One spring, Burlington author Marc Estrin attends an unusual midnight gathering at the Flynn Center. The sold-out event attracts a crowd of young people dressed as “zombies, ghouls, vamps and vampires,” not to mention the “plague doctors” — “a large flock of black-gowned, bird-masked figures with yard-long beaks and goggled eyes.” They’re all here to see a mysterious masked figure called The Nose, who bounds onstage leading a rat on a leash and addresses them as “Dearly Afflicted.”
As The Nose informs the audience that he’s here to deliver them from the “contemporary plague,” a mystified Estrin asks his daughter what’s going on. She explains that the performance is based on a bestselling book: William Hundwasser’s The Nose. “This is the cult book’s cult.”
Wondering why you missed such an exciting cultural event? Perhaps because it never happened. The fictional Flynn performance is merely the jumping-off point for Estrin’s latest novel, The Annotated Nose. A comic story on serious themes, it’s built on a book-within-a-book conceit that may tie modern readers’ brains in knots, but would have seemed perfectly normal to 18th-century readers of Sterne and Diderot. In an age of disposable lit, it’s also an elaborately, expensively designed book, featuring 35 black-and-white illustrations by Montpelier artist Delia Robinson.
In 2002, The Christian Science Monitor called Estrin’s first novel, Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, a “new cult classic” and predicted that it would “inspir[e] a companion collection of footnotes and commentary.” While the book was reviewed — and sometimes raved about — from The New York Times to The San Francisco Chronicle to The New Yorker, it failed to turn its author into a household name. Maybe Estrin’s combination of a wildly allusive, erudite style and an unreconstructed 1960s leftist political consciousness simply didn’t fit the times. But it did fit the tastes of editor Fred Ramey, who shepherded Insect Dreams into print while working at mega-corp Penguin Putnam and has since published four more Estrin novels through his independent Colorado-based company, Unbridled Books.
At 69 — he began writing at 58 — Estrin feels a bit like a cult author whose cult has yet to materialize. Thus it seems appropriate that he should write The Annotated Nose, which critiques the very phenomenon of cult novels.
But it’s a bit more complicated than that. In his account of the fictional Flynn performance, Estrin poses as the editor of the book we’re about to read. He tells us the experience inspired him to email The Nose, whose real name is Alexei Pigov. A man who’s lived on the margins all his life, his face hidden by masks, Alexei is both the hero of Hundwasser’s novel and the center of its lucrative multimedia cult (a merchandising triumph involving, among other things, dolls and a Coen brothers film). But he has serious objections to the way Hundwasser portrayed him — so serious, in fact, that he’s prepared an exhaustive series of notes to The Nose, hoping to set the story straight.
Fascinated by “the pain-filled combat of a literary character with his author,” Estrin volunteers to edit The Annotated Nose. This turns out to be a major undertaking, because Alexei doesn’t want his side of the story told in lowly footnotes or endnotes. No, he wants his version of events to confront Hundwasser’s head on: the reprinted cult novel on lefthand pages, the notes on the right.
Hence the unique experience of reading The Annotated Nose. Perusing the lefthand pages, which narrate a freakish and funny coming-of-age tale, one is continually stopped by superscript numbers that lead one over to the other side. For instance, when Hundwasser presents the transcription of The Nose’s interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Alexei steps in to point out the whole thing is “sheer fabrication.” “Now let me be clear,” he muses, “I would have liked to go on Terry Gross’s show . . . I might even like to go out with her if she seemed open to it . . .”
That’s Alexei Pigov’s tragicomedy in a nutshell. Cursed with a big nose, abandoned by a Gypsy father and neglected by a whorish mother, he uses a succession of masks and assumed identities — ranging from Groucho Marx to Pinocchio to a plague doctor — to hide his unsightly face. A truth seeker in a cynical world, he sees his disguises as reminders of the power of individual expression and protest; his is “a Big White Lie life which might lead us all to freedom.” A lifelong virgin, he also hopes his brand of performance art will help him get girls.
“It actually came from a real situation,” says Estrin of The Annotated Nose, when Seven Days visits him at his home in the Old North End. “My best friend in college was the subject of a cult novel in the ’60s. And there’s been this struggle between the character in this book and its author for the last 50 years.” Another model was a musician friend of Estrin’s “who for 50 years has been trying to get a girlfriend, and his pick-up lines were ridiculous.” (Alexei’s pick-up lines include such winners as “Is it hot in here, or is it just you?” and “I’ll be Beethoven, you be Mozart. Let’s have a conversation.”)
Estrin calls his novel “a straightforward annotated book. People think the book is postmodern or something, but it isn’t.” Postmodern or not, he certainly plays games with the reader — for instance, by putting the book’s illustrator, Delia Robinson, inside the fiction.
