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The Evolution of Marc Estrin



Published August 11, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Marc Estrin's novels are nothing if not high concept. In his debut Insect Dreams, published in 2002, the giant cockroach from Kafka's Metamorphosis gets a new lease on life, and hobnobs with such giants of 20th-century history as Ludwig Wittgenstein, FDR and Robert Oppenheimer. In The Education of Arnold Hitler, due out next spring from Unbridled Press, an all-American baby-boomer struggles with the burden of coincidentally sharing his surname with the villain of the century. Meanwhile, Estrin's got a finished manuscript about a modern-day Faust who enlists a plastic surgeon to make him 17 again, and he's currently at work on a comic novel in which God lives in a car.

Where do these ideas come from? Estrin keeps his author bios to one sentence because, he says, "It can get pretty long if I don't." A native of New York City, Estrin was pre-med in college and spent time in a doctoral program in microbiology at the Rockefeller Institute. The experience of studying with Nobel Prize winners left him with a lifelong interest in scientific progress and the ethical quandaries it can occasion.

But the lure of the performing arts drew Estrin out of the lab. Armed with an M.A. in theater direction from UCLA, he came to Goddard College in 1969, where he taught theater, English, music and physics, among other subjects, for 10 years. In 1970, Estrin first saw Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theater perform. He's been involved with the group, which he calls an "infusion of vision and health," ever since in the roles of puppeteer, musician, bread baker, activist... and now as chronicler. He wrote the book on Bread and Puppet, Rehearsing With Gods, published last May by Chelsea Green.

In addition to being scientist, teacher, cellist and puppeteer, Estrin has worked as a physician's assistant at UVM's Student Health Center; has studied theology at Berkeley, and practiced as a Unitarian minister. "I was kicked out of two churches for being too political," he confesses.

How did he get into writing? "I'm trying to make up for my illiteracy in classic literature," Estrin suggests, gesturing at his living room in Burlington's Old North End. The place is entirely walled with books.

It's hard to take this modest declaration without a grain of salt, given the myriad references to writers -- many German and Austrian, some fairly obscure -- that stud Estrin's pages. One of the many admiring reviews of Insect Dreams praised his "encyclopedic imagination"; another, from the San Francisco Chronicle, called the book a "thought-provoking, tragicomic romp across defining cultural milestones of the twentieth-century West."

But Estrin, who started writing at age 58 -- he's now 66 -- describes himself as a latecomer to literature. "Before I was 16, I read nothing but comic books," he says. His relationship with literature began when he encountered Kafka's The Trial. Later on, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain "changed my life," he says. His "baptism in German literature" is clearly reflected in Insect Dreams. The response to the novel was especially heartening, says Estrin, because it made him feel that "even I could write, without any training."

If Estrin's experience finds its way into his writing, it's as panoramic background, not as subject matter. He doesn't see his work as autobiographical or, indeed, "psychological." "I'm not interested in writing psychological novels about dysfunctional families, which is 70 percent of the literary fiction that's being produced today," he says. He places his work instead in the playful, hyper-real, yet socially critical, tradition of Sterne and Cervantes.

In the wake of Insect Dreams, Estrin attended Breadloaf and the Wesleyan University writers' workshop, "to see what they were about. Writing is very private, and I had no community," he says. He recalls one famous author declaring in a seminar, "'You know, writers do not write about love and death. A writer writes about a mother and her dying child.'"

By contrast, Estrin's "big, Wagnerian chapter on love and death" in Insect Dreams involves the giant roach visiting a plastic surgeon -- an allegorically resonant anecdote, but not exactly one drawn straight from life. "There's a lot of wisdom in [the seminar teacher's words]," says Estrin, "but it's not at all what I do."

His preference for the universal over the particular work of art is a tendency he shares with Bread and Puppet's Peter Schumann, whom Estrin describes in Rehearsing With Gods as a personal and artistic role model, and also as "the only sixteenth-century human stalking planet Earth today."

Estrin reminds us that, in the 16th century, dramatists saw their stage as a microcosm of the theatrum mundi, or world theater. They weren't interested in presenting "slices of life" -- however realistic -- but in depicting the whole unruly kit and caboodle, complete with its supernatural dimension. Angels and demons appeared onstage, and characters were not individuals but, as they are in Bread and Puppet, composites and caricatures -- such as "Uncle Fatso," the quintessential ugly American.

In Estrin's absorbing text, which veers from intellectual analysis to unabashed celebration to down-and-dirty anecdotes of life among the puppeteers, he describes Bread and Puppet as bringing folk art to the media-saturated masses of the new millennium. But if that art rejects psychological complexity, Estrin shows that it certainly doesn't rule out complexity per se. He delves into the mysteries of the chemistry between Schumann's icons and his audience.

For instance, when Schumann appears on stilts as an 18-foot Uncle Sam in a top hat crowned with skeletons, people applaud -- "but do they know what they are applauding?" writes Estrin. "Are they applauding the government, which they have spent the last hour hissing and booing? Is this Sam their uncle? Are they applauding Peter's daring and skill?... Do they see it as satire?... Why then the skeletons? Why not frying pans or flowers?"

Lines of questioning like this, writes Estrin, have earned him the teasing title of "Professor" from Schumann. But Rehearsing With Gods suggests that pondering the questions raised by giant puppets has helped Estrin develop some of the themes of his own fiction -- the perplexing distinction between animals and human beings, the Faustian bargains made in the name of science and progress.

Today, Estrin lives what he calls the life of a "bum," alternating between writing, playing his cello in local ensembles, and activism -- you can find him in the daily antiwar vigil at the top of Burlington's Church Street. On Tuesday he signs Rehearsing With Gods at Bear Pond Books, and on September 17, he and local poet/artist Marc Awodey will do a reading at the Firehouse spotlighting "writing about music."

Estrin has also finished what he hopes is the final edit of The Education of Arnold Hitler, a novel about "the craziness of language, and the way we relate to language, and the way it's not related to reality." Arnold, whom the novel follows from 1950 to 1972, tells people, in vain, that "I'm Arnold, that's Adolf. I'm a different person." His unfortunate moniker still sends him on a trajectory from Harvard to a Bowery hotel, and from there to New York's underworld, where an avant-garde artist latches onto him in an effort to increase her credibility with a group of neo-Nazis.

Can a name really determine the course of a person's life? Stranger things have happened in the 20th century. And Estrin, like Schumann, has a knack for reminding us that the world we think of as "normal" is often as absurd as an 18-foot Uncle Sam.