Marc Estrin is the author of three critically acclaimed novels that blend wit and prodigious yet casual erudition with rich characters and surreal universes. His first, Insect Dreams, was an impressive debut: called “ambitious and arresting” by the San Francisco Chronicle and “amusing and deeply sympathetic” by The Times Literary Supplement, it’s a 500-page imagination of what might have happened if Kafka’s Gregor Samsa lived on to work in the Manhattan Project and challenge the morality of the atomic bomb. Though Estrin’s novel is dreamlike, Samsa is a fully-realized character, an insect-savior that nonetheless comes across as real.
In his most recent novel, Golem Song, Estrin once again contemplates saviors. The novel takes us into the life of Alan Kreiger, a Registered Nurse living in New York City. Through a series of chance encounters and mishaps, Alan comes to envision himself as a latter-day Messiah whose duty it is to guard Judaism. To that end, he purchases a powerful rifle and aims it out the window of his apartment. Though a comic tale, Alan’s transformation is deeply felt, and as Estrin explores Alan’s descent he also explores the role of myth and literature in our lives, present politics of the Middle East, and the forces that have shaped the Jewish identity. Recently, Estrin and I discussed Golem Song.
Scott Esposito: There’s a lot to talk about in this book, but I thought we should begin with Alan, your protagonist. Golem Song is the story of his descent. He goes from being a fairly normal guy to someone who believes he is a Messiah sent to save Judaism. Perhaps inevitably, he’s a rather arrogant person. I found him dislikable. But that was tempered by the absurd, comic situations he often finds himself in. How did you create a balance between making Alan dislikable, but also making him hapless enough to be sympathetic?
Marc Estrin: Golem Song was the very first piece of fiction I’d ever written, and I didn’t know what I was doing and had no plan. As you may know, it was prompted by a phone call from someone in NYC who wanted me, a Vermonter, to send him a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight so he could kill black people out his window. There was going to be a war between the blacks and the Jews, he said, and he wanted to “take some with him.” I refused. We haven’t spoken since. But the conversation was so horrifying that I wrote it down, it began to haunt me, and I began amplifying it with other things I’d heard him say, with my imagining his attitudes on this and that—and wound up with a pretty bleak manuscript, based on him, but incorporating other people who “believed in the doctrine of excess,” and other related events I had experienced. The first manuscript I sold was Insect Dreams because my new agent and the editor she found thought that more attractive, and based on the success of that book, we went back to look at the one I had written before it, which at that point was called Notes From the Underground (since the first scene was in a subway station). At that point all the text was entirely inside the character’s head—thoughts he’d think, things he’d say, responses he’d hear from others. There was no description, just the somewhat mad meanderings of a racist, chauvinist pig. It was pretty intense. But you wouldn’t have liked it. Neither did my editor, Fred Ramey. He thought the character had possibilities, but that “he was so disgusting that no one will read past page 3.” So, with Fred’s suggestions, I worked on making him nicer, having him start out, at least, as more admirable, and arrive at his racism and misogyny via narrated experiences. By the time he was fleshed out, he was quite different, crazier, in a way, but far funnier and more dimensional. My wife, who has little patience with either racists or MCPs, wound up liking him in spite of everything, and I thought that was an interesting challenge for a reader—to be asked to like someone awful. So I didn’t “create a balance” as much as try to find other aspects of the craziness of someone like Alan, and it turned out that those aspects, all potchkied together, made him both tolerable and more interesting.
SE: Alan works as a Registered Nurse at a hospital, and in the book’s very first scene, he calms down a crazy man who believes that he is the Messiah. In this scene Alan is a hero. He is quietly courageous, measured, sympathetic, even charming, qualities which he noticeably lacks throughout the rest of the book. Besides a desire to make Alan a little more likable, were there any other reasons you gave him this moment of triumph right at the beginning?
