A sweeping history of a family with immigrant origins and of a nation in turmoil.
In his debut novel, Essen tracks the eventful life of a man named String Ambuehl beginning with his grandparents’ arrival to the United States at the conclusion of the 19th century. String’s mother and father, Rose and Irving, meet in San Diego and stumble through a halting romance that finally bears fruit during the Prohibition years. They give birth to String, who later becomes the first in his family to graduate high school, just as the United States fully enters World War II. He then joins the military, but the story discloses little about his experience as a soldier. Later, he attends college and develops philosophical sympathies for communism—a dangerous intellectual bent during the tense Cold War years. He’s eventually charged with and arrested for espionage, and the book closes with an account of his trial. Inexplicably, Essen, as himself, speaks directly to readers beginning in the ninth chapter, explaining that a life-threatening medical condition may thwart the completion of his book. From that point on, he intersperses autobiographical vignettes, recounting his own contributions to the creation of the personal computer in Silicon Valley. There’s no artistic need for these minimemoirs, and their inclusion is both confusing and jarring. Also, although the author has a prolific imagination, it’s unfortunately undisciplined; he seems intent on conjuring as many characters as possible without endowing them with real personhood. The plot, too, is wildly creative but frustratingly directionless. It’s clear that the story is meant to evoke biblical themes, as it’s spangled with quotes from the Bible, but their relevance is never made clear. For example, in lieu of a description of a sex scene, Essen offers, “an invisible heaven of angels and saints…no war or strife exists there, only eternal peace and blessed rest. No evil spirit can invade that heaven. Rather Satan has been cast out, and his authority taken from him.” The book as a whole is a powerful demonstration of Essen’s fecund mind. However, that alone won’t command readers’ attention.
A strange, disjointed novel that will sometimes delight readers but mostly flummox them.