Marco Roth’s debut memoir The Scientists: A Family Romance walks the fine line between elegy and exorcism. In it, Roth, a co-founder of n+1, tells the story of his father’s death from AIDS during the mid-1990s and his own decades-long attempt to understand the man after his passing. The Scientists is a book about the boundaries of heredity, the power of inheritance, and the never-ending attempt to more fully understand the people we love.
I talked to Marco Roth at his home in Philadelphia about parents, belle-lettrism, and the power of reading with naiveté.
This book is obviously a project that you’ve been working on and thinking about for years. What does it feel like to have something like that finished and ready to be published?
It feels very strange. I think I have two false positions that I’ve taken. One of them is that I’ve finished this part of myself. I’ve successfully separated it from me, and I now have this pseudopod existence in a book. And this was a necessary process of separation, which is why I wrote this as a memoir, not because I needed a continuation of who I am. It’s a real cutting off. Like I was able to neatly put it into this box, and now have it be complete. And that’s not true, but i’ve been kind of going on the illusion that at least it somehow has a form.
But then even just today I found that I was writing about how my parents were always preparing me to say farewell by leaving places early, and now I’m wondering if this is something that they did unconsciously on purpose, as it were. They’re the kind of people who, if you went to a party, would always be among the second people to leave, though never the first. Or when we went away for the summer, to this little scientific community on Cape Cod, we would always leave, like, three weeks before everyone else. And I thought, man, I didn’t write about that at all . . . [laughs] Maybe that should have been in the book. But the book is very short, very self-contained and it says what it says and i’m more or less happy with that.
Did you have hesitations about writing a memoir, given the contemporary connotations of the form?
What are the connotations of a memoir? Because there are different memoirs, right? There’s the American overcoming addiction or abuse memoir, which I feel is this carryover from captive slave narratives or freed slave narratives, and also Protestant testimonials like “I was a sinner and now I am redeemed.” These are the kind of fictional structures that pervade all memoirs. So as long as you’re not JamesFrey and you exaggerate ridiculously, there is this understanding that you’re working within a genre of story.
You discuss a series of fictional works in the book, and a lot of them are coming of age, Bildungsroman stories. But here there’s a real sense of the full scope of maturation and the immense amount of time required to come to know parts of yourself.
It’s a process, right? The Bildungs-memoir memoir is another type, an American genre. The Education of Henry Adams is one of my favorite books and it was one that I looked at a lot as I was writing The Scientists, which I didn’t make explicitly about my education, but of course it is throughout. It’s a clear combination of genre. You can say it’s a grief memoir, which it is. (And it’s odd that I would be the kind of person who would need to write that, but I guess I’m the kind of person who needed to write that.)
But it’s also an education memoir, and in a large sense about an education of the emotions. It’s so much about how I was barraged with all of this information by my father when I was a teenager, about the mechanisms of AIDS drugs, and the actual chemical formulas that were used, and this, in a certain way, became a screen for what was actually going on. I could have spent my whole life just focusing on very small chemical changes and thinking they were truths — which they are, they’re one kind of truth — but they weren’t the bigger truth, what my family was about. So in some ways it’s also about the process of becoming an anti-intellectual.
Discovering the difference between information and . . .
. . . and knowledge, right. Which interests me a lot.
I feel like so many memoirs are marketed on the strength of the author’s experience being unique or horrific, and I don’t think that your book does that at all. While your story is very specific, it’s concerned with these very general themes, like the process of realizing your parents are real people, that I feel like everyone goes through.
One hopes that everyone realizes that in some way. And one also hopes that they go through it not as traumatically as I went through it. But yeah, I was trying to write this not as as a weirdly exceptional condition, but rather about howexceptional conditions bring about things we all experience, or should experience.
In a way it was just bad/good luck that my parents covered up their real-people-ness to me so as to invite, unintentionally, these sorts of investigations, even though the investigations would horrify them. They did everything possible to prevent that sort of thing. It’s sort of this classic tragic moment where the thing that you don’t want to happen happens because of the steps that you take in order to prevent it from happening.
They educated and prepared you so well that you did a better job than they would have liked.
Right. In some ways, they succeeded too well. Or they didn’t succeed in the ways that they thought they succeeded.
Your aunt wrote a book about your family as well, and you describe, at a few points, the apprehension you felt being “narrated.” Did you, similarly, have moral qualms about “narrating” your mother; “narrating” your father?
