Marc Estrin

Fiction

 
 


Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa

(2002)


F
ranz Kafka published his long story "The Metamorphosis" in 1915, spilling into the lap of a still-complacent world a burning omen of the future: man waking up as vermin. What an astounding image, never before imagined, even in the great studies of human alienation in an industrialized world. A giant cockroach, lying on his back, and waving six legs above him: Kafka's Gregor Samsa.

And yet, why should such miraculous devolution necessarily be negative? Are stem cells to be despised? Was it not time -- and is it not time still -- for humanity to step back from its precarious evolution to consider other paths? Could Gregor be a gift, as well as a warning, offering us new insight into human possibility?

My Gregor Samsa is all that Kafka's never got to be: a humane visionary, speaking truth to power. A six-foot, talking cockroach with an ethical agenda is easily dismissed by those in high position. Nevertheless, Gregor affected many in Prague, Vienna, New York, Washington, and Los Alamos, on his spiritual path toward ground zero. His quest had much effect on the world around him, mostly for the better.    Read author essay   Read reviews

   

The Education of Arnold Hitler

(2005)


What’s in a name?” young Juliet asks. Nothing, she concludes: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But not all words smell as sweet as “rose”. “Hitler”, for instance. So what would life be like for a sweet young fellow named Arnold Hitler? As you might imagine, not entirely rosy.

Arnold grows up in Texas where his name was his father’s name, a name that in the late thirties seemed to have been swiped by some German. All goes well for the talented southern boy – quarterback, chess prodigy, wonderful first girlfriend, experiencing the civil rights movement and Vietnam – until he arrives at Harvard. There, in sophisticated Cambridge, his name becomes a problem.

He is shunned in classes, can’t find a girl. “Change your name,” Noam Chomsky advises. “But it’s my name. It was my father’s name. I’m not Adolf Hitler, I’m Arnold. He’s dead. I’m someone different.”

Good luck. Alas, words are not as rationally owned as they pretend.

Arnold of the problematical last name is confronted by a series of unsavory types – as yin must cross with yang – and suffers the consequences. He is tempted by one satanic rogue to become a Jew, to explore his role as a pariah. A Vergil takes him on a tour of hellish New York, where he cannot find a place to live, but meets a fascinating woman, an artist trying to understand evil – and her neo-Nazi gang.

Arnold Hitler is fated to endure a quality education before he can call himself a man.  Read author essay  Read reviews

Link to a podcast concerning Antisemitism, and the two very different endings of the book -- one as published, and one discarded. To read the discarded frame, see the Orphans section of my website. If you have an opinion about the two endings, I’d like to hear from you. The happy ending vs. the miserable one is a problem I struggle with continually.

Golem Song

(2006)

Back in 16th century Prague, a huge pogrom was brewing. While the Jews were baking matzoh for Passover, a little girl in the city was discovered missing. That particular two plus two might equal big-time violence in a culture convinced that the “best” matzohs were made by adding the ground bones of Christian children to the flour.

The Jewish community was trembling in fear: the handwriting was on the wall. So their chief rabbi, the sainted Rabbi Loew, went to the banks of the Vlatava, dug barrowfuls of river clay, and brought them up to the attic of the Altneu Synagogue, a most strange building still standing in the old town. There, he fashioned a huge clay man, and like Victor Frankenstein three centuries later, brought his creature to life. And again, like Victor Frankenstein, he was to see that creature turn against him and break the bonds of its limited creation.

The golem story resonates through time and many cultures: man must beware of stepping beyond his limits. We, in our world, have built our own golems — the huge security apparatus stirring in our laboratories comes readily to mind. The SUVs with which we empower and guard ourselves are taking their toll. And the most dangerous golems of all are at play in the minds of individuals who lust to be invulnerable.

Alan Krieger is one such being, a genius of sorts — poet, musician, homme de thêatre, a man well-read in the entire reference frame of western culture — but you wouldn’t want to bring him home, so sickened and sick. Alan has come to think certain folks are out to get him and his, and decides to turn himself into a golem to protect his people and their cultural hoard. Is his a legitimate project? What would YHWH say? So he asks — and gets the answer he was hoping for.

