Profound, intricate, literary, a little gossipy and more than a little heartbreaking -- such is Marco Roth's echt New York memoir, The Scientists, in which he struggles to make sense of the central burden of his life as an only child in a privileged Upper West Side family. Much of his childhood was spent watching his doctor-father die from AIDS, which he claimed he contracted from a slipped needle in his work at Mt. Sinai Hospital.
The young critic's first book has been greeted with the attention worthy of his place in the literary cosmos: he was a founder of the literary journal N+1, whose co-editors include literary wunderkinds Benjamin Kunkel (Indecision) and Keith Gessen (All the Sad Young Literary Men). And Roth is the nephew of novelist and memoirist Anne Roiphe and first-cousin of Roiphe's daughter, critic/provocateur Katie Roiphe. Roth's memoir owes its existence to his aunt's 1999 memoir, 1185 Park Avenue, in which she writes about growing up with her brother, Roth's father, and lets drop the bombshell that the story Dr. Roth told about contracting AIDS might have been an alibi to conceal his life as a gay man. Far from confessional, Roth's exploration is tough-minded, beautifully written, sometimes wry and self-mocking and always faithful to the complexities of his own feeling and thinking, his own failures and frailties.
He was kind enough to answer a few questions by email in the midst of his book tour.
EB: What's been your family's reaction to the book?
MR: Well, I've always thought that I came to write The Scientists in response to a conversation with my mother, in 2005. I'd started a version of a response to my aunt's book when I first read it, but for reasons explained in the book, I couldn't write it the way I'd planned to. My talk with my mom came out of that first failure, and I couldn't have written this book without my mom's willingness to return with me to a moment in a time she didn't want to revisit at all.
I wanted The Scientists to be as much about the process of how we come to learn difficult truths about our parents and our families. Many of us hear stories at second-hand about our families, and have to ask ourselves about the motives of the people telling us those stories. My aunt's memoir was a more public version of this kind of everyday storytelling, and that meant that my own investigations would necessarily be more complicated.
EB: A line in your biography on the book jacket -- that you "grew up amid the vanishing liberal culture of the Upper West Side" -- has gotten some flak, especially from Dwight Garner in the New York Times. Garner likens you to members of Salinger's Glass family. Do you have favorite New York novels and New York characters?
MR: "Oy veh!" as they say on the Upper West Side, also elsewhere. It's jacket copy! I didn't think people reviewed jacket copy. On the other hand, if we're going to review the jacket copy, it should be noted that what it says is true; the culture and income levels of the Upper West Side have changed enormously since I was growing up on Central Park West, only thirty years ago. Of course there are still writers and musicians, teachers and psychiatrists who live up there, but not of my generation, and the neighborhood has become more openly religious, less open-minded; there are more super-wealthy types and fewer in the middle class, even by distorted Manhattan standards of "middle class." It's a microcosm of the unfortunate changes in New York and in America over the last 30 years.
I honestly wasn't thinking at all of Salinger when I wrote. The more immediately influential New York literature, for me, included The Age of Innocence, Henry James's story "The Jolly Corner," Harvey Swados's Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn, passages from Edmund White and James McCourt, Jack Finney's time-travel novel Time and Again, which made a huge impression on me when I was fourteen, my cousin Emily Carter's collection of stories partly about the Lower East Side in the '80s, Daniel Menaker's The Treatment, and documentaries like Arguing the World and Paris is Burning. Jonathan Dee's The Privileges is excellent on the contemporary state of the Upper West Side.
The Glass family, people forget, were "part-Jewish, part-Irish," though the Jewish part isn't much in evidence. Mama and Papa Glass were in show business. There were seven of them. I'm an only child. If anything, they're too self-sustaining; the world can't give them the goodness and beauty and truth that they can give to each other, and from there comes Salinger's existential tragedy. In my case, the lack was at the center of this small nuclear family I write about. Culture, even highbrow culture, has many forms and many purposes. Sometimes the very thing you think is improving you is also helping you to hide from yourself. I was trying to write about my parents' New York culture, which is also my culture, the classical music and the high modernist European literature in a way that was neither anti-intellectual and dismissive nor purely elegiac and self-celebrating.
EB: Has writing -- or maybe finishing -- the book allowed you to feel some of the torment you explore in it less acutely?
MR: Writing the memoir has felt like an act of separation, but separation on my terms. I feel as though it's allowed me to gain a measure of independence that I'd been lacking. At the same time, I think I could only write the book because I'd already achieved some of that separation and calming of passion, even if I didn't yet know it.