Yeah, and interestingly enough, there was a version of the book that was much more anti-memoir, where I really did question what I could know and what I could tell and what I could characterize. And I think some of that is still there. At the same time, I also realized that you have to get over these things, no matter what, when you write.
My father would quarrel with my aunt’s style, in order to really articulate a more general reservation — whether any sort of writing about anyone you know at all is appropriate. And yet, here was someone who loved reading Proust, and Thomas Mann, and Turgenev — writers who based their characters on real people, people they knew. Those people certainly recognized themselves. Even if future generations don’t care who the model for a particular characteris, other generations did care and could tell. So I took this as a stylistic quarrel. I thought, well I’ll just have to do a better job, I’ll have to show that these characters are rounded or that there are parts of them that will always escape my observation and my consciousness. Can I keep them independent, or at least keep a space where they are independent? And it’s up to the reader to decide whether I succeeded in doing that.
There’s a scene in the book where you are talking with a student at Yale and he’s on this tear about the American obsession with narrative, which he finds naive. So many writers I enjoy exhibit this paranoia about narrative, about too much narrative, or identifying an order that isn’t real. Did you ever worry that you were making too much sense of things by writing them? Or that you were proscribing too much of a narrative on your father?
That’s a very good question. Sort of, does the theory of the episodic overwhelm the book itself? I mean, I think I want you as a reader to have the possibility to believe this guy’s theory that our lives are not a continuous narrative. That they’re full of these discontinuous, irrational moments, and maybe these come to determine the outcome of our life, but we can’t say that we planned it or that the meaning of our life is that we slept with a man once and got AIDS. There is more to our life than this. I’m still very sympathetic to that.
On the other hand, what you can also say to this guy is, “yeah there are episodes, and these episodes, if we listen to them, can become narratives of importance to us, and maybe sometimes they should.” So, if you find yourself, you know, having similar episodes, like, Okay, you’ve now slept with four men or five men in your life and every time you say this is a one-off thing, this is no longer really episodicity. This is something else. Now it could mean that the narrative that needs to be constructed is a narrative about bisexuality, or people living lives in harmony with their desires outside of monogamy, or outside of traditional structures. It could be. In my father’s case, that the narrative involves going back to something that happened with his father and his family that is darker than he could really face and was ultimately unable to. But would he have been saved by resisting any narrative? No, he wouldn’t. He needed a stronger narrative.
So I think one can always, without being an apologist for beginning, middle, and end — Aristotelian story telling — want strong narratives for your own life, because you wouldn’t be able to function without them. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be moments of pure irrationality, but if there are patterns these might become narratives.
At the end of the preface you say something to the effect of — hold on, I’ll find it . . .
“If I have a more than ordinary need to relive the past on the page, it may be because I have a more than ordinary fear of reliving that past elsewhere.”
Right. It seems like in a familial setting, but in dealing with other people generally, coming to know your narrative or figure out how you’ve been conditioned is a good way to avoid hurting other people.
Yeah, exactly. It took my getting divorced, really, to get my mother to talk to me about what went on with my father. And it occurred to me that one of the things that could have happened, had she said this earlier, is that I would not have then found myself in this marriage where I was like, I don’t feel real; I’m feeling abandoned all the time. I had this horrible fear of family as this condition of abandonment.
Of course, I had no idea why I felt this way, and I had no reference point for really understanding it, because the narrative of my own family was so much designed to protect against acknowledging that. In fact, family was a place of abandonment, it was a place where you go to hide from yourself. And lots of people feel this way, you know? They’ll say “I cease to exist in my family, why is that?” and it’s funny because these are places where there is a lot of repression that’s just stored, and until people kind of understand that, you deprive them of a chance to live a full life in that family situation. That’s one of the things this book was written to mourn, more than anything else.
A friend of mine just had a kid, and recently we were talking about this freakout he had, where he lost all sense of self and was just like, ‘I am only a father,’ and then, over the course of a half hour, had to sort of rebuild his personality. It reminded me of a scene at the end of the book when you’re talking to your daughter, and she calls you “Marco.” You make the point that this is evidence she can recognize the difference between your structural relationship — father and daughter — and your interpersonal one.
I thought that was another interesting message in your book, that you have to, for example, be able to understand your father as a person, as a human being, but also as a father and a structure and then understand the relationship between those two things.
That is something that I wanted to put into the book. Although sometimes my daughter does not adequately recognize my fatherhood as a structure [laughs]. I think I may have gone too far in the other direction, I’ve ironized my authority . . . not that I should have any.