ME: The opening scene was a relatively late addition, written after I had some sense of where the book was headed. So it was a little more consciously written than many of the others to provide a marker for where Alan starts—a valuable (if eccentric) member of an ER team, able to relate easily to black people, and, as you note in your question, wary of false messiahs. I envisioned a slow metamorphosis away from each of these qualities through the first half of the book. The book’s itinerary, as it were. However, I disagree that Alan’s ”charm,” such as it is, and especially his courage are not present in the rest of the book. Whacked though he increasingly becomes, he is still charming—at least enough to begin with two girlfriends, and be thinking of snagging another yet more fancy one. He is even “measured,” I think, in that throughout the book, he is finding his way toward his final project, tests it out here and there, and finally needs to check with God for final approval. All of which is to say that although there’s a character that breaks down in the course of the book, he’s recognizably the same character under observation. Perhaps you disagree. I had a little struggle with Fred over the ”Stately, plump” opening. Fred thought it would result in people comparing me (invidiously, of course) to Joyce. But for me it was a warning to readers who might be upset about the book to lighten up in advance, and see its comic dimensions. Finally, Golem Song is meant to be upsetting: it originated in a dreadful incident, and the racism and chauvinism Alan displays is a serious pathology in our culture, as is the tendency for people to believe themselves “chosen.” But for me the book becomes more valuable via its comic elements. Alan is a funny ha ha guy.
SE: You find a lot of humor in many very prosaic parts of Alan’s life—for instance, him flossing his teeth, being bunched in among New York’s rush hour subway traffic, even a whole chapter describing him taking a bath. In some ways, seeing this part of Alan’s life helped me identify with him and, as you say, helped preserve the continuity of his character for me. Why did you repeatedly return to the prosaic side of Alan’s existence?
ME: The reason, I think, is what Bergson suggests is the essence of comedy: the capturing of the lithe and subtle human soul in the mechanical prison of the body. The more body, the more prison, or at least the greater contradiction between Alan’s spirit that would fly and his 300 or so pounds. The body thus defines Alan in comic struggle with his intellect and imagination. And with the preponderance of the body came the emphasis on bodily things, which occur as a countersubject accompanying all of Alan’s mental wildness. So—dental floss, pimple scratching, farts, whatever I threw in there—the comic body stuff sets off Alan’s serious imaginative flights so as to make both stand out more starkly. It just seemed to work that way. Brecht used a similar approach in many of his theater pieces, the saddest of songs, say, sung in ridiculous, inappropriate settings.
SE: Did you want Alan’s weight to help define him as a hypocrite? He’s very critical of how other people live their lives, but he never takes criticism of his weight seriously.
ME: On the contrary, Alan is proud of all his excesses, loves his White Castles (though he does drink diet-Pepsi (that’s supposed to be funny)), and makes fun of weight-loss programs with his planetary Detecto manipulations, and of self-criticism with his routine in front of the mirror. He publicly espouses “the doctrine of excess.” Hypocrite he isn’t.
SE: There’s also the “Clean Plate Club” that he’s very much a proponent of.
ME: The Clean Plate Club was the curse of my own youth (“Think of the starving children in Europe!”), and remains the curse of my geezerhood. I can’t leave anything on the plate, consequently eat more than I should. The politically correct answer is small portions.
SE: Golem Song is full of snappy, often witty dialog. Even amidst entire pages of unattributed dialog, though, characters’ voices remain distinct and the conversations clearly indicate actions that aren’t narrated. It seems like with all this dialog you’re trying to pick up on how people talk themselves into things. At one point in the book, you mention “the intransitive Yiddish verb zikh arayntrakhtn, literally to think oneself into something, to consider a matter in depth but also perhaps to turn oneself into the thing being thought of.” Would Alan not be so susceptible to the idea that he’s been chosen to be a Messiah if he wasn’t such an assertive talker and debater?
ME: That’s a very interesting idea; I never thought of it. It’s true—Alan creates a kind of positive feedback loop as he spouts, listens to himself spout, and then spouts harder to top it. It’s hard to imagine him getting to where he does without puffing himself up on something, and what better than himself? I’m not sure it’s exactly zikh arayntrakhtn since it involves more language than “thought.” But that too is a kind of thinking—Rosenzweig’s “Sprachdenken”—thought that occurs only via dialogue. For good, old-fashioned zikh arayntrakhtn, I would think more of Raskolnikov, thinking himself—quietly—into murder. I don’t think Alan feels personally “chosen” to be a Messiah. It’s more that he assumes that he belongs to “the chosen people,” and that the chosen people have forgotten both their central role as nay-sayers to false messiahs (Jesus) and the history of violence against those who would destroy them. So if civilized others won’t do it, Alan the Warrior will.