In The Nose, Delia is a beautiful dwarf who falls in love with Alexei Pigov. He rejects her because he finds her body as grotesque as his own face. In real life, artist Robinson is average sized. She’s known Estrin since 1964, when “he had driven across the country on a motorcycle with my sister for them to get married in Danby, Vermont,” she recalls. Though the marriage eventually ended, the friendship between the in-laws endured.
Sitting in Estrin’s living room, Robinson says the two of them “have a similar sensibility. And we’re both quite perverse in what we think is funny.” Perhaps some of that perversity went into the fictional version of Delia. Estrin wanted the artist to be a character in The Nose, he says, to justify her inside knowledge of Alexei Pigov. He asked Robinson who she wanted to be. “She said, ‘I’d like to be a dwarf.’ I said, ‘Do you want to be an achondroplastic dwarf or a pituitary dwarf?’ And she said achondroplastic . . . and she said, ‘I’d like to be a nun.’” So Delia became a pint-sized cloistered nun.
While The Annotated Nose is undeniably a funny book, it’s sometimes deadly serious, as when Alexei points out that Americans started worrying about the plague — any and all plagues — after 9/11. Why does the modern world need plague doctors? “The contemporary plague is having to be in someone else’s script,” Estrin says. “Alexei is in Hundwasser’s script. The generalization of that to our lives is, what scripts are we being forced to perform? What characters have been given to us? We are the people who are now bailing out the big corporations and the financiers. ‘Oh, I didn’t realize I was here to do that!’ . . . The question is, why do we believe that’s who we are, instead of looking for more authentic scripts?”
Both Estrin and Robinson speak fondly of editor Fred Ramey, whom they call “Freditor.” “He’s an old-school editor,” Estrin says. “These are people who had dedicated their lives and professions and in many cases their money to nursing American literature.”
But how did he sell Freditor on the idea of a hand-set, illustrated book that retails for nearly $40 in hardcover? “He kept asking me, ‘Can’t we just have endnotes?’” says Estrin. But the author had vivid memories of trying to read the heavily endnoted novel Infinite Jest on a gym treadmill, where flipping pages doesn’t work. “I tried to convince Fred that this was training readers to hold two things in their minds at the same time,” he says with a chuckle. “Someone told me it’s a great book for ADD people.” Ramey eventually gave in, though the book’s unusual side-by-side design created “note clumping” problems that necessitated an “emergency order” for more illustrations to fill empty space. Unbridled is printing 75 copies of a signed collector’s edition with a cover by Robinson, and Estrin says a paperback is also in the works.
“[The price] was a real concern with Marc, that nobody we know could cough up that much money to buy a book,” Robinson says. All the same, she’s already been contacted by one person who coughed up $195 for the collector’s edition — and who presented her with an odd request. “This is your playfulness coming around to bite you,” says Robinson slyly to Estrin. “He said, ‘There’s a space in the back for Alexei Pigov to sign it, and he’s not signed. I would like to know where I can send this book to get this signature.’ Alexei Pigov is a fictional character!”
Indeed, it seems unlikely that The Nose’s fan will ever get his autograph. But in the world of Marc Estrin — who appears masked in his author photo on the book jacket — stranger things have happened.
The daughter of a Princeton prof, Delia Robinson grew up next door to Albert Einstein. She’s known Vermont poet Galway Kinnell, then her father’s student, “since before I was an egg,” she says. Raised at a time when women weren’t expected to produce art, she trained as a nurse to pay for her paints.
“I can’t paint on a clean surface,” Robinson says. “If a piece of paper’s been run over by a truck, that interests me a lot. I have to mess a piece of paper up. And generally I do that with photo transfers. I put down a lot of mess on a page of newsprint, anything, and I glue it facedown on the page, and then I rip it all off and scrub it off. When it looks like a skin disease, I’m very happy. And then I draw on top or paint on top of that.”
The result is multilayered images that combine painting with photomontage. For instance, in Robinson’s illustration of Alexei Pigov’s “first love,” photos of the New York skyline are dimly visible through the young girl’s translucent image. “I really like that kind of thing, where you can see through to what’s hidden underneath,” Robinson says. “I’m very interested in what’s not immediately appparent. What’s behind the behind the behind.”
Robinson works mostly in acrylic: “I’m way too impatient to wait for oil to dry,” she says. “I also use a lot of materials you shouldn’t use — kids’ crayons, anything. I like staples stuck into things. I like a big mess. It’s a thick, linoleum-like surface.”
That’s not unlike Estrin’s novels, with their dense collage of high and low cultural references. “My paintings all have these layers. And his books are built in the same kind of way,” Robinson says. She adds that illustrating The Annotated Nose “was major for me, because it’s the first glimpse I’ve had of the fact that I am not totally, rebelliously independent. I can do a picture on someone else’s theme and not find that an excruciating or diminishing idea.”
And for an artist who describes herself as having “breezed past some of the most interesting human beings on the planet and come away uninfluenced,” that’s major indeed.