The Scientists features a lot of other books, works of literature, mostly. You read these books your father gave you in an attempt to further understand him. Was this a useful way to read them?
Yes, absolutely. I make a lot about having been conditioned by the PhD program to understand that reading for identification was shameful. But there was also this kind of — Paul DeMan, for example, who sort of lurked in the background as this ghost when I was at Yale, has this line about how, and I’m paraphrasing, “no one would be naive enough to grow grapes by the light of the word ‘day,’ but it is undeniable that we structure our lives according to schemes found in fictional narratives.” But even within this quote, there’s this lurking sense that it’s naive to structure your life according to a scheme found in a fictional narrative or to identify too closely.
Of course, my father gave me these books both as a formalist and as someone who did have these naive identifications, and they’re really strong. I mean at a certain point you have to be a dupe, and you have to understand that the naive reading is powerful and affecting and contains a certain, you could call it ideology, you could call it a way of being in the world, that can make you walk around thinking that you’re Tonio Kröger, like I did, for four years of your life, and have it make sense of the world for you. Not necessarily in happy ways, but in satisfying ways.
Like when you think, Oh, I just had a Tonio Kröger experience, or, I just had a Thomas Pynchon experience — to take somebody for which you imagine there’s no possible naive identification [laughs]. The reason that people care about books is because they influence, and sometimes they influence you like an actual life. If it was all just fun and games and storytelling we could all read romance novels . . . but even then you have Madame Bovary, or Don Quixote . . .
Parts of the book are almost a celebration or validation of naive readings.
In some ways what happened was that university scholarship became so hyper-specialized and professionalized to the point that now they’re just like, Oh, we’re going to study literature as an institution itself, and the individual relationship to books is anathema. I think my book is one of a number of books that have been written recently — like Elif Batuman’s Posessed about Russian literature, or Geoff Dyer writing about Tarkovsky’s Stalker — that are essentially people writing about their encounters with books. I think at this moment we’re in this revival of what my professors would have dismissively called belle-lettrism. And, I mean, even to say “belle-lettrism,” who could take that seriously? It’s French. Nobody could take that shit seriously!
But we are clearly seeing a renewed interest in books about one’s relationship to cultural objects and how these cultural objects change your sense of the world and give you insight into things that are unexpected. Maybe it’s the revenge of humanism, and maybe this is where humanism needed to go to survive — because it clearly couldn’t survive in the university setting for very long without becoming a parody of itself — twisted in the way that the rebellions of the ’60s and the ’70s showed just how completely fake certain forms of university humanism were and what they left out.
It’s heartening for me that someone wanted to publish this book, and they were like, Oh, people are now interested in books again — not just as a quaint, antiquarian cultural object, but as things that could help this person to understand who their parents were, why they were behaving strangely, what was going on in their family, that also gave them a choice about the kind of person they could be and helped them realize that they didn’t have to be the same type of people as their parents.
The book also touches on the relationship between academic study and, to put it crudely, being in the world and writing as a journalist. One section in particular is about you traveling around France to report on sudden political victory by the National Front and abandoning a presentation for a seminar you took with Derrida. Was n+1 a product of that tension?
Very much so. What we wanted to do with the magazine was create a space that you could as an academic also write as a journalist, or as a journalist give vent to theories that you wouldn’t normally be allowed to do, and as a fiction writer you could combine modes of academic and high theory and research.
We really felt when the journal started that there was this hyper specialization and that as a writer you were encouraged to really narrow yourself at an early age and then eventually, when you made it, you were allowed to write the things you really wanted. But by that point those people have actually grown into the styles of their specializations and they couldn’t really write outside of it.
In the France case, I lived under this false opposition where, instead of bailing on my seminar presentation on the rhetoric of hospitality in the book of Jonah in order to go interview Arab kids in the village of Vitrolles — I could have, in a smarter way, had it occurred to me, combined these, right? But at that time, nobody was ever going to say, Oh, you can do that. I mean, Derrida wasn’t going to say this because, well, he wasn’t interested in my future. And I couldn’t have said that to myself, and the people around me were the people who were saying, “Oh, you must choose! you can’t go to Vitrolles and do the seminar.” And so I created this kind of drama for myself that embodied my feeling that these were irreconcilable, to the point where I used my Vitrolles trip to get out of my seminar presentation, very unconsciously . . . but brilliantly! [laughs] So that’s an instance that one hopes people now would be smart enough not to do that . . . and there were probably people then who were smart enough to do that, I just wasn’t one of them.