But can such a golemesque project succeed? Is it containable in a human frame — even Alan’s overweight one? Is “chosenness” mere self-esteem gone wild? This is the struggle portrayed in the book.  Read author essay  Read reviews


The Lamentations of Julius Marantz

(2007)


I
n The Lamentations of Julius Marantz, we are plunged into a global dystopia in which groups of people are flying off the planet — apparently victims of The Rapture — and the world has gone mad with religious hysteria. It turns out that all this is due to Julius’s invention of an anti-gravity device, which “doodad” was immediately pounced on and sequestered by a secret coalition of three groups — the Pentagon, the World Council of Churches, and the Sierra Club — each of whom can use such a device to advance their goals. The Pentagon can get rid of certain enemies, the WCC can turn people of all faiths back to God, and the Sierra Club gets a twofer: it can reduce the population while simultaneously filling the ozone hole with UV-absorbing organic material. Julius, once convinced that his invention could really advance world peace, has given the coalition permission to go ahead with its scheme.

After seeing the destruction it has caused, Julius is ready to spill the beans and expose the entire affair. He therefore becomes a target of his own invention. Nice death sequence at the end, with Julius swinging on the abandoned parachute jump in his childhood Coney Island, awaiting his forced ascension. Interesting back story of a kid growing up in CI, inspired to become a physicist by his experience on the rides.

Along the way, a bark-mitzvah for a doggy, an apostate/conversion-event, a Christian motorcycle gang, and some interesting physics. Relevant when written, and becoming more so daily. The book is about rising and falling.  Read reviews

Here’s a sample chapter, GEKO. This is the meeting where Julius is convinced to offer up his invention to the powers that be.


The Annotated Nose

Artwork by Delia Robinson

(2008)


William Hundwasser’s cult best-seller, The Nose ( Fomite Press, 2004) was a literary and marketing sensation, spawning more than two hundred associated products, a major motion picture by the Koan brothers, and various oddball social practices still current, if fading. An American success, yes, but a typical crime of exploitation.

According to its hero, Alexei Pigov, Mr. Hundwasser, wrapping himself as ever in “poetic license”, not only misrepresented him and his projects worldwide, making free with the facts, but beyond the page forced real Alexei to act out many of his get-rich strategies for stardom. Get rich they did, of course, and famous. But for the real Alexei Pigov, it was -- and is -- important that the true story be known. Veritas vos liberabit. 

Noting my use of real characters in fictional work, in 2006, Mr. Pigov approached me to bring out an edition of Hundwasser’s The Nose, with his corrective annotations. Unbridled Books was persuaded to publish their first offering in annotated-book format, with Hundwasser’s original text and its now-classic drawings by Delia Robinson reproduced on the left-hand page, and Pigov’s voluminous commentary -- indexed to Hundwasser -- on the right. I was pleased to provide some editorial remarks on the complexities as I understand them.

As the contemporary plague rages, it is important for the public to understand plague doctors like Alexei, their motivations, and practices. And if there are any single women interested in contacting Mr. Pigov, they can reach him through Fred Ramey at Unbridled Books.

Read review: The Nose Knows

Cover review: Most Coveted Covers



Skulk

(2009)


Skulk is a comic novel about 9/11. As someone once said when I told him I was working on a comic novel about 9/11, "A comic novel about 9/11? Hmm...there must be a niche for that..."


While Skulk is funny, I actually wrote it to try for an end run around the censorship of any but jingoistic or breast-beating treatments of the event. I've been doing a lot of study of  9/11 issues , and it's pretty clear to me that at the very least, the official story is a crock, and much remains to be explored and followed up.


Skulk follows the (mis-)fortunes of a pair of activists who want to create a teaching moment for America by reproducing, on a comically small scale in Wichita, the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings -— to demonstrate the impossibility of the official story, and along the way, to get Kansas to secede from America. 


“Skulk” is Teresa Lee Skulkington of the Connecticut Skulkingtons -- an Ann Coulter-like figure who, over the course of the book, hooks up with Richard Gronsky, a history professor at the U of Kansas, and the team of Gronsky & Skulk spends much time stalking a department store Santa who seems to be more than he appears. (Turns out he's a CIA demolitions expert, stalking them in turn.) Their plan is to steal a Cessna from the Wichita plant, and fly it into the tallest building in Wichita (13 stories), parachute out, and hold a press conference prior to the building's coming down. The CIA, of course, has the last laugh.


John Brown writes G&S three letters from the grave, and there's lots of good stuff about midwest culture and weirdo types in general, Humperdinck, spycraft, areonautics, skydiving, demolition, and flight training using SadoSoft software. Also an ode to the ampersand.The websites Gronsky & Skulk list in their calls to the people are real, and if curious readers check them, they'll have access to some scary information.


