String’s Cross is a difficult book to describe. It reads like a family history, with String’s grandparents arriving in America, then the story of his parents, then of himself. In the middle of String’s narrative, the “me” of the narrator enters, and continues in, a back and forth style for the remainder of the story. Part family history, part social and religious satire, this is an atypical history that goes from fruit ranching to the wild west of early computing, with family, religion, and a sense of aging and times gone by underlying the narrative.
The best word to describe this book is ambitious. It does a lot of things, goes in many directions, somehow manages to link flappers and computers, masturbation with Jesus, and pulls it off to a greater or lesser extent. It has a strong voice and is vividly descriptive in places, but can jarring as well, especially after Essen begins to interject his personal narrative into the story, telling both it and String’s. While these asides can be read as satire, it’s also distracting, especially when combined with the wandering narrative. The narrative itself is also problematic. For the most part, it remains linear and contains lots of little tensions, but it lacks one overarching tension to draw the whole story together. This is very much a text that will depend on what readers bring to it. In some ways, it’s a quaint novel about a family as it experiences the twentieth century. Yet there’s also an air of dysfunction, unhappiness, and religiosity that may not sit well with other readers.
One line that stands out is about Grandma Caroline, a very proper, stoic German woman, who never said much about the old country she came from, except how when asked why she came to America, replied, “I didn’t wish to eat any more brown bread.” Likewise, this book is equally enigmatic, with aspects that can be appreciated and others that remains downright puzzling.
Guri P Essen