SE: And as Alan becomes Alan the Warrior, he becomes someone representative of Judaism—of its history, its contradictions, its sense of identity as victims/warriors, and its relationship with the State of Israel. How did Alan develop into a vehicle to explore this?
ME: When I began it was just the story around that awful phone call plus additions about other aspects of this real-life “Alan”: a Jewish man—though not religious—somewhat misogynist, newly racist, yet at the same time a poet, musician, a scholar, a health worker. A lot of interesting contradictions which seemed worth writing about. Remember that I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t posit Alan to explore contemporary Judaism. I was just trying to write, as a beginning fiction writer, about “Alan,” the guy who called me. Pulling together a lot of different people, plus my own experiences in NYC, and my family’s history as commie Jews, I found myself with a little tale which inevitably concerned—among other things—the idea of “the chosen people,” a phrase very common in even my Bronx Jewish world. There it was—that concept floating around in the book—and all of a sudden, coupled with the original subject of racist violence and the secondary subject of messiahs, true and false, accepted and rejected, I found myself in the midst of something smelling very like the current turmoil in the Middle East. The metaphor of Alan and the blacks in NYCdoes, alas, consort with that situation. There are a lot of contemporary, complicating details in the latter—the powerplay of other states, the U.S. especially, the “biblical imperative,” the memory of the Holocaust, the oil, the nuclear weapons, etc—and most importantly the fact that Israel does actually destroy many people’s lives, while Alan hurts nobody except Schlong [his pet snake]. Nevertheless, Golem Song finds itself, in part, a book about Israel and Palestine. The theme of golem—the last thing I discovered—makes Alan’s identification with Israeli violence that much clearer: a planned action to protect the Jewish community from a pogrom, from suicide bombers, from a fear of being “pushed into the sea.”
SE: Alan’s brother, Walter, represents a side of Judaism that is in many ways the opposite of Alan’s. They argue a lot, and in the context of a debate over the State of Israel, Walter has this to say to Alan “The State of Israel, morally bankrupt and mortally endangered by its victories, had triumphed over Judaism, and has deeply polluted the Jewish people, their history, and their fate.” Do you think that, as Walter says, Judaism’s sense of history— both biblically and in terms of the Holocaust—is being corrupted?
ME: Golem Song is not a “thesis” book. Inasmuch as the issue arises (among others raised by the book), I am asking the reader to entertain the arguments of Alan on the one hand, and of Walter on the other. To that extent, my personal opinion is irrelevant, and may even be destructive of the reader’s engagement in the question. My job as a novelist here is to set up the problem, not to answer it. There certainly are two distinct strains of Judaism—the ethical voice of the Prophets, and the warrior narratives of Judges and Kings. Some Jews can embrace both, others find them mutually exclusive. A similar (though not identical) divide exists between the Yiddish Judaism of the Diaspora over the centuries, and the new Hebrew Judaism of the current state of Israel. The old Yiddish Jew of the shtetel is often seen by modern Israelis as weak, a victim, even a shlemiel. The approved Israeli norm is rather that of the muscular Hebrew warrior, a victor, a conqueror like Joshua, marching fiercely under the flag of “Never Again!” Hebrew is now the official language; Yiddish is frowned upon and dying out. A third variation is the debate, once legitimate, now completely prohibited—at least in the United States—between the Zionist ideal of creating a Jewish state in Palestine (“a land without people for people without a land”) and the concern of major Jewish thinkers (Einstein, Martin Buber, and Judah Magnes) that—as Samuel warns in 1 Samuel:8—it would be dangerous for Israel to become “a nation like unto other nations”—a official state, with a king, with foreign and domestic policies and an army to carry them out. In the time of the British mandate before 1948, this issue was widely and passionately discussed. Given the current behavior of Israel, the question is being raised again. Alan embraces the Zionist Hebrew warrior; Walter embraces the Diaspora Prophet and Yid. The reader is asked to consider this (biblical) struggle between the brothers and their positions and is, by implication, asked to go to the relevant texts if interested. Inspecting those texts would make Alan’s struggle that much more alive, both for reading Golem Song and for judging the current Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
SE: Alan definitely embraces the Hebrew warrior version of things, but he also makes himself out to be victimized by the Holocaust when circumstances fit. This occurs at points throughout the book, but I’m thinking specifically of when Alan gets into an argument with a black woman in the ER over who’s suffered more, historically speaking. Do you find Alan’s identity as both a Hebrew warrior and a Holocaust victim compatible?
