Every New York story ever written or filmed falls into one of two categories. The first — like Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or the musical On the Town — regards New York as the representative American city, a jam-packed distillation of the country's dreams and nightmares. The second group views New York as a foreign place — a city off the coast of the U.S. mainland that somehow drifted away from Paris or Mars. Think every Manhattan movie ever made by Woody Allen. Marco Roth's new memoir, The Scientists, definitely belongs to this second, more cosmopolitan group of New York stories.
Roth grew up on New York's Upper West Side in the 1980s, where a liberal Jewish culture infused with European tastes was then breathing its last gasps. As the only child of a research doctor father and a musician mother, the precocious young Roth read Norse legends while lying on worn Oriental rugs, discussed foreign films at dinner, and obediently sat still through Schubert recitals in the vast family apartment that overlooked Central Park. This was the era of sitcoms like Family Ties and Full House, but in Roth's apartment, the date was more like 1890, and the TV — an opiate of the masses — was definitely turned off.
Something more vital also was disconnected in that apartment. As Roth tells us in the first chapter of his memoir, by the time he began high school, his father was dying of AIDS. (Supposedly, he'd been infected years earlier by a random needle puncture). Since these were the early days of the epidemic, Roth was sent to a psychiatrist to deal with his father's illness, and otherwise ordered to keep it a secret. As his father's symptoms worsened, Roth recalls, his family's kitchen table was "transformed ... into a sort of war room where we followed the course of the illness. Blown-up photographs of lesions wound up on the table, a few places down from where we ate spaghetti Bolognese." Roth refers to HIV as his "microscopic sibling" — one whose existence was denied to the outside world until his father died while Roth was in college. A few years later, after his dad 's death, Roth's paternal aunt, the writer Anne Roiphe, wrote a family memoir and sent an advance copy to Roth. That's how he learned that his father was probably gay and that the infected needle story was most likely a fiction.
Don't think of The Scientists as one of those memoirs that simply sets out to air old grievances: Instead, this slim, fierce meditation takes readers into realms where more emotional, confessional tales rarely tread. Roth is an intellectual. (How could he be otherwise with that upbringing?) The Scientists not only precisely evokes the lost postwar world of high European culture that once thrived on New York's Upper West Side, but also traces Roth's subsequent struggles to understand how his upbringing — with its intense emphasis on the life of the mind — both liberated and, as he puts it, "thwarted" him.
Roth is not a funny guy — in fact, he and his family remind me of the dour Max von Sydow character in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters — but some of his recollections rate a rueful laugh, especially when he recalls his time spent in Paris at the feet of the notoriously dense French philosopher Jacques Derrida. It turns out even Roth's excellent French isn't quite good enough to keep up with Derrida's four-hour-long lectures, filled with wordplay and nonsense rhymes, like "an ongoing performance of some strange experimental novel."
Like Roth's own childhood, The Scientists is compellingly anachronistic. Roth searches for meaning in books and flawed mentors, just like some super serious young man out of the 19th century — a Henry Adams or a Jude the Obscure with advantages. Ultimately, Roth's quest brings him back to a posthumous confrontation with the father who first deceived him, to ask the question of whether it's ever possible to escape a family legacy of unhappiness, "reticence" and "pretense." This memoir itself, a prolonged and unsentimental backward glance, serves as its own disturbing answer to that question.