The Scientists: A Family Romance

Rarely does a book make so little effort as Marco Roth’s The Scientists to sell itself. Roth’s bio reveals that he “was raised amid the vanished liberal culture of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. After studying comparative literature at Columbia and Yale, he…” He what? There are plenty of ways the sentence might end that would, as they say, move units, but none of them is “helped found the magazine n+1.” The promotional copy begins: “With the precociousness expected of the only child of a doctor and a classical musician — from the time he could get his toddler tongue to pronounce a word like ‘De-oxy ribonucleic acid,’ or recite a French poem — “

This sort of thing isn’t for everyone. It may not even be for many. But press on and one learns that this memoir’s true subject is not the culturing of Roth’s brain in an especially rarefied petri dish. The Scientists is about the death of Roth’s father, Eugene, and the halting journey toward truth, self-knowledge, and identity on which it launched the son left behind. As a chronicle of struggle, of anguish, the book is as much about the limitations of brains and books as it is a celebration of them. Just beyond the petri dish of precocity and privilege, it seems to say, the autoclave awaits.

Roth learned just after his fourteenth birthday that his father, a doctor and researcher working in Mount Sinai Hospital’s sickle-cell clinic, suffered from “full-blown AIDS.” His father had, his parents told him, contracted the relatively new and mysterious disease in a freak needle-stick accident. Roth was sworn to secrecy, which he upheld longer than most teenagers could have. What he managed to uphold even longer was his belief in the official story, which even the most credulous reader will doubt from the outset — not because it is altogether implausible but because one feels, having become accustomed to certain narrative conventions, that absent its slow unraveling there might have been no book to write.

That is not to say Roth couldn’t have dramatized, to great effect, the less complicated tragedy he believed had taken place. In The Long Goodbye, Meghan O’Rourke grieved the loss of her mother without having to divulge a family secret. But it is in the nature of the modern memoir to deliver on the promises it makes, even implicit ones, and even if it goes on, as The Scientists does, to surprise in other ways.
A word on one of those surprises is in order. When a critic calls a memoirist bracingly or fiercely honest, it is often a sleight of hand, an attempt to make the reader forget that in this shameless age, no confession is so strange or scandalous as to be brave in itself. What makes The Scientists singularly brave is not the nature of its disclosures but the fact that Roth, a great writer, risked appearing mercenary or opportunistic in order to write it. He staked his relatively young reputation on the belief that he could convey absolute honesty and resist the impulse to curry sympathy or self-mythologize. At times Roth comes off poorly — overly sensitive, or too eager to think where he might feel — but it is a measure of his honesty that he never seems oblivious to his faults. In revisiting experiences more painful than many of his readers will ever have to endure, he is incapable of weakness or insincerity.

Some reviews have stated that Eugene Roth died of AIDS. In fact, he terminated his long illness by taking sodium cyanide, but not before explaining to his son how the compound would operate and then shooing him from the room lest he become an accomplice. This is not the kind of passing one finds in a college essay: ” ‘Sodium cyanide,’ he explained, ‘can take you one of two ways. When it enters the heart it causes almost immediate cardiac arrest, a heart attack. Everything stops. If your heart muscle is relaxed, then it’s a very peaceful death; they say painless. If your heart is pumping blood out and contracted, then the body goes into a seizure. It’s a fifty-fifty chance.’ “

The elegant symbolism of this statement is enough to make one’s hair stand on end. The hyper-rational decision to take his own life, to deny AIDS the last laugh, is more or less what one expects of a scientist. But it is cyanide’s macabre coin toss that presents such a perfect summing-up of the differences between father and son. For the dispassionate, cold-blooded man of science, death is regrettable but fascinating, something to observe in slow motion even as it swallows him up. For the hot-blooded, tantrum-throwing man of letters, it’s bound to bring on a seizure.

Life is not so simple. Per Roth’s postmortem, his father did not go gentle: “Smell of shit. Mouth fixed open in a grimace of pain. Legs curled fetally. One hand outstretched, another in a fist.” But Roth, rather than explode in fits of emotion, becomes curiously calm. He throws himself back into his studies, first a paper on the poet Stéphane Mallarmé:

Fixing on such an abstract distraction with the earth still brown and raw on my father’s grave was surprisingly easy. Mallarmé’s music, nonsense, silence, and coldness all felt impersonally personal. Before the glowing azure blank of my computer screen, I struggled with this new idea that art could be quite useless or meaningless, that language would do its own thing, if left to its own devices, that the poet and the reader must learn to get their consciousness, their shaping power, out of the way, let writing run its course, just as, say, the processes of protein synthesis ran their course in varying patterns, broken off and copied from the master text.

Roth receives his inheritance. (His father had threatened to disinherit him for a rebellious, if short-lived, attempt to choose Oberlin over Eugene’s alma mater, Columbia.) He goes to Paris in successful pursuit of Jacques Derrida. He barricades himself behind books, some of his own choosing and some recommended by his father’s admiration. He discusses, at various points in this memoir, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Mann’s Tonio Kröger, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and, most memorably, Goncharov’s Oblomov, but one pictures Roth gnawing through libraries like a cartoon beaver dispatching a forest.

Roth is in the midst of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle when another book drops like a bunker-buster onto his fortress of intellection: an advance reader’s edition of 1185 Park Avenue, a memoir his father’s sister, Anne Roiphe, had written about her childhood. Roth read the book in the knowledge that his aunt had succeeded in alienating plenty of family members with her past writings. At length he came to this: “If [Eugene] did not, even then, tell me everything about his life and if his AIDS was in fact contracted in the more usual way I would have been heartbroken — heartbroken because he would have lived so long bending beneath the deceptions forged in other ignorant and cruel times.”

In a discussion of a lesser work, this would count as a spoiler. In The Scientists, it just an embarkation point, the start of another quest for truth in what one senses will be a life made up of one after another. The question is less Is my aunt right? than Who is my father, really? and then, because all these things are of a piece, Who am I, really? As befits a book about reading and thinking, thinking and reading, The Scientists only grows more formless as it meanders toward its conclusion, which is also, in a way, its inception. But one marvels at Roth’s inner life, which he has rendered so richly. If one begins this book asking, “Just who does he think he is?” that reader will certainly finish it thinking, “Glad I asked.”