“What really knocks me out,” Holden Caulfield said, “is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
Sometimes that’s true. More often, what really knocks me out is a book that, when I’m done reading it, I’m exceedingly glad the author is no friend of mine. I hope never to meet, nor phone, nor text him or her. The great ones only rarely seem like nice people.
I had J. D. Salinger on my mind while reading Marco Roth’s first book, an acute but sometimes overwrought memoir called “The Scientists: A Family Romance.” In part this is because Mr. Roth’s precocious Manhattan childhood reminded me of Salinger’s Glass family. In part it’s because Mr. Roth wanders the city a bit as Holden did in “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Mostly, though, I kept thinking about the quotation that began this review. I was impressed by how unlikable - how needy and ineffectual, how effete and whiny - Mr. Roth was willing to seem. He emerges in “The Scientists” as one very coddled egghead.
He is so precious and literary he almost squeaks. He is so self-absorbed that, like the vacuum cleaner beast in the Beatles’ movie “Yellow Submarine,” he nearly suctions himself and everything else off the face of the planet, leaving only reverberating white space behind.
Mr. Roth is a founding editor of the earnest and self-consciously highbrow literary magazine n + 1. His writing in “The Scientists” frequently veers close to brilliance, and lingers there for long stretches. At other moments you will nod along with his high school shrink, who complained to him during a session: “You’re iridescing. It’s like you’re blowing these perfect little soap bubbles. Pretty thoughts. Elegant thoughts. But you’re not thinking” about the matter at hand.
My first bit of advice about “The Scientists” is this: as with early Merchant Ivory films, come for the scenery, stay for the articulate anguish. Mr. Roth grew up, as he rather strongly puts it on his memoir’s back flap, “amid the vanished liberal culture of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.”
The Roths were Jewish intellectuals who had money - his father was a doctor who supervised the sickle cell clinic at Mount Sinai Medical Center, his mother a classical musician - and Marco was their pampered only child. Their large apartment, filled with Persian rugs and mahogany furniture and a Steinway B piano, overlooked Central Park. There are violin lessons and trips to France and summers in Woods Hole.
The author attended Dalton, the private school on the Upper East Side; he studied comparative literature at Columbia and Yale; he impulsively flew to Paris to apprentice under the literary theorist Jacques Derrida. Roy M. Cohn, the head lawyer for Joseph R. McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee, was a distant cousin.
A plush sense of things carries through “The Scientists.” Later scenes are set on the streets of Fez, or in the reading rooms of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, or the Bodleian Library at Oxford, near where Mr. Roth and his girlfriend rent a house for a summer. This is well-appointed anxiety.
But it is real anxiety, and this book is suffused with real pain. “The Scientists” is largely about Mr. Roth’s relationship with his father, who contracted AIDS when the author was in grade school, back in the days when the disease was a death sentence. The author, hauntingly, refers to H.I.V. as “my microscopic sibling.”
Mr. Roth is excellent on how his father wanted to interrogate his disease. “It excites him, the deviousness of this virus, its audacity,” he writes. “He is a man who appreciates his enemy and wants me to appreciate it, too.”
The family’s kitchen becomes a kind of war room. About the treatments he undergoes, his father says, with mordant wit and a fake German accent, “Ve aim for ze shtars, but sometimes ve hitz London.”
The official story was that Mr. Roth’s father contracted the disease while taking blood from an infected patient and accidentally stabbed himself in the wrist. Years later, after he became largely estranged from his father, and after his father’s death, Mr. Roth reads a memoir titled “1185 Park Avenue” (1999), by his father’s older sister, the writer Anne Roiphe. It suggests that his father might have had gay lovers.
The slipperiness of Ms. Roiphe’s book enrages Mr. Roth. “She was outing him,” he writes, “without outing him.” He resolves to defend his father’s honor, but on his own terms - that is, on purely literary ones.
“My vengeance, which would be a book, of course, would not only be a blow in defense of my cursed father but in the service of literature, of truth, of benefit to my fellow Americans.”
In this effort Mr. Roth aims for the stars but often hits London. He decides to investigate his father’s life not by talking to those who knew him, but by reading novels (“Oblomov,” “Fathers and Sons” and “The Red and the Black” among them) that his father had recommended to him. He works at, as he puts it, “transplanting literature into my father’s life.” He is after “something greater than mere factual truth.”
This strikes me as an odd, evasive strategy for uncovering much about your father; it’s certainly a poor strategy for composing a consistently interesting memoir. The book threatens to dissolve into a solipsistic graduate thesis, a narrative about narratives.
It doesn’t. 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. (Mr. Roth is in his mid-30s.)
“Mine was the first generation in a while that seemed to regard replicating its parents’ achievements, or at least their income levels, as a goal both desirable and worthy,” he says, adding: “There seemed nowhere to go but sideways, or around in circles, like Gregor Samsa, the man-roach, crawling up and down the walls of the bedroom where he was confined.”
“The Scientists” will strike some readers as fairly twee. But it lingers in the cranium. If the book put me in mind of Salinger, it also reminded me of something Jonathan Lethem wrote in his recent book of essays, “The Ecstasy of Influence.”
“My ears prick up at the word ‘pretentious’ - that’s usually the movie I want to see, the book I want to read, the scene I want to make,” he declared. Mr. Lethem added, in a kind of reply to Holden Caulfield: “Nearly anyone I’ve found worth knowing was difficult enough, vivid enough, to qualify at some point as my crazy friend.”