Some other things you’ll find in Skulk are:


-- a political attack on the concept of Santa Claus

-- Oscar Wilde’s Utopia

-- a dialogue between Richard Gronsky, himself, and Karl Marx

-- the difficulties of making a quill pen in contemporary America

-- how to smuggle pot past Homeland Security

-- how to take down four men, two of them armed

-- Department of Homeland Pathology

-- the world’s first all-year department store Santa, complete with jingles

--  a dissertation on what Kansans love

-- high on acid and the Grateful Dead

-- a short history of Bleeding Kansas

-- a Valentine ode to the ampersand

-- Jesus and political weirdness in Mullinville, KA

-- trailing, evading and bugging 101

-- a Brechtian adaptation of Hansel & Gretel

-- exposition on Skull & Bones

-- Kansan Indian anthropologist on PC towards Indians, Kansas Indians, and a Norwegian story of the devil

-- Santa on the world-sickness and its possible cure

-- a middle-east address attacked by yarmulka-ed clowns, and descending into melee, with lab experiments in the latest methods of crowd control

-- technical clues to cyber-nontraceability

-- some beautiful writing on skydiving, based on AUTHOR EXPERIENCE!

-- flight training software from Sadosoft, a pedagogical breakthrough.


Like most of my books, Skulk is a combination of comedy weirdness, sadness, and cultural critique.

Read author essay

Reviews of Skulk


The Good Doctor Guillotin

(2009)


The novel follows five characters to a common destination -- the scaffold at the first guillotining of the French Revolution: 

-- Guillotin, of course, a physician member of the National Assembly, involved in many important happenings, including the Tennis Court Oath. He found the Tennis Court. 

-- Nicolas Pelletier, the first victim, or "patient", as he was sometimes called, since the new beheading machine was seen as a humanitarian medical intervention in the technique of dealing death.

-- Father Pierre, the curé who accompanies Pelletier in his last days, a man torn between his religious commitment, and an equally strong commitment to the poor and their revolution.

-- Sanson, the famous executioner of Paris who, 9 months later would execute the king and retire from remorse. Quite a character, this guy.

-- Tobias Schmidt, builder of the new machine, a German piano maker working in Paris, a freethinker predicting the Terror which will follow, but allowing himself to initiate it. The revolution, after all, had reduced the sale of pianos.

Various other interesting figures briefly appear: Damiens, Mozart, Mesmer, Louis XVI, deSade, Marat, Robespierre, Demoulins among them.

The eighteenth century narrative is in several sections, each introduced by an essay in my voice, the first on five-ness and Pentagons; a second on hope and utopia; a third on revolutionary violence; and a fourth on capital punishment.  Cut from the book, but in the “Occasionalia” section of this website is an essay, "Both Victim and Executioner", a reflection on why capital punishment persists in the US. My hope is that the book NOT be seen -- and pigeon-holed -- as a "historical novel", but rather as a novelistic meditation on a contemporary conundrum using an eighteenth century lens.


Author interview concerning The Good Doctor Guillotin

http://dissidentvoice.org/2009/09/dr-guillotin-and-dr-faustus/


Essay on the music in The Good Doctor Guillotin

http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2009/10/book_notes_marc_2.html




Tsim-Tsum

(2010)


Artwork by Delia Robinson


Tsim-tsum is a Hebrew word meaning “contraction” or “self-limitation”, and according to Isaac Luria, a 16th century Kabbalist, it was YHWH’s first move in creating the universe: He had to tsim-tsum, because if He didn’t, there would be no room for the material world. What’s most interesting about this is that His first act is not one of emanation, but of hiding. The second most interesting thing is that the tsim-tsumed God is quite similar to the postulated infinite compression before the big bang.            

Anyway, God is living in a ’96 Hyundai, having returned to check out his creation. He doesn’t like what He sees or hears on the recalcitrant radio which comes on at will reporting news from the 14th to the 20th century.

So He decides to do a second tsim-tsum, in order to give humanity a little more room for its improvement. There are four chapters (each prefaced by a drop cap Y, H, W, and H). In the first He eats his tail and legs; in the second, His arms; in the third, His torso; and in the fourth, His head — an ingenious topological trick. In this last chapter, He is visited by Death and the Death Orchestra, who populate the airbag. As He finally disappears, Cheshire-catlike, into his own smile (or grimace) we don’t know whether tsim-tsum has been achieved, or simply the death of God.

Review: HOLY SNIT! 

(Seven Days 9/8/10)

Some say God is dead. But in Marc Estrin’s latest book, Tsim-Tsum, He’s alive and well and living in a ’96 Hyundai.

Thing is, the Lord is really upset with His creation, specifically mankind. His trusty Bose brings him news of bloodshed and brutality spanning the last millennium. So God — the narrator of this 135-page novella — decides to check out.

