Marco Roth’s new first book The Scientists is subtitled A Family Romance. I wondered about that subtitle later. The story is hardly “romantic” – it’s a detailed memoir of the author’s childhood and coming of age as his father dies of AIDS, having been infected early in the 1980s when the virus was still unknown and, as a rule, incurable.
Roth grew up in a very specific 1980s New York, in an intellectual cocoon, as the only child of a scientist (father) and classical musician (mother). His parents would host chamber music performances for friends and colleagues at their Central Park West apartment and he would try his best to sit up straight and still in imitation of the adults. After his father’s death, when Roth learns his aunt has written a barely-fictionalized novel about her deceased brother, Roth too decides to write a book about his father. The Scientists is the result.
Rather than write a novel about his family, Roth has created an incredibly honest document about them. His parents told him over and over again, “Be your own person” but their son inevitably is an offspring of them and their New York City home. He went to music camp; he went to Dalton; he tried to keep the secret of his father’s illness but couldn’t, really; he tried to rebel by choosing Oberlin for college but ended up back at Columbia out of guilt. His father gave him books to read. He tried to read them.
After his father’s death, Roth turns back to those books from his father: The Metamorphosis, Tonio Kröger, Oblomov, and others from the 19th and 20th century – “I used to think these stories were the sort of stories any ‘normal,’ loving, well educated, and emotionally reticent father might give his son to read,” writes Roth. They are all from the European literary tradition where a “romance” can be more like a legend, or the story of a quest. “Perhaps… it was my father’s life all along that he was trying to pass on to me through these encrypted transmissions of what it felt like to be him.” At the time in a Comparative Literature PhD program at Yale, Roth goes deeper into these stories about “ambivalent and doomed young men.”
The second half of the book is an intensively literary exploration of emotions and memories about losing his father. I was surprised to find myself consistently engaged and rewarded with observations like this one of the unhappy Tonio Kröger, the protagonist in Thomas Mann’s novella of the same name: “He didn’t live in a closet but in a room with windows, one of which might, one day, become a door, although it was impossible to know which one, or whether he’d stumble, as if by accident, though the window to stand shivering, shard-dusted, bloodied, on the other side.”
The book concludes when Roth has become a father himself and started his own career as a founder of the magazine n+1. It feels like a long journey to have made with him. As a reader, I kept expecting the pace to lag and leave me behind as he went off into writerly obscuration but it didn’t. Roth is above all a reader, a legacy of his family, and he has written a book that is clear, sincere, and very worthwhile to read.