David Guterson's Ed King

The Bainbridge writer borrows a few pages from Sophocles.

If you're going to borrow, borrow big. Back when he was teaching English at Bainbridge High School, before his 1994 breakthrough novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson surely graded a lot of papers about Oedipus. You know, the smart but arrogant fellow who accidently kills his dad and marries his mom. Sophocles wrote two surviving plays about the guy; Oedipus Rex is the most commonly performed.

So now we have Ed King (Knopf, $26.95), a flat, misguided paraphrase of the classical Greek tragedy. (Ed, Oed. King, Rex. Get it?) Guterson has booted the tale forward to the Internet age and slightly beyond (it ends in 2017). The protagonist's youth is his youth, with a visit to the 1962 World's Fair, a leafy-green suburban childhood, teenage rebellion with Nathan Hale stoners during the '70s, and so on. The bits of Seattle color will be lost on national readers, so it's puzzling why Guterson even bothers to cite Argosy Cruises, the Egyptian Theatre, or the Goodwill Games. Given the sweep and sensationalism of the original tale, the effect is like Dickens reduced to a laundry list.

Equally confounding is Guterson's appropriation of a story without suspense (the outcome's a given) or depth of character. The ancient Greeks didn't invest Oedipus, father Laius, or mother Jocasta with "personality." Read on the page, they're profoundly flat. (The players wore masks.) They only have qualities—hubris, foolishness, vanity—that, when writ large, allow for tragic downfalls.

Guterson does best at fleshing out Ed's father, the bored, timid actuary Walter, who knocks up his family's rather conniving British teen au pair. But the resulting son, given up for adoption, is a mere collection of accomplishments and milestones. We're told Ed is brilliant, we're told he's arrogant, and somehow he becomes a Seattle tech millionaire in Internet search—irony alert!—despite the simultaneous existence of Google. Then he unwittingly marries his mother, a coke-dealing Kirkland cougar. Reading the highly schematic Ed King is like leafing through the covers in a 50-year pile of Time and Businessweek found in your parents' basement. Ed vaguely suggests Gates/Allen/Jobs/Bezos in outline, but never achieves a plausible character of his own. Again, the Greeks didn't expect it, but modern novel readers do.

Then there's the problem of Guterson's language. Of Ed's accrual of power, he writes, "He was like a snowball rolling steeply downhill." Everything that is wrong with Ed King is contained right there. You can tell (or retell) a familiar tale with lively writing, but you can't be dull about the well-known. Guterson's mashup of classical and contemporary fails to illuminate Sophocles, satirize the tech world, or justify its very conceit. Why Oedipus, why now? The whole project feels random and desperate; Guterson could just as well be re-thumbing his old Penguin editions of Agamemnon or the Oresteia or even Lysistrata to the same non-avail.

A better novel might've allowed tech tycoon Ed and his mother/wife Diane to live happily ever after, contrary to Sophocles' notions of prophecy and fate. As we know from the housing bubble and Wall Street bailouts, the greed and misdeeds of the rich generally go unpunished. But that would be comedy, not the lazy tragedy-in-a-microwave of Ed King.


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