As a chronicle of struggle, of anguish, the book is as much about the limitations of brains and books as it is a celebration of them. Just beyond the petri dish of precocity and privilege, it seems to say, the autoclave awaits. Roth was sworn to secrecy, which he upheld longer than most teenagers could have.
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What he managed to uphold even longer was his belief in the official story, which even the most credulous reader will doubt from the outset — not because it is altogether implausible but because one feels, having become accustomed to certain narrative conventions, that absent its slow unraveling there might have been no book to write. But it is in the nature of the modern memoir to deliver on the promises it makes, even implicit ones, and even if it goes on, as The Scientists does, to surprise in other ways.
A word on one of those surprises is in order.
When a critic calls a memoirist bracingly or fiercely honest, it is often a sleight of hand, an attempt to make the reader forget that in this shameless age, no confession is so strange or scandalous as to be brave in itself. 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.
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In revisiting experiences more painful than many of his readers will ever have to endure, he is incapable of weakness or insincerity. In fact, he terminated his long illness by taking sodium cyanide, but not before explaining to his son how the compound would operate and then shooing him from the room lest he become an accomplice.
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When it enters the heart it causes almost immediate cardiac arrest, a heart attack. Everything stops. If your heart is pumping blood out and contracted, then the body goes into a seizure. The hyper-rational decision to take his own life, to deny AIDS the last laugh, is more or less what one expects of a scientist.
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What good is this kind of knowledge? In this sense, all children are researchers, who succeed when they manage to dispel childish illusions and fantasies about their parents and begin to see them as flawed human beings. This is a difficult enough task under ordinary circumstances—if any family, seen from inside, can be called ordinary—but what do you do when it turns out that your family really is built on secrets?
This is the second trauma that Roth endured as a child: the sense that he was growing up in a home that was secretive and hypocritical. This did not, for me, make the secret any less secret or less powerful, nor did it make me feel any better for having talked.
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Roth describes his childhood as, in some ways, a New York Jewish dream of culture and affluence. He grew up in an elegant apartment on Central Park West, where his family regularly hosted musical performances; he attended the elite Dalton School, before going on to Columbia and Yale.
His father scorned baseball, television, and pop music; above all, he scorned the wealthy family he had left behind, with their conventional Reform Judaism and Park Avenue bourgeois values. All of these were badges of Philistinism, with the implication that to live rightly—idealistically, intellectually, indifferent to material things—was to be part of the chosen people:.
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I knew these people were the historical enemies of the Jews, that I was a Jew of some kind, though not the synagogue-going kind, nor the Zionist kind, either. The whole picture is curiously familiar, if anachronistic. Naturally, for a born-and-bred reader like Roth, the path to self-knowledge leads through literature—not the literary theory he studies at school and about which he writes acutely and sympathetically , but the books his father gave him growing up.
This comes as a total shock to Roth, who never suspected that his father could have contracted AIDS in a more typical fashion.