ME: The ideas of Holocaust victim and Hebrew warrior are intimately related: “Since we were Holocaust victims, we must become Hebrew warriors to prevent it ever happening again.” Indeed, the combination of übermensch and untermensch seems crucially related to “golemism.” Poor, victimized America, the only superpower, striking out against the world. Similarly for Israel. Similarly for men striking out against women in the backlash against feminism.
SE: It’s interesting that the golem theme was the last thing you discovered since it cuts to the heart of this übermensch/untermensch contradiction. Some other myths also play prominent roles in this book—the modern myth of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as the Greek myths of Narcissus and Echo, and several others. Why do you think we keep coming back to these stories?
ME: I guess we all play out myths of one sort or another, and the value of those myths (if we are familiar with them) is to show up as “aha!” moments, illuminating behavior which might otherwise hide behind its particularity. And because they are based on huge observed truths, built up over the centuries, myths can have predictive, as well as analytical value. It is not only the history of overextended empires that gives me a sense of the mid-range fate of, say the U.S. stance in the world, but even more trenchantly, the myth of Erysichthon which shows us possible dimensions of a fall. My aha! moment with Notes From the Underground [which later became Golem Song] was that it was actually an oratorio about a golem. Hence, the ending, and several other chapters, and my feeling that since golem and rabbi are in this case one, and since the golem seems to be getting out of hand, the rabbi may yet invite the golem up to the attic for expiration. That, at least, is what the myth predicts.
SE: Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, as well as a number of others from the Golden Age of Russian literature, are present in Golem Song—Tolstoy’s books figure in significantly, as does Crime and Punishment, and a number of other 19th-century Russian authors make cameos. Were you thinking of these books a lot as you wrote Golem Song?
ME: Originally, I wasn’t thinking of them at all. But as Alan developed beyond his initial model, the Tolstoy/Dostoevsky split seemed good for a thematic rant. I had never read any Russian literature until I found at a book sale Steiner’s book, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, for 10¢. I figured that might get me into those two authors, but couldn’t follow the arguments, never having read the books. So I took the next five years or so reading basically all of classical Russian literature, then returned to the Steiner. I really got my 10¢ worth. His argument, documented and discussed in detail, is that the world is completely divided between the darkness of the Dostoyeskian vision, and the brightness of the Tolstoyan one. It’s an interesting way to cut it, reductive, of course, but revealing, nevertheless. And yes, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are important pillars of my frame of reference. I’ve recently added Dickens and Hugo to the Pantheon. Mann is in there too.
SE: Alan really embraces the Tolstoy/Dostoevsky divide. At one point, he says “Your father is an Enlightenment dupe. How can anyone prefer [Tolstoy’s] lawful, rational universe to Dostoevsky’s anarchic, mystical, hallucinatory one? We’re ruled by zohar, not Talmud!” It’s kind of refreshing to see someone so passionate about classic literature. Are the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are as important for our world as Alan seems to think?
ME: I think all the “great works” are important—and that is why they are justly considered “great works,” because they will always be illuminating the eternal conundrums regardless of their particular context. I’m just now studying up on the French Revolution for my next book, and I am constantly struck about how the issues—even the personality-type clashes—remain the same. When a great writer like Tolstoy or Hugo explores war or war-thinking, it’s all about Iraq and Iran. When a great psychologist like Doestoevsky or Proust or James teases out the hidden ways and interstices of consciousness, it’s all about you and me, though usually we are not perceptive enough to understand at that level. In Swann’s Way, Proust says that the function of literature is to pierce the general opacity of perceived life, and make it transparent to understanding. All great literature, whatever its time, place, or focus, does that, and it’s why “truth” is more likely contained in the fiction section of a library than in non-fiction, which is often outdated in ten years. The sections on Napoleon in chapter 3 of the epilogue to War and Peace could be precisely about Bush and his administration:
A man without convictions, customs, traditions, without name . . .
emerges by the very strangest of chances it seems, from among all the turbulent parties . . . and, without attaching himself to any of them, is born forward to a prominent position.
The ignorance of his colleagues, the weakness and insignificance of
his opponents, the frankness of his falsehoods, and the dazzling, self- confident narrowness of this man, raise him to the head . . . .
