Estrin, Marc 1939-

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Estrin, Marc 1939-

PERSONAL:

Born April 20, 1939; married.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Burlington, VT. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Writer, activist, musician, conductor, educator, and puppeteer. Bread & Puppet Theatre, VT, puppeteer; cellist with Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra, and Montpelier Chamber Orchestra, Montpelier, VT; political activist. Also taught at Goddard College, Plainfield, VT.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Book of the Year Award, Foreword, 2004, for Rehearsing with Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theatre.

WRITINGS:

Recreation; Some Notes on What's What and What You Might Be Able to Do about What's What, Dell Pub. Co. (New York, NY), 1971.

Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa (novel), BlueHen Books (New York, NY), 2002.

Rehearsing with Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theatre, photographs by Ronald T. Simon, Chelsea Green Publications (White River Junction, VT), 2004.

The Education of Arnold Hitler (novel), Unbridled Books (Denver, CO), 2005.

Golem Song (novel), Unbridled Books (Denver, CO), 2006.

The Lamentations of Julius Marantz, Unbridled Books (Denver, CO), 2007.

Tsim-tsum (novel), Spuyten Duyvil (New York, NY), 2008.

SIDELIGHTS:

For Marc Estrin, writing is just another vocation, along with music, theater, science, and political activism. Indeed, his first published novel came about almost without his intention, as he explained in an essay on the BookBrowse Web site. During a visit to Prague, he said, "my wife and I, playing tourist, had visited [noted Czech author Franz] Kafka's grave, and I left the poor guy a note (along with all the other notes thrust into the gravel) inviting him to come visit if he got a chance." The author continued: "Three weeks later, there he was, or rather Gregor, his most famous emissary, with a complete story outline on a platter."

Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa focuses on the main character from Kafka's well-known novel The Metamorphosis, a man who awoke one day transformed into a cockroach. In his novel, Estrin transforms Samsa into a sort of emissary from a Europe slipping into horror to the naive United States. The book takes place in the first half of the twentieth century, and Samsa meets many of the notables of the time, including Albert Einstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Susan Larson noted in a review for the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "Readers will devour this book, just to see what happens next, what famous figure of the 20th century will be drawn to make the acquaintance of or test wits with a five foot-six inch talking cockroach." He also views seminal events, such as the famous Scopes Monkey Trial that dealt with the teaching of evolution, the execution of alleged anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, and the creation of the atomic bomb.

Throughout, Samsa brings his unique perspective and unfailing decency to bear on the questions of the day as Estrin weaves philosophy, science, and history into his tale. "Indeed, if Insect Dreams weren't so perpetually funny, its philosophical ruminations and its encyclopedia of cameo appearances would be downright intimidating," commented Christian Science Monitor contributor Ron Charles. For Library Journal contributor David A. Berona, the result is a "colossal book of characters and events that inspires tears of laughter and sadness in its rich blend of clever metaphor and unsettling facts."

Along with his other pursuits, Estrin is a puppeteer. In his text for Rehearsing with Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theatre, he recounts his work with one of New England's well-known puppet troupes. Founded by Peter Schumann in the early 1960s and still performing all over the world, the Bread & Puppet Theatre features enormous puppets made from papier mâché. They are also noted for spreading their "stage" over great distances, creating vast tableaus far different from the small spaces reserved for more conventional puppetry. The book itself is divided into eight sections, reflecting the archetypal themes of the shows, including "Death," "Fiend," "World," and "Hope." The collection of essays complements photography by Ronald T. Simon. While Booklist contributor Jack Helbig found Estrin's commentary too "subjective and self-consciously literary," a Publishers Weekly contributor commended him for making "the strong social activist component of the theatre clear, in tones that are by turns humorous and revealing."

The author continues his satirical look at the world in his second novel, The Education of Arnold Hitler. This time the author tells the story of a Texas boy who ends up attending Harvard where he finds himself constantly facing the negativity associated with his name. The only people who seem to like his name are a group of rightwingers who plan to use him for their own purposes. The novel follows Arnold as he goes through his life dealing with his odious last name and, like Gregor in Insect Dreams, meets famous personages, including Al Gore, Noam Chomsky, and Leonard Bernstein.

