When Marco Roth was a child, his father was diagnosed with AIDS. The family tried to keep it secret because—this being the 80s—the only plausible explanations were gay sex or dirty needles. Eugene Roth strenuously denied both. He was a doctor, a bourgeois intellectual, an atheist Jew on the Upper West Side, and he claimed to have been accidentally stuck with an HIV-infected needle while treating a patient.
The quiet agony of helping your father die and the unusual pain of being forbidden to talk about it with anyone are ostensibly the subjects of Roth’s memoir, The Scientists. But they only take up the first third of the book. Roth offers a boy’s-eye view of the cluttered bookshelves and claustrophobic social circles of a bygone era in Manhattan, when people who weren’t billionnaires lived on Central Park West and raised their children on classical music. There is real drama here, as Eugene Roth tries to be a good father even though his impending death is the strongest odor in the house. Father and son tend to sit around reading medical journals, looking for a scientific narrative that will make sense of the disease that is destroying their family.
Roth writes in measured, weathered prose, as if he’s trying to rise above the contemporary expressions that would pin him to a particular time and place. Although he uses the first person and present tense, his brain seems to function in the third person, past tense. He crafts little composite scenes to represent his broader memories, and he paints a portrait of his own socioeconomic class by fixating on details like the family’s furniture. The Scientists feels like a classic 19th century novel about the atristocracy and one boy’s coming of age that has been crammed into a navel-gazing 21th century memoir. In a 19th century novel you can feel sympathetic toward a protagonist who is described as precocious. But when an author repeatedly calls himself “precocious” in a 21th century memoir, you want to chuck the book at a wall.
After his father dies, Roth’s aunt publishes a book (because everyone in this memoir is either a brilliant scientist or a successful artist) implying that Eugene Roth might have been gay. This sends our author into a fit. He feels certain the allegation is untrue and compelled to find a way to disprove it. There are shades of homophobia here, but Roth explains himself by saying that if his father was, in fact, gay, then Roth’s whole childhood—with loving, heterosexual parents—was a sham. So begins Roth’s investigation of his father, which takes up the bulk of the memoir.
The twist is the method of Roth’s investigation. He doesn’t question witnesses or dig through family records. He reads literature—specifically the books his father gave him over the years. Roth assumes that if his father wanted to share a secret with his underage son, he would have done so by carefully selecting classic works of literature that, as the boy grows old enough to understand them, will reveal his true message. So the memoir becomes the story of Roth’s education: how he started out at Oberlin but ended up at Columbia; how he thought about becoming a lawyer but instead chose comparative literature; how his father’s books followed him everywhere, becoming an obsession.
The real goal of The Scientists is to demonstrate, through the story of Eugene Roth’s death, what a terribly smart and literary fellow Marco Roth is. If that sounds like a cynical and selfish premise for a memoir—it is. Roth can be insufferable. Entire chapters are devoted, like a grad school seminar, to hermeneutical digressions on Stendhal, Turgenev, and Mann, with only sidelong glances at how those books inform Roth’s relationship with his father. When he writes about women, Roth manages to sound both misogynistic and woefully inexperienced, almost unfit for society, like an oafish child that you’d keep locked in the basement.
From a hands-on perspective, my teenage sexual orientation had been neither homo nor hetero but auto, from which, I supposed, one could plausibly conclude that my favorite sexual organ must be the penis. Yet it was plain to me that I wasn’t interested in anyone’s penis but my own, and my imagination liked to pretend I was actually stroking the fine long breasts of some eagerly glimpsed girl. […] Being before desire, in the way that Kafka’s man stands before the law, I only imagined what was on the other side rather than how one got there.
It’s hard to forgive a writer who speaks approvingly of “long” breasts and thinks of himself as a sexual Kafka.
Roth’s literary investigations fail to resolve any questions about his father, and it seems disingenuous for him to pretend they ever could have. But his extracurricular studies do advance the book in a direction that is somehow more correct: away from the material details of Eugene Roth’s death, and toward the creation of Marco Roth as a literary persona. That is what The Scientists achieves: the self-invention of Marco Roth as a contemporary figure from a 19th century novel, alternately luminous and grotesque, but always a terribly smart and literary fellow.
In this way The Scientists re-enacts the central drama of n+1, the magazine founded by Roth, Keith Gessen (All the Sad Young Literary Men), Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding), Benjamin Kunkel (Indecision), and Mark Greif (who hasn’t published his own book yet). They have branded themselves as experts at a specific kind of self-invention, one that is rooted in a stubborn affinity with the rigorous intellectual traditions of a perceived past. The Scientists describes the founding of n+1 as it relates to Roth’s personal life. And it ultimately affirms the whole idea of books—of pulling them down off the shelves of your Central Park West apartment, of feeling betrayed when your aunt publishes one you don’t like, of defining your life by writing one, of trying to find your father in them. There’s nothing cynical or selfish about that.
– Brian Hurley