The Scientists: A Family Romance
by Marco Roth
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 208 p.
While there is no shortage of pieces from the relatively short history of n+1 that could be collected into some sort of reader, or called the defining essay on certain subjects, in terms of literary output, three names that appear on the masthead of n+1’s first issue have all fared a bit differently. There’s the mixed response to Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men (Joyce Carol Oates and Jonathan Franzen liked it, New York Mag described it as a book that “follows a trio of Gessen clones—generic twentysomething Harvard-educated intellectuals—brooding vaguely about what to “do” with their “lives.”) Benjamin Kunkel wrote Indecision and gave Michiko Kakutani a chance to review it as Holden Caulfield. But it was Chad Harbach’s 2011 novel, The Art of Fielding, which has thus far been the biggest smash for any of n+1’s founders. The book went on to become a bestseller, and reviewers felt comfortable enough to compare Harbach to Herman Melville. Now Marco Roth is the latest from the magazine to publish a book with his memoir, The Scientists: A Family Romance. And in some ways, the amount of time it has taken Roth to put out a book and the type of book he decided to give the reading public as his debut are initially surprising, but the rewards are ultimately plentiful.
What’s surprising is that Roth, arguably the most gifted literary critic in the n+1 stable, would chose to be make his book debut with a very personal story centered around Roth’s father’s passing from the AIDS virus, and not attempt to join the ranks of the great novelists he admires and writes about in his essays. But in the end we’re all the better for Roth’s decision. The Scientists is so many of the things that we could ask for from a memoir that Lorin Stein of The Paris Review adequately sums up with his blurb of the book as an “intellectual autobiography.” It’s a story about family, a meditation on the death of a parent; but at the heart of The Scientists, there is books. The obvious love of Mr. Roth’s life, we are shown glimpses of Roth as a child that “was the definition of “precocious,” growing up on New York’s Upper West Side in the days when it was still thought of as the capital for the type of Jewish Liberals that Roth stemmed from. His father a scientist, his mother a musician, Roth was the child destined for great things, who in what he might consider one of his acts of “teenage betrayal,” forgoes the neighborhood alma matter of his dying father (Columbia University), choosing instead to attend the Midwestern liberal arts Mecca of Oberlin College. He ends up regretting the decision, ultimately obeying his father’s wish – along with a threat that Roth would forfeit his inheritance if he decided to return to Ohio. Whether or not Roth believes his father’s underlying desire is to have his only son close to home during his last days isn’t mentioned, and that’s part of the control Roth is so good at exercising throughout The Scientists. While the book focuses a great deal on his father dying, the book is through and through Marco Roth’s memoir. It is Marco Roth’s story, and he works hard to keep it that way throughout the book’s 196 pages. It’s an admirable job, but it’s also what might be the book’s greatest detraction, much like another volume in the n+1 canon of books, Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. While Gessen’s novel was a work of fiction (aided by a what I’ve been led to believe is a good deal of autobiography), it was difficult for some readers to connect with due to an overall feeling of woe for the sad, brilliant, and obviously middle-to-upper class white guys. But Roth isn’t fictionalizing anything. He isn’t writing himself as a character, rather he’s telling his story and he happens to be an obviously brilliant white man who comes from a comfortable family and has a sad story to tell; and, quite frankly, some people might not like it, and it’s my belief that Mr. Roth is very much OK with that. A perfect example is the several pages he spends talking of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, and the people who in real life are “Oblomovs.” While the particular part of the book almost echoes a skit Jerry Seinfeld would write for his show or a part in a Nora Ephron film (both quintessential Jewish Upper West Side touchstones), and ultimately winds back to how Roth uses fiction to better understand the world, it almost seems like too much at points and gives the reader a feeling that Roth is like an earthly Mr. Spock who depends so much on logic and is unable to muster any emotion. When about sixty pages into The Scientists, Roth’s father summons him to the family home for one last goodbye before he administers himself a dose of sodium cyanide, Roth’s reaction to entering the room where his father’s dead body lies is noticing the “smell of shit,” and then to wonder why ambulances are required for already dead people. Roth then sits down on a couch, drinks some water, and then reads the New York Times.
But you can’t fault Roth for not being a crier – that’s really one of the interesting things you take away from the book. We all deal with things in our own way, and Roth has a collected, almost detached way of going about things. After his father’s death, the cause of which Roth was led to believe came in a freak laboratory accident, his author aunt publishes her own memoir that makes the case that Roth’s father may have contracted the disease by having sex with a man. Roth doesn’t go on to make this a book about his father’s sexuality, and instead of flying into a rage about the accusation, Roth again stays totally collected because that’s who Marco Roth (as we’re led to believe by his own words) is, and that is what you look for in memoir: Who a person is. That is how you measure the validity of their story, and that is how you end up coming away with reading the true-life tale in your hands.
Nothing seems embellished in The Scientists. Roth wasn’t looking to tell a coming-of-age story or write a book that feeds into his idea that the modern reader views literature as “spectacle” — as he wrote in a 2006 issue of n+1. Roth’s concern with The Scientists is to tell his story, the story of a dark period in his life and the way he coped with it. He isn’t trying to feed juicy pieces of gossip to sell the book, rather he takes the brave step of telling his story the only way he seems able to, and it has paid off in dividends by the time you finally close it.