This ideal of glory and grandeur, which consists not merely in considering nothing wrong that one does, but in priding oneself on
every crime one commits, ascribing to it an inconceivable, supernatural
significance . . . .
My goodness. If only The New York Times would be so perceptive!
SE: I wanted to talk a little about how you got into writing. The first book you wrote was Golem Song, and it was that crazy phone call that got you wondering about the character that eventually became Alan. Did it all spring out of that phone call?
ME: I had written “expository prose” for college courses and a master’s thesis, and, since then, for political articles and sermons. I didn’t find writing hard, but never thought of myself as a fiction writer. I would never have considered “real” writing at all until I got a computer, since I have an outrageous distaste for retyping anything. With that problem solved, I was then free to write, but write what? My aunt was having trouble understanding postmodernism so I told her I’d send her a little book on it. I was thinking of something like Postmodernism for Beginners with a cartoony format and 60 or so pages. I was surprised to find (at the time) nothing out there, so I sat down to write her one. It quickly burst the bounds of its intended format, and I found myself writing an actual book. (I knew it was a book because it had more than 100 pages—my naive definition.) I wound up with a 350 page document called “Postmodernism: A Guide for the Perplexed”—still unpublished. I don’t think my aunt ever read it, but goddamn! I had written a book. When the phone call arrived, and with “a book” under my belt, I felt freer to play around with the original input, found myself writing fiction, and then “working on a novel.” I once attended a talk at Breadloaf entitled “How You Know You Are A Writer.” One of the summary lines was “You know you are a writer if they have to pull your pen out of your cold, dead hand.” I left concluding I was not a writer because I know that if the electricity went out and I couldn’t use my iMac, I’d never write anything again.
SE: In an interview with Robert Birnbaum, you mention the very large role that your editor Fred Ramey has played in your development as a writer—for instance, your first published book, Insect Dreams, went from 900 to 500 pages after his input. How did you come to work with him?
ME: After much querying, I found an agent, and she found Fred and BlueHen for me. BlueHen has since morphed into Unbridled.
SE: What is your working relationship with Ramey like?
ME: Fred won’t read anything until it’s “finished”; i.e. has a beginning, middle, and end. I suppose that’s reasonable since a book that starts out fine may self-destruct before the end, so why waste time? Nevertheless I often have largish decisions (voice, etc.) I wish Fred would weigh in on before I commit to them. But he won’t. It does make it harder to back out when you’re a hundred pages in. Fred also doesn’t want to “write my book,” (and I don’t want him to, either)—that includes even supplying text for a footnote about some band he knows about. Modesty, editorial ground rules. But once in the fray, he is aggressive with his suggestions, which sometimes verge on demands. And since I don’t know what “will work” (for anyone but me), and he is smart, experienced, and devoted to my work, I tend to do what he suggests, unless I really, really don’t want to. Once, at the end of a long editorial process (I think it was for Insect Dreams, but it could have been for The Education of Arnold Hitler), he said to me “I’ve been pushing you a lot, and I’d like you to push back more.” I’ve taken him at his word, and, over the three books, soon to be four, I’ve felt more confident and assertive. I feel as if Fred has gone from being my writing father to being my writing brother.
SE: That sounds like the kind of relationship that a lot of emerging authors would be lucky to have, much more akin to way things were decades ago. Now editing is increasingly outsourced and many writers feel quite on their own.
ME: Precisely. The old-time writer-editor relationship. But now companies are often run by MBAs and not literary types. Now they save money on editors and use agents as readers.
SE: How do you — and Fred — know when a book is done?
ME: For me, with my now-normalized relationship with Fred, a book is “finished” when it has a beginning, middle, and end, and I like it. The quotations marks come off when, via rewrites, Fred likes it. I currently have three finished novels. I have another, short novel coming out with Spuyten Duyvil this spring, and another “finished” one, already signed with Unbridled, waiting for the quotation marks to come off.
SE: That’s a lot of books. Do you do anything besides write?
ME: That and playing music. I am in several choral and instrumental groups. I also go to political meetings. Rarely have a free night. My wife and I live low on the hog, basically on her salary.
SE: Well Marc, thanks again for taking time to do the interview. It’s been good discussing your book.
ME: Anytime. Thanks, Scott.