Lawrence Rungrin, writing in the Library Journal, called The Education of Arnold Hitler a "wildly provocative tale of a young man who must learn to define himself." Booklist contributor Frank Sennett, noted that "this clever narrative package also makes plenty of room for literate explorations of Jewishness, [and] anti-Semitism."

Golem Song was called a "zany New York Jewish comic novel" by Library Journal contributor Molly Abramowitz. The story focuses on Alan Krieger, a repulsive, obese Jewish ER nurse who is also a genius and a self-styled savior of Jewish America, similar to the golem legend of Prague in the sixteenth century. Krieger sees anti-Semitism everywhere. However, Krieger's views are repulsive and loathsome, making him the most disturbing racist in the novel. In an interview with M.J. Rose on the Backstory Web site, the author revealed that he got the idea for his story from a real incident in which a Jewish acquaintance in New York called and asked him to buy and send him a high-powered rifle so he could shoot blacks in the upcoming war between the Jews and the blacks. "Needless to say, I refused," Estrin told Rose. "He cussed me out, told me I didn't know anything about reality, that reality wasn't living in goddam beautiful Vermont, with my goddam beautiful wife and goddam beautiful children. Reality was New York City. The subway. At rush hour!"

Several reviewers praised Estrin's novel of a brilliant but delusional man who believes that his racist views are just. "Estrin gives Krieger's racism all the usual motivations," wrote Jason B. Jones on the PopMatters Web site, adding later in the same review: "What keeps this from dissolving into cliché is Estrin's vital sense of how easily smart people can delude themselves into thinking they are beyond bigotry." Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, noted that the author's "mind-bending humor is at once intellectual and ribald."

Estrin followed up his novel Tsim-tsum—about God living on Earth in a Hyundai while he checks in on his creation—with The Lamentations of Julius Marantz. Marantz is a physicist who has invented an antigravity machine he calls the "Doodad." The machine, which is able to whisk people into the earth's atmosphere, is sought by several governments and eventually falls into the hands of a group of corporate lobbyists, religious right-wingers, and military people. Members of the group, named GEKO, begin using the machine to get rid of anyone who opposes their plans. Meanwhile, Marantz is horrified by the religious dystopia the "Doodad" has created. As people witness other people flying from the earth, the world goes into religious hysteria believing that the biblical Rapture has finally arrived. "Estrin's manipulation of the language used by the Falwells, Robertsons, Swaggarts and their lesser brethren quietly exposes the vacuum behind the televangelists' revival circus," wrote Ron Jacobs in a review on the ZNet Web site.

Estrin told CA: "I had always been a decent writer—school essays, and later, press releases, and as a minister, sermons. But my first really substantial writing bloomed when my seventy-something aunt wrote me that she was taking a seminar on feminism, and that she ‘couldn't make heads or tails out of postmodernism.’ So I promised her I'd write her a ‘Postmodernism for Beginners.’ I had in mind a comic book format like the ones Andre Schiffrin pioneered for Pantheon.

"I started writing, immediately overran the format, and wound up with an interesting full-length book. Because I had discovered French philosopher Jean Baudrillard while doing it, I sent it to Jim Fleming, Baudrillard's U.S. publisher. He loved it, and said they wanted to do it. But the project got so bolluxed in its complex graphical design it never happened. So it sits on my shelf, and I think my aunt still doesn't understand postmodernism since she didn't read the manuscript I sent.

"This was the first ‘real’ writing I ever did. I knew it was ‘real’ because it had more than one hundred pages. Three hundred in fact.

