The Scientists

A Family Romance

Marco Roth

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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A frank, intelligent, and deeply moving debut memoir

With the precociousness expected of the only child of a doctor and a classical musician—from the time he could get his toddler tongue to a pronounce a word like “De-oxy ribonucleic acid,” or recite a French poem—Marco Roth was able to share his parents’ New York, a world centered around house concerts, a private library of literary classics, and dinner discussions of the latest advances in medicine. That world ended when his father started to suffer the worst effects of the AIDS virus that had infected him in the early 1980s.

What this family could not talk about for years came to dominate the lives of its surviving members, often in unexpected ways. The Scientists is a story of how we first learn from our parents and how we then learn to see them as separate individuals; it’s a story of how precociousness can slow us down when it comes to knowing about our desires and other people’s. A memoir of parents and children in the tradition of Edmund Gosse, Henry Adams, and J.R. Ackerley, The Scientists grapples with a troubled intellectual and emotional inheritance, in a style that is both elegiac and defiant.

 

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1
 

The couch where my father died was also the couch where he taught me to read. I might as well start there: my alphas and his omega joined by a piece of furniture. It was a white sofa bed, pushed up against a wall the color of late summer nights. The room was supposed to be the apartment’s dining room, but served more as my father’s library. Sitting on the couch you faced two twelve-foot-tall bookcases, crammed to the top, with a third just like them on the right. The books both beckoned and frightened. Some of them were forbidden, placed high up on the top tier, after

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Praise for The Scientists

Praise for The Scientists:

“Marco Roth emerged from his privileged New York City childhood like one of Salinger’s precocious Glass children, but Roth’s family was ravaged by secrets, and from this history he has written a gorgeous memoir no one will be able to put down: psychologically adroit, precise, moving—one of the best memoirs I’ve read in years.” —Mary Karr, author of Lit

“This is the first intellectual autobiography by someone our age in the searching nineteenth-century tradition of Edmund Gosse or Henry Adams: the autobiography equally of a reader and of a son, grappling with an inheritance that is both intellectual and emotional—an education for our times.” —Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review

“Marco Roth’s memoir is a farewell to a bygone Jewish American culture—polyglot, intellectual, Europhile, psychoanalytic—and simultaneously a renewal of that culture. It’s both moving and tough-minded, a book of high intellect and deep feeling the like of which nobody else could write.” —Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision

The Scientists manages to recuperate for our time a certain kind of personal, idiosyncratic, private writing that moves at the speed of an actual very high intelligence. No one in our generation has written anything like this.” —Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men

“A book that has stayed with me this year is Marco Roth’s quiet, reflective, and deeply candid memoir The Scientists: A Family Romance. It is the story of a childhood spent keeping a terrible secret—the fact that Roth's father, a scientist, was dying of AIDS—and the ways that secret shaped Roth’s passage into adulthood. Roth also has valuable things to say about what draws people to literature and literary theory, and how the attempt to understand life through books can both enlighten and mislead.” —Adam Kirsch, The New Republic

“The author’s prose [is] effortlessly erudite and often startlingly precise. He writes beautifully. That care, which breathes through every paragraph, is freighted too with a kind of desperation. This is a book that Roth feels born, or doomed, to write . . . Roth quickly and likably departs from any such rational scheme in favour of the more chaotic and obsessive, hopelessly self-absorbed stuff of his life. You guess that few authors have been more relieved to get to the final page of a book than this one; for my part, as a reader, I was just sad it had ended.” —Tim Adams, The Observer

“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 . . . 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.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR

The Scientists is . . . not simply a perceptive and highly literary memoir but a book about attempting to uncover the mystery of a father’s life after his death, and the posthumous intimacy that forms.” —Alexander Aciman, The Wall Street Journal

“Circuitous, elegant and fiercely intelligent, this memoir is Mr. Roth’s attempt to understand his father’s character in order to better know his own . . . With the wisdom of a good reader and the humility of a lost soul, Mr. Roth sorts through the mess of his past—in order to plot his escape from it.” —The Economist

“[A] beautifully sharp memoir . . . Marco Roth turns his analytical eye on the culturally rich milieu of his upbringing and the mode of education he received within the walls of his home . . . The Scientists is composed with the same analytical eye for influence that the critic has brought to the table as an editor and writer for n+1. A less diligent memoirist might have easily restricted this meditation on retrospective reading to more defensive, sentimental territory, and Roth’s acknowledgment of the uncertainty of his purpose is commendable both for its bravery and its awareness . . . The Scientists is still, at its most fundamental, a family romance: elegiac, rife with frustrations of desire and secrecy . . . Roth’s prose, which has been well tuned by years of academic writing and meticulous study of literary classics, is luminous and graceful. His gift for building plot from domestic drama is similarly patent; his story is gripping, and The Scientists: A Family Romance is a burning work, alive with all the romantic potentials one would expect of a canonical classic—or, better yet, of a family life lived deeply, richly, and painfully.” —Ryan Sheldon, Blomblog

“This book is suffused with real pain . . . The best things in The Scientists are Mr. Roth’s spiny meditations on sex and ambition and family and love and death. The sound this book makes is the sound of a keen mind on shuffle. He strongly evokes a generational sense of malaise . . . [The Scientists] lingers in the cranium.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“[An] affecting memoir . . . The book is, among other things, a cautionary tale of a hypertrophied intellectualism that overreacts to any faint threat of sentimentality or child’s logic, and threatens to choke off and kill any spontaneous show of pleasure, passion or affection . . . The Scientists is an act of love—a circumspect, often bitter, always studious love—and thus an act of both filial piety and defiance.” —Jessica Winter, The New York Times Book Review

 

