yet since his mother and other human sources keep secrets, Roth turns to his father’s personal library to conduct his search, embarking on a list of reading that he feels is “embarrassing and irresponsible” compared with what he and his graduate peers are supposed to be doing at Yale.
The book’s subtitle, “A Family Romance,” alludes to the romance novels of the 19th century, and moreover the Romantic ideal that art can save humanity. Unsurprising from a comparative lit scholar, the memoir is also a literary adventure. Roth’s investigation and the lessons of wisdom he mines from his discoveries are punctuated and illustrated by anecdotes from the literature of Thomas Mann (particularly what is referred to as his “most out” novel, Death in Venice), Gocharov’s Oblomav, and the aforementioned The Way of All Flesh and Father and Sons. Roth believes that he will discover the true private life of his father through these books, not in the rumors and gossip spread by his aunt and his father’s colleagues. Indeed there are parallels and clues throughout, both in the homosexual undertones and generational quarrels found in these novels. However, since Roth abandoned his scientific leanings before he graduated high school, and his father was more inclined to the arts, the memoir would have been more appropriately titled “The Intellectuals, a Family Melodrama.”
The Scientists is certainly a book worth reading, and is sure to get a lot of attention this year. The memoir is at once about the process of maturation, and an example of how to write; Roth rarely diverges into self-indulgent speculation, and when he does, he does so humbly, with the overall theme of intellectual self-discovery at the forefront of his musings. Like the blurbs say, the memoir is indeed intelligent and emotionally moving. More importantly, The Scientists is a brave and honest examination of shifting cultural values, liberal hypocrisy, and privileged guilt. Above all else, it is an exploration of the best way to live one’s life—which is, after all, the very point of literature.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2012