‘The Scientists: A Family Romance’ by Marco Roth
Author: Viet Dinh
January 6, 2013
Marco Roth grew up in a well-to-do Jewish family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but, like all unhappy families, his was unhappy in its own way: his father, a doctor, had contracted HIV, ostensibly from a careless needle prick, and by Marco’s high school years, had developed full-blown AIDS. And even though the subtitle—A Family Romance—suggests that this novel revolves around a family drama, it’s really more of a bildungsroman. Though the relationship between father, son, and illness plays a prominent role, the book examines the more subtle ways Roth’s father has influenced his life.
In particular, Roth’s father shapes his intellectual self in a way that goes beyond normal precociousness. In high school, instead the standard fare of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby, his father presses Ivan Goncharov and Thomas Mann into Roth’s hands. And as his father declines, conversations about the illness become commonplace: “T-cell counts, acne—anything was fair game as soon as I could get my tongue around a multi-syllable piece of mixed Greco-Latin medical jargon.”
Roth’s father dies early in the narrative, leaving a hole—spiritual, emotional—at which point The Scientists departs from being strictly about a father-son relationship. Instead the narrative becomes more episodic as Roth goes on to college, travels the globe, falls in love, and then goes to grad school. As a fellow grad student explains: “We can divide people into two kinds, those who feel that their lives are structured like a narrative… and those who feel as if life is a series of disconnected moments, transient and shifting desires.” Roth firmly plants himself in the latter camp.
But the one constant, overriding relationship to which Roth continually returns is that between him and literature. Even after he learns that the story of how his father contracted HIV might not be the entire truth, Roth tries to find answers not by delving into the mysteries of his own past, but by reconsidering the novels that his father had him read. It’s curious that Roth, despite his penchant self-reflection, doesn’t interrogates the silence and shame surrounding his father’s HIV status—particularly the stigma of AIDS as a “gay disease”—more fully, but Roth seems much more interested in matters of the mind than matters of the body.
Indeed, Roth’s prose evokes a calm, contemplative feel, with occasional flights of poetic fancy. But, as smooth as it is, it also displays a curious sang-froid. Even in extremely emotional circumstances, like at the father’s funeral, Roth’s retrospective narrator maintains a discrete distance. Even when he acts out, like one instance when he smashes the family dishes, the narration never accesses emotional intensity. And while this may suggest Roth’s general worldview—that he emphasizes the intellectual over the emotional—it may estrange readers who crave a more immediate connection to narrator.
At times, as well, it feels as if Roth tries too hard with the erudition, cramming the text with allusions, both literary and theoretical, a chain of signifiers that would have made Derrida chuckle. This isn’t surprising, considering that Roth is one of the founders of n+1, the much-heralded magazine, but the moments when Roth reaches for that connection—when he mentions his daughter, for example, and his failing relationship with her mother—don’t bridge the intellectual-emotional divide as much as emphasize the gap.
The Scientists is at its strongest as Roth tries to unravel the mystery of his father. That relationship, fraught as it is, brings forth Roth’s humanist side, as he tries not only to understand his father, but also to redeem him. Despite its shortcomings, The Scientists evinces a compelling portrait of the intellectual as a young man.
The Scientists: A Family Romance
By Marco Roth
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374210281, 196 pp.