4:47 pm Sep. 20, 2012
At first, Marco Roth wanted to call his debut book, a memoir, Reverse Transcription.
The book deals with Roth's father’s AIDS-related death and with Roth’s eventual discovery that much of what he had believed about his family—particularly the explanation his doctor-researcher father had given for how he came to be infected with H.I.V.—was not quite right, and that the reality was significantly more complicated and convoluted. It was published earlier this week as The Scientists: A Family Romance.
At once elegiac and mournful, angry and accepting, philosophic and deeply felt, the memoir excavates family secrets and examines the vagaries of family history, mining the distance between scientific precision and the more inchoate but intimate realm of never-quite-settled family relations. It is also a work of literary criticism, offering up elegant readings of, for example, Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger. (Roth, one of the founding editors of the lit-and-culture journal n+1, studied comparative literature at Columbia and Yale, though his approach to these novels largely discards academic rigor in favor of something more affective and, ultimately, effective.)
Titling the project “Reverse Transcription” made good sense, both as a reference to the mechanism by which the H.I.V. virus operates and as a description of the memoir-writing process itself, which, towards the end of the book, Roth describes as animated by the desire to “go back, once again, retranscribe as much of the whole thing as possible, with an eye for the difference between what we wanted and what we were: a different kind of reverse transcription.”
But Jonathan Galassi, Roth's editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, eventually convinced him that The Scientists would make for a “clearer, bolder” choice, a way of signaling “important truths about the book without being obvious about them.”
In a recent email responding to a set of questions I had sent him, Roth further explained the thinking behind the memoir’s final title, as well as how he and Galassi together came up with the Freud-inflected subtitle.
“[The title is] meant to make the reader think about the relation between storytelling and empirical truth, in all the complementary and contentious ways they brush against each other.... I wanted to hint at how someone can fall in love with an idea of scientific rigor and investigation that, for a while, leads them away from the important facts they need to know. Without giving away too much of the book: there's a professional scientist who turns out to be an artful master of deceit and evasion, a professional novelist who turns out to be interested primarily in uncomfortable facts about other people's lives, and then children who are, by nature, I think, always experimenting with their realities, both by collecting evidence and data and by play and fantasy. Because my father was dying for so much of my life, I really needed to invent, for myself, a healthy father and imagine what that person might have been like.”
But The Scientists is not driven merely by the need to (re)construct a long-gone father. As part of his investigation of his parents’ evasions, their attempt to present a story that might neatly sweep away the messy reality of their lives, Roth also takes on his own motivations in transforming his family’s private life into this particular story.
The memoir’s origins are thus traced, at least in part, to an earlier memoir: his aunt Anne Roiphe’s 1185 Park Avenue. Writing about her financially and geographically privileged but emotionally stunted family, Roiphe hinted that her brother Eugene—Roth’s father—may not have contracted H.I.V. through a needle-stick as he had always maintained, but rather “in the more usual way.” Roiphe’s insinuating lament for a life “lived so long bending beneath the deception forged in other ignorant and cruel times” infuriates Roth. But it is also impossible to dismiss, to forget entirely. He confronts his mother, who denies her sister-in-law’s allegations, insisting that his father “loved you, loved both of us…”
And so Roth determines to write an exoneration, to respond to and refute his aunt’s version of the story. But his own version of the story came to subvert his expectations, his best-laid plans.
“Of course my book is a response to 1185 Park Avenue,” Roth reiterated, but he also noted that “it's just not the response I thought I'd write when I started out.” (For the record, when asked if his aunt has read The Scientists, Roth affirmed that she had and that she has complimented him on it. As for his mother’s reaction, Roth said he was not quite sure how she feels about the book, but he stressed her bravery and her understanding that, though she may not have especially wished the book written, he needed to write it.)
Acknowledging the impossibility of attaining anything like the “full truth,” The Scientists instead investigates how we come to construct and relate the stories we believe and accept. In this way, it is a memoir as written by an aspiring, maybe even a frustrated, fiction writer.
“In some moods, I'm very disappointed in myself that my first book isn't a novel,” Roth confessed.
But he is also aware that an attempt to fictionalize the circumstances would result in something incomplete, something stripped of all that matters about this particular story.
“For one thing,” Roth said, “the gaps and time lags are especially important to the story I wanted to tell. There are few contemporary novels that are able to convey what it's like to go ten years between a moment of crisis and its resolution or unraveling, along with all the attendant wasted time or time spent doing something other than tending to this simmering crisis, time spent laboring professionally, or in relationships that don't work out because you always feel that your own life is somehow ‘beside the point.’”
Like the critic he is, Roth quickly named several novels that depend on the langorous passage of time: Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables, Oblomov, which happened to be one of his father’s favorite books and is extensively discussed in the memoir, Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Expressing wariness at the inevitable accusations of pretentious Proust or Woolf imitator were he to present The Scientists as a fiction, he instead chose to focus on showing that his life and the life of his family, like all lives, did not have a linear narrative nor a “made for TV plotline.”
“There are valuable things that non-fiction can do, and memoir especially, [which is to] live up to its billing as a category that's explicitly ‘not,’” Roth said.
And, anyway some stories, this story, would be too implausible for fiction.
“Most readers will be instantly suspicious of my father's account of how he got AIDS in the lab,” he said by way of illustrating this principle. “That it took me twenty years to become suspicious, even though I'm not especially stupid or credulous and indeed had had the best possible American education in ‘critical thinking’ would be unforgivable if my book were a novel. I wouldn't expect a novel reader to remain patient that long. However, that delay is one of the reasons I wrote my book as a work of non-fiction, in order to investigate how that process of delay got started and encouraged and came to dominate several lives.”
The investigation of time comes to encompass, in The Scientists, an investigation of memory itself. Asked about his choice to largely forego specific dates in a memoir otherwise replete with concrete detail, Roth said that he does not think about his life in terms of the calendar:
“Usually you remember things based around events. Journalists write things like ‘On August 10th, 1988, Roth learned his father had contracted the AIDS virus in a lab accident.’ But the date had no significance to me. I just remembered it as a day or two days after I got back from this music camp where I'd first kissed a girl, and was feeling excited about starting high school until I wasn't anymore. I really wanted the book's tone to be faithful to the way I remembered things, and so also show memory at work, with its flaws and gaps that are later completed, partial truths and hints that can resolve into a fuller picture over time.”
My last question for Roth had to do with his sense of how The Scientists fit into his work with and for n+1. He first acknowledged the importance, to his writing, of his relationship with his fellow founders, but he also noted that The Scientists was a departure from his contributions to the magazine, most of which involved political commentary or criticism.” And n+1 has been largely suspicious of the contemporary tendency toward memoir, with its sentimentalism, its maudlin self-study. (The phrase “auto-therapeutic wetness” may have been used in this regard.)
"I began writing my book knowing that it was something my colleagues might hate or find a betrayal of our standards,” Roth said. (His fellow founding editors, especially Keith Gessen and Benjamin Kunkel, ultimately proved to be invaluable readers.) “And yet n+1 also has published a lot of first-person narrative non-fiction, precisely because we're trying to encourage work that might break or test the boundaries of what we dislike about contemporary non-fiction. I tried to write The Scientists in that spirit.”
Marco Roth appears tonight at McNally Jackson Books with Keith Gessen to read from and discuss 'The Scientists.'
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