"I don't write on a regular schedule. It's more a process of inbreath and outbreath. An idea begins to pester me—often something that came up and was unaddressed in a previous book. I think about it, do some reading, do some research online or at my university library, and then it either roots or it doesn't. I then might start writing something and will soon intuit if ‘this will work out’ or not. If it's a ‘go,’ I'll plunge into more directed research, if necessary, and after a while, I start waking up a three a.m., needing to turn on the light to jot down phrases or notes. That's when I know it's time for outbreath. My sleeping wife [knows it], too. Sometimes I'll make an outline, but more often things just follow, page to page, chapter to chapter. I'm not one of those who writes an inspired scene, then uses it where it is best placed. I have to write consecutively or I don't know what happened before, and have nothing to go on.

"I think of Insect Dreams as being the most significant of my works, if only because its theme is world historical: the Trinity test at Alamogordo in July of 1945 was a moment from which humans can never turn back, and which, in its further development, profoundly affects our current world, and not just with respect to nuclear weapons, but concerning our relationship to nature and power.

"It would be madness to think that books such as mine can have any effect in changing the world for the better, especially in a culture which pays less and less attention to text. On the other hand, among the small groups that they affect, they have generated deepening discussion of the issues they raise. That is all I can ask.

"I also write to have fun, and to justify my existence."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, May 15, 2004, Jack Helbig, review of Rehearsing with Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theatre, p. 1589; April 1, 2005, Frank Sennett, review of The Education of Arnold Hitler, p. 1341; November 15, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of Golem Song, p. 31.

Christian Science Monitor, February 14, 2002, Ron Charles, "The World Was His Roach Motel," review of Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, p. 15.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2005, review of The Education of Arnold Hitler, p. 135.

Library Journal, December, 2001, review of Insect Dreams, p. 52; February 1, 2005, Lawrence Rungren, review of The Education of Arnold Hitler, p. 67; November 15, 2006, Molly Abramowitz, review of Golem Song, p. 55; September 1, 2007, Kevin Greczek, review of The Lamentations of Julius Marantz, p. 126.

Publishers Weekly, December 10, 2001, review of Insect Dreams, p. 52; May 3, 2004, review of Rehearsing with Gods, p. 188; September 18, 2006, review of Golem Song, p. 33; September 17, 2007, review of The Lamentations of Julius Marantz, p. 33.

San Francisco Chronicle, April 3, 2005, Kevin Smokler, "Adventures of a Boy Named Hitler," p. F3.

Times-Argus (Montpelier, VT), May 14, 2004, David M. Kaslow, "Meditation on 40 Years of Bread and Puppet."

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), February 14, 2002, Susan Larson, "Something Completely Different: Three Fresh Novels Push the Edge of the Envelope," p. 1.

World and I, June, 2002, Steve Dowden, "The Wound That Will Not Heal," review of Insect Dreams, p. 246.

ONLINE

Backstory,http://mjroseblog.typepad.com/backstory/ (February 8, 2007), M.J. Rose, "Marc Estrin's Backstory."

Blogcritics,http://blogcritics.org/ (October 29, 2006), Ron Jacobs "Golem Song: A Conversation with Marc Estrin."

BookBrowse.com,http://www.bookbrowse.com/ (December 14, 2004), "An Essay by Marc Estrin."

Breakthrough Technologies Web site,http://www.breaktech.com/ (January 12, 2002), Dan Wickett, interview with Estrin.

Conversational Reading,http://www.conversationalreading.com/ (January 11, 2007), review of Golem Song.

identitytheory.com,http://www.identitytheory.com/ (December 14, 2005), Robert Birnbaum, "Author of The Education of Arnold Hitler converses with Robert Birnbaum."

Marc Estrin Home Page,http://web.mac.com/mestrin/marcestrin (January 29, 2008).

MR Zine,http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/ (December 23, 2006), Ron Jacobs "Golem Song: A Conversation with Marc Estrin."

PopMatters,http://www.popmatters.com/ (November 19, 2006), Jason B. Jones, review of Golem Song.

Seven Days,http://www.7dvt.com/ (August 11, 2004), Margot Harrison, "The Evolution of Marc Estrin."

ZNet,http://www.zmag.org/ (October 12, 2007), Ron Jacobs, "Marc Estrin Takes on the Rapture in The Lamentations of Julius Marantz."