EB: As I read the book, I felt your mother, a classical musician, was a nearly silent character. I wasn't sure if that was because you were keeping the focus off her or because she really was more in the shadows of your childhood or -- what we learn in the end -- that her silence was perhaps the result of the secrets she kept. Did she have a reaction to the portrayal of herself in the book that you can share with us? How did you manage the burdens of the memoirist when writing about people who are very much alive and still close to us?
MR: In the central drama of my family life: my father's illness, the way it affected my education, his weird outburst of vicious rage at me because I wouldn't go to the college he wanted me to go to after he'd spent years raising me to be "my own person," and then in the aftermath of my father's death, my mother did, in fact, remain silent or was often silenced by these two wordy males arguing and lecturing around her. She also got very good at talking about everything but the essential matter between us; so time was filled with her analysis of concerts (which are usually really smart and amusing), her stories about friends, her take on contemporary politics.
At the same time, there were entire years after my father died when she couldn't bring herself to talk to me about anything we'd gone through together. She encouraged and cultivated a certain distance, maybe not consciously, and so I, also not consciously, came to mimic her. In the way that all kids learn to speak from their parents, first, I got very good at this kind of digressing, what one of my grad school advisors liked to call "a fastidious resistance to the obvious." As a writer, it's a great challenge to employ digressive dialogue.
The reader has to know that what they're reading is a distraction from something more important and they have to be willing to be carried along a while in a stream of something that's not obviously relevant or important except as a subtle clue to character. Because the time spanned by The Scientists is also so digressive and diffuse -- five years passed between my father's death and my aunt's memoir, another seven between my first conversation with my mother after we read Anne's book and the second -- I didn't feel like I could try the reader's patience more.
That said, I also think my mother acted in perfect accordance with her notion of dignity, and I wanted the book to honor that. She moves through the book, and I tried to make sure readers can glimpse her in places even when you don't hear her voice. Her response to the book has been similarly dignified and action-based; I can't tell you how she really feels because I don't really know. She's read the book and told me that she found it powerful, that it's helped her understand what I was going through while my father was dying and also afterwards, but I'm sure she regrets that I had to write it.
I should also add something I haven't said elsewhere: that the music I listened to while writing the book was all music she'd taught me to appreciate, and so whatever music there is in my prose is as much hers as mine.
EB: We met when you were a student in a fiction writing class of mine 13 years ago. I wonder if you gave any thought to writing the story of your father and the aftermath of his death in fiction or whether you always knew it would be nonfiction? Did you want to conceal or disguise certain things that fiction permits you to do -- or were you clearheaded about telling the story without the artifices of fiction?
MR: Thirteen years ago, I couldn't have written this story at all, since I didn't know what the story was. I may have been groping darkly toward that story. I remember, as a young fiction writer, that I had terrible problems with plot, generally. I mention this in the book, that I failed to understand family drama as drama because my family had been so much about the avoidance of drama and tended to shift all explanations on to accidents, internal medical systems, things over which we had no control. Desires themselves may be things over which we have less control than we like, but we at least feel that we can play with them and make stories out of them, even if they just remain fantasies. I wanted to write my father's story, when I learned it, as non-fiction because it's a story that is a lot about what it means to look for the truth, about love and also in the rest of life, or to possess knowledge of various kinds.
As fiction, I thought it would seem too intentionally "post-modern" and metafictional, whereas the beauty and horror of my family's story is that it's in so many ways unintentionally "post-modern," that it reveals that there's a core of actuality to much of the cultural and literary theory I'd studied without knowing why I was studying it. The story is also messy in a way that would be unforgivable in a novel, but I wanted to be faithful to the messiness, to the wasted years, or the years spent reading the right things in the wrong ways or the wrong things in the right ways. I didn't write The Scientists to spill the beans about my family, or to engage in public psychoanalysis, but because there were issues of trust, of intimacy, of what it means to get educated in contemporary America, that I felt could be more effectively conveyed through a book that was as honest as I was capable of writing about my situation, largely in the hope that readers might make connections to their own lives in ways that are meaningful to them.
A shorter version of this interview appeared originally on HeadButler.com
Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels and The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide For Fiction Writers, as well as the editor of two anthologies, including the forthcoming "What My Mother Gave Me: 31 Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most" (Algonquin; 2013). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org