Marco Roth’s “The Scientists: A Family Romance”

Marco Roth's "The Scientists: A Family Romance"For its first 50 pages, I often flipped back and forth from the synopsis of this book to the cover, then back to my current chapter. The need for a reminder was that pressing: yes, Marco Roth’s The Scientists: A Family Romance is indeed nonfiction, and it is a memoir, and this was author Roth’s childhood fairly recently, too. An early-90s shake-up of the Glass Family’s New York City, an only-child Tenenbaum recount, The Scientists presents an impressive retrospective on the death of Roth’s father, a victim of full-blown AIDS in the peak years of same, and every familial splintering that follows it – not least of all the quiet revelations that this father figure actually had plenty to hide, or plenty left for his surviving family to reassess.

It’s a strong debut from what is obviously a trained and critical mind (Much of the book takes place in Yale’s Comparative Literature department), but those analytical tendencies seem to border on the clinical – and permeate the book much more obviously – after the death of the father in the first third of the story. Thereafter, it seems like Roth’s trust in us as fellow critical thinkers waxes and wanes throughout, so when you aren’t being given a 15-page deconstruction of an obscure Russian novella, you’re being spoon-fed forced analogies between the Roths’ family life and the literary tradition. I suppose to FSG this meant The Scientists would appeal to a wider range of readers, an audience both cerebral and practical. But given that the swaths of literary theory are where Roth appears to be having the most fun, and connecting with his father at the deepest level, the remaining (and admittedly more readable) areas of the memoir seem injected solely for our benefit, and that gesture falls a little flat.

Though I came just short of enjoying literary criticism as a student, I want to make something clear: I did not consider these aspects of The Scientists tedious because of what Roth is unpacking. It was not for lack of understanding or for boredom, or desire for more climactic sequences. This is a memoir, and the very point of it is that his life was (and is) nothing of the sort. Rather, it is made tedious by what I perceived as an imbalance of sentimental moments like these:

I went out and waited on the black sofa in the music room.  Motionless, I looked out the windows as I’d done so often, staring at the skeletal branches still hung with tattered leaves and a stray wind-whipped plastic bag.

– with wholly unbelievable and/or inaccessible exchanges like these:

“Do you ever feel like we belong to a generation that will never do anything?” I asked my new friend.

“You mean we are what Nietzsche would call ‘last men,’ people who remain stuck in the old ways without knowing why they’re in the old ways and without being able to change themselves? People whose lives have no meaningful motive apart from basic human animal wants: food, clothing, shelter, sex.”

As it is, these two tones exist in equal measure but remain decidedly segmented, never combining in a satisfying, fulfilling way, more like oil and water than a black-and-tan. Indeed, a form of this tension causes Roth As Protagonist to struggle with the idea of whether we, the characters of our own life, experience things in a consistent narrative thread, or whether we are each bundles of random, episodic learnings. An interesting thought, and one that is presented in the mouthpieces of Roth’s British colleagues at Yale:

It does seem like something people go on about here: human beings are no longer just Artistotle’s imitating animal but we’re supposed to be the animal that plots everything. Our identities are supposed to have something to do with the stories we make up about ourselves or the stories we accept to have imposed on us…well, it’s not true, is it? I mean in every case…I bet most people don’t even think of their lives as ‘plotted,’ in any meaningful way.

Where Roth falls on this debate is completely up to him, and far be it from me to dictate the course of his memoir – but the approach he takes is a little needling, because he goes to all the effort to set up that interesting dualism of narrative v. episodic, and then totally blows it to pieces with neatly tied-up passages like this, as 26-year-old Marco finds himself a girlfriend:

When I double-parked the car in front of her house, she invited me up for a nightcap…I accepted. The next morning she somewhat guiltily went with me to the tow pound to retrieve my car. I drove her home and she invited me up again….It was the start of something, but a something that seemed impossible to reconcile with my relationship to my father’s books.

Boy, it’s pretty convenient that Marco was thinking about his dad in the exact moment the reader needs to remember crucial facts about Marco’s dad. This is the sort of forced narrative connection that would make the earlier-quoted Brit squirm! It would behoove Roth to bend more toward the episodic in such moments, because it would, at least, feel more honest than always taking pains to draw these one-to-one ratios between Life and Story Arc. And given Roth’s vow throughout the book to seek “the full truth” about his family, these strained parallels are vaguely hypocritical on his part. Sometimes the full truth is only as good as happenstance or incident.

The Scientists isn’t a book I regret reading by any means, but it’s one whose dry turns I wish I was more prepared for. Roth should trust that some of his best instincts needn’t be couched in a greater literary tradition – or at the very least, he doesn’t need to foist that connection onto a reader. The struggle Marco feels with this tradition is real, but it is a struggle so cerebral that we don’t gain from that toil the way he does, nor can we gain from it the way he expects us to.

The memoir is undoubtedly at its most powerful when we must consider the paradox of families: despite their best intentions, can parents actually allow or encourage children to establish individualized identities when those children come into the world literally from everything the parents were and are? That generations are doomed to repeat themselves is inevitable, as our protagonist sees and has lived it:

It didn’t matter what my father had done or not done in the hours when he wasn’t being my father. What mattered was what he’d done to me: his obscure injunctions…to be my own person as long as I was never disappointing or embarrassing him or watching televised sports, or playing the wrong music, or reading the wrong books…

With this tension, and the application of scientific method to a force as thoroughly haphazard as family, Roth has invited us to think about something in The Scientists that perhaps only the product of an unhappy childhood could have offered.  As someone who can’t say the same of her own childhood, it almost feels like he’s our ambassador, or even our martyr – that we may even take the time amidst our happiness to understand what we can’t shake.


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