According to Kabbalah lore, creation could happen only after God performed a tsim-tsum, the Hebrew word for contraction, to give mortals some room. Estrin imagines God “contracting” a second time. He wants people to stop pestering Him with their whiny prayers and start becoming more godlike themselves. “I mean,” God asks, “if I’m all Good and maddeningly ubiquitous, where is there room for Goodness elsewhere?”

There’s nothing mystical or magical about this process. God eats Himself, starting with the tail. Estrin gives the Creator a body that’s very material indeed, and the results are thought provoking, grotesque and just plain funny. Take God’s response to someone who doesn’t recognize Kabbalah doctrine: “Even Madonna gets a better grade than you. No, not Madonna, the BVM ... the Madonna...”

Imagine God performing His own theodicy in the style of postmodern vaudeville and you’re starting to get the idea. To learn more about where Estrin gets his ideas, catch him at the upcoming Burlington Book Festival, where he discusses reworking great literature of the past at a panel called “Piggy-Back on the Shoulders of the Classics.”



When the Gods Come Home to Roost

(2011)


Artwork by Delia Robinson


When his 35-year old trophy girlfriend, Demi, dumps 65-year old George, a classicist at Berkeley, he decides to attempt to actualize some of the Greek and Roman myths he has been teaching for four decades, specifically the one in which Aphrodite transforms Phaon from an ugly old man into a beautiful youth.


He accepts the (mephistophelian) offer from a plastic surgeon in his UU congregation to turn him into a genuine 17-year old through a combination of surgery, hormonal therapy, nutritional therapy, psychotherapy and yogic practice. The rejuvenation succeeds, and for the acid test, George enrolls at the private high school attended by Zoe, Demi’s daughter, a young woman he had raised to be the daughter he always wanted. They fall in love — as well they might, being so perfectly matched.


The moral status of this relationship is challenging. George, after all, has been changed. He is really 17, not her erstwhile stepfather, but an appropriate, non-blood related, first lover. But maybe he’s not really 17. You get the issue. Lots of interesting classics and music stuff on the path. A plastic surgeon you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.




The Prison Notebooks of Alan Krieger (Terrorist)

(2013)


Artwork by Delia Robinson



Alan Krieger, the hero of my previous novel, Golem Song, is thrown in the tank for some not-atypical disruptive behavior. He meets several challenging cell mates, and when home, bailed out by his mother, composes a tortured diary of his three-hour imprisonment, along with an embedded novella about one of his cellies, The Revenge of Endymion Tush, and includes an explanatory autobiography, The Book of Krieger, by Alan Krieger. The cover painting (left) by Delia Robinson and Vincent Van Gogh is a telling preview. The Notebooks were originally planned to be written in blood on toilet paper squares, but weren’t.





And Kings Shall Be Thy Nursing Fathers

(2015)



Some religious traditions see the newly dead as confused after stepping through the door. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, for instance, is an instruction manual for “emerging forth into the light.” 


Until his coffin is closed, the dead Tchaikovsky lies there, a bewildered newbie, haunted by the oddness of his life, his death, his sexuality, his music, and art in general while his brain and language gradually decay. Much needs to be parsed. Confusion haunts him throughout the text, the old life energy swimming in and out of his weakening grasp.


His monologue is accompanied by some engaging notes, with links both printed and electronic.




Speckled Vanities

(2015)


Indian Springs, Nevada (pop 900), at the edge of the Mojave, is “downtown" to three institutions I discovered by accident and GoogleMaps. 


— Creech Air Force Base, home to the drone operators in their air-conditioned trailers,

— High Desert State Prison, Nevada’s largest, newest, and most modern, and

— the Sekhmet Temple of Goddess Spirituality, a community in the desert.


All three are concerned with violence against women.


This remarkable combination is the setting for some very confused and confusing relations among my four protagonists, in a plot modeled on Cervantes and Goethe. They are all musicians, and music maps their gnarly way throughout.




HYDE

(2016)



Dr. Jekyll’s experiment was to try to separate the good and evil in himself, and then to live the blameless, virtuous life. We know what happens when he loses control of his transformations.


But pure Hydes are out there to this day, and not only in the obvious political, military and financial elite.


Charlie Hyde is a used car salesman in Paterson, New Jersey, working for Meshugenah Moishe’s Deals on Wheels. And Moishe too, is more than meets the eye.


A Faustian tale of good and evil.





Work in Progress


  

Kafka’s Roach is the original version of my first novel, Insect Dreams. The manuscript went into editing at 900 pages, and came out at 600.


Here you will find the other 300 pages, along with a major character, the narrator of a biography in the style of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus -- an extremely rational companion to a most abnormal character, a life “as told by a friend”. Though there is much overlap, the feeling of the two books is quite distinct.