“Roth’s prose evokes a calm, contemplative feel, with occasional flights of poetic fancy . . . The Scientists is at its strongest as Roth tries to unravel the mystery of his father. That relationship, fraught as it is, brings forth Roth’s humanist side, as he tries not only to understand his father, but also to redeem him . . . The Scientists evinces a compelling portrait of the intellectual as a young man.” —Viet Dinh, Lambda Literary

“Marco Roth’s affecting memoir The Scientists . . . evokes that world of intellectuals, Oriental rugs and a postwar highbrow aesthetic of Schubert, Turgenev and Mann. This is less of a confessional memoir than a fiercely intellectual one, but that’s not to say it’s not emotionally powerful . . . This unsentimental memoir is a cautionary tale about hyper-intellectualism in which emotional life is at the back of the bus.” —Elizabeth Taylor, Chicago Tribune (Editor’s Choice)

“Roth brings a wistful dryness to his work; he is relaxed in the peculiar details of a story that limns much of what is universal between fathers and sons . . . Here a strange, perfectionist family becomes worth pondering.  The Scientists produced a son worth knowing.” —Karen R. Long, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“To the extent that lucid, self-lacerating prose can break a cycle of frustrations, The Scientists is a literary triumph.” —Steven G. Kellman, Forward

“Profound, intricate, literary, a little gossipy and more than a little heartbreaking—such is Marco Roth’s echt New York memoir, The Scientists . . . 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 an thinking, his own failures and frailties.” —Elizabeth Benedict, Huffington Post

“What makes The Scientists singularly brave is not the nature of its disclosures but the fact that Roth, a great writer, risked appearing mercenary or opportunistic in order to write it. He staked his relatively young reputation on the belief that he could convey absolute honesty and resist the impulse to curry sympathy or self-mythologize. At times Roth comes off poorly—overly sensitive, or too eager to think where he might feel—but it is a measure of his honesty that he never seems oblivious to his faults. In revisiting experiences more painful than many of his readers will ever have to endure, he is incapable of weakness or insincerity . . . One marvels at Roth’s inner life, which he has rendered so richly. If one begins this book asking, ‘Just who does he think he is?’ that reader will certainly finish it thinking, ‘Glad I asked.’” —Stefan Beck, Barnes and Noble Review

The Scientists is . . . a book worth reading . . . The memoir is at once about the process of maturation, and an example of how to write . . . intelligent and emotionally moving. More importantly, The Scientists is a brave and honest examination of shifting cultural values, liberal hypocrisy, and privileged guilt. Above all else, it is an exploration of the best way to live one’s life—which is, after all, the very point of literature.” —The Coffin Factory

“A lyrical depiction of education, family relationships, self-knowledge, and ‘a culture that believes no one should suffer, least of all in public.’” —The New Yorker

“[The Scientists] is an exquisitely written and intensely interior book, one that eschews the contemporary memoir’s penchant for epiphanies, redemption and tidy resolutions . . . Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this memoir is how free it is of self-importance . . . Although sincerity and authenticity were surely virtues regarded with skepticism in the graduate schools where Roth whiled away his 20s, they are also qualities The Scientists possesses in spades. It refuses even to lord Roth’s present-day understanding over his clueless past self — that is, to indulge in the egotism of autobiographical irony. ‘I was lost then, and I’m probably still lost,’ he seems to be saying, ‘but this is the story of how I fumbled, and am fumbling, a bit closer to the truth.’ . . .  The Scientists closes with a scene of him still at sea, starting all over again, beginning to write what you suddenly realize is the book you’re holding in your hands. He hasn’t quite arrived, but it’s good know that at last he can see the shore.” —Laura Miller, Salon

"The Scientists is highly intelligent, but to call a debut so concerned with uncertainty "assured" would misrepresent its complexity. The episodic structure creates a sense of dislocation so that the ending, when Roth makes discoveries and recovers those aspects of himself he needs to live and write free from the shame that consumed his father, provides hard-earned catharsis." —Max Liu, The Independent (UK)

“[The Scientists] is a moving exercise in literary detective work.” —Aaron Hicklin, Out Magazine

“Nothing seems embellished in The Scientists. Roth wasn’t looking to tell a coming-of-age story or write a book that feeds into his idea that the modern reader views literature as ‘spectacle’—as he wrote in a 2006 issue of n+1. Roth’s concern with The Scientists is to tell his story, the story of a dark period in his life and the way he coped with it. He isn’t trying to feed juicy pieces of gossip to sell the book, rather he takes the brave step of telling his story the only way he seems able to, and it has paid off in dividends by the time you finally close it.” —Jason Diamond, Vol. 1 Brooklyn

The Scientists: A Family Romance is a profound memoir.” —Charles R. Larson, Counterpunch

“[Roth is] self-aware, perceptive and soulful . . . [The Scientists] feels wisely grounded. It's an elegy not just for a lost parent but for what Roth’s bio calls ‘the vanished liberal culture of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.’” —Dylan Hicks, The Minneapolis Star Tribune


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About the Author

Marco Roth

Marco Roth was raised amid the vanished liberal culture of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. After studying comparative literature at Columbia and Yale, he helped found the magazine n+1, in 2004. Recipient of the 2011 Shattuck prize for literary criticism, he lives in Philadelphia. This is his first book.

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Available Formats and Book Details

The Scientists
A Family Romance
Marco Roth

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e-Book Agency

e-Book Agency
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
September 2012
e-Book Agency
ISBN: 9781466825840
ISBN10: 1466825847
208 pages
$9.99

Hardcover

Hardcover
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
September 2012
Hardcover
ISBN: 9780374210281
ISBN10: 0374210284
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, 208 pages
$23.00

Trade Paperback

Trade Paperback
Picador
August 2013
Trade Paperback
ISBN: 9781250039453
ISBN10: 1250039452
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, 208 pages
$15.00
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