THE SCIENTISTS: A Family Romance. By Marco Roth. Farrar Straus Giroux. 196 pages. $23.
If ever a family could click the “It’s Complicated” button, that family is Marco Roth’s.
His first book, “The Scientists,” takes us to the kind of Upper West Side secular Jewish world that Woody Allan portrayed so spectacularly in his Manhattan films: mother, a concert-quality musician; father, a hematologist who teaches at NYU and runs a sickle cell anemia clinic at Cedars Sinai Hospital; son (Marco Roth himself), a precocious little genius who recites La Fontaine’s Fables in French and plays violin in a youth orchestra. There is money aplenty but also scorn for using it to buy Philistine pleasures.
In their Central Park West apartment, the Roths live what their son later will call a venetian blind life. Everything looks good, but the sun can’t get in, and the secrets don’t get out.
When Roth was 14, he learned the first of the family secrets: he had a “microscopic sibling”: AIDS. Roth’s father contracted the virus, back then a death sentence, in a freak accident with a needle stab, he was told. What happens to a boy whose home is a combination battlefield/laboratory? He has fantasies: of getting an accelerated medical degree and finding the cure that saves his father, just in time, or failing that, of moving to a commune in Vermont. And one night he goes down to the kitchen, takes the dishes out of the cabinet, and smashes them, one by one. At that point, he gets a shrink of his own.
Roth writes of his childhood self: “What I learned and what I failed to learn interests me, because whatever I am, I am not an unbroken story line.”
In choosing to relive the past, Roth has a refreshing lack of interest in the reader. He has intricate reasons of his own for wanting to turn “memory into memoir,” and we can follow his broken story as he inches down the long, indirect path toward emotional reunion with his father. Even as an adult, he has fantasies of heroism: For a family to survive, he speculates, someone has to “suspend the ordinary rules of reticence and pretense.” Marco Roth is that person.
The second secret of the Roth family is the one that unseals his mouth. Five years after his father’s death, Roth’s aunt, Anne Roiphe, published “1185 Park Avenue,” a memoir of her childhood. In it, she hinted that her brother might have contracted AIDS in the “more usual way.” Aside from the shock, Roth is annoyed as a writer that someone else should abscond with the script of his life.
Among the many threads of “The Scientists” is a meta-driven narrative of how he came to take back his story and write the very book we hold in our hands.
The “sneaky and lazy” incubation of Roth’s memoir is one of its pleasures. He wants the truth, that’s clear, but where to find it? Coming from a family of readers, Roth (one of the co-founders of the magazine n+1 and its best critic) turns to the books that his father gave him over the years, especially “Tonio Kruger,” “Oblamov,” and “Fathers and Sons.”
Somewhere is the code that will unscramble his father’s life. Reading for a buried message, Roth finds that his father was passing on stories of shame and potential humiliation: “Guilt was our habit. It might as well have been original sin.”
Educated in an unhappiness that might have stubbed his very existence, Roth hopes that writing about the past will keep him from having to live it. “The Scientists” is finally a story of homecoming in the classic mode. “You might try imagining that your parents loved you,” a girlfriend tells him along the way.
They did, Roth realizes, and he reciprocates with this forgiving book, his own version of the Kaddish he never said for his father.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.