Ed King Paperback – Oct 1 2011
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Top Customer Reviews
The scene is 1962 Seattle, long before the technology boom, when Walter Cousins, a rather mild actuary, hires Diane Burroughs a British exchange student as an au pair for his children while his wife is hospitalized for a mental breakdown. He sees Diane as plucky, eager, full of life; he does not see that she is a sociopath.
Before long she and Walter are sleeping together and she becomes pregnant. Diane flees with the baby as soon as she can. Walter spends years sending her child support little knowing that she had deposited the child on a doorstep. After the infant is found and turned over to an agency he is adopted by a reformed Jewish couple, Alice and Dan King, who choose not to tell Ed, as he is named, that he was adopted. Later, unexpectedly, the couple will have another son.
As Ed grows into his teens he takes up with an undesirable crowd, and is involved in a fatal road accident. He quickly exits the scene, feels a bit of guilt for a bit, then forgets. After graduating from high school where he enjoyed a brief affair with an older teacher, he becomes a computer whiz in college. His younger brother, Simon, becomes adept at computer gaming. At this point the listener has an inkling of where the story is going.....almost.)
During these years Diane has reinvented herself several times, taking advantage of others and being scammed herself. Ed's company grows to dwarf Amazon as well as Google, and he meets Diane at an exhibition.Read more ›
But as a great premise (the modern re-interpreting of 'Oedipus Rex'), this isn't a great novel.
As my review title suggests, it's an endless stream of 'And then this happens, and then this happens, and then this...and this...and this...'
There are some nicely turned scenes. But all-in-all, there's a real lacking of narrative oomph. It's all done cleverly enough, but the style, the execution just doesn't add up to much.
It's neither this nor that, neither tragedy nor comedy...not even a good satire.
A swing...and a miss.
Personal rating: 7/10
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
In a previous life as a 12-year-old, I discovered a volume of Greek mythology in my late grandmother's attic, stashed it in our garage, and whenever forced to "get my nose out of a book" and go outside and play with the other kids, I'd sneak off and go hang out with the Greeks in the garage instead. Later, in college, I was part of the crew for a production of "Antigone," which I loved.
Now here I am all these years later having just put down (in order to "put-down" in its other sense) a modern-day adaptation of "Oedipus Rex," one of the most famous Greek tragedies of them all. At the beginning, I was excited about the idea of revisiting this old love of my youth as re-imagined by a winner of the PEN/Faulkner award. But I couldn't come up with even an ounce of interest in or empathy for any character in it and quickly lost my initial curiosity about how its author might manage to massage this ancient classic into a modern day novel with best-seller potential.
After force-feeding myself the first hundred or so pages, I started skimming, eventually coming to page 236 where I found a message to his readers inserted by the author. It begins: "Okay. Now we approach the part of the story a reader couldn't be blamed for having skipped forward to--'flipped forward to' if he or she has a hard copy, but otherwise 'scrolled to' or 'used the 'find' feature to locate the part where a mother has sex with her son. Who could blame you for being interested in this potential hot part, and at the same time, for shuddering at the prospect of it?..."
Well, by then I was not in the least interested in finding the "potential hot part," and the only prospect I was shuddering at was that of having to soldier along for another 60 pages to reach the end.
In sum, "Oed" = tragedy; "Ed" = soap.
Daring to play with classic texts is always a dangerous business, and in this case Guterson has set a high bar for himself by choosing Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex" as his source text. Arguably the definitive Greek tragedy of all antiquity, "Oedipus" tells the infamously sad story of a proud man who is condemned by fate to murder his father, marry his mother, and spark a million bad jokes.
Guterson dares to update this story to the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Ed King is our Oedipus and is born not to royalty, but is the child of an adulterous affair between the actuary Walter Cousins and his British au pair Diane. Cousins, a risk assessor by trade, knocks up the 15-year old and tries to do his part by her (without leaving his own wife). He has no idea how ruthless and ambitious young Diane is, however, and she is soon blackmailing him into years of child support even though she abandons the infant Ed on the doorstep of prosperous residents in Portland, Oregon.
In short order, King is the proud adopted son of ambitious Jewish parents in Seattle, a math prodigy and natural leader. His new parents never tell him of his adopted status, and after several colorful adventures he's off to Stanford during the 80s, just in time to capitalize on the tech boom and become a billionaire as "the King of Search." Oh, and he has an unusual, private hankering for older women . . .
Diane is a fully realized character in her own right - much more fleshed out than the sad Jocasta from Sophocles' play. Without giving away her story arc (which is completely original), suffice it to say that Diane is one hungry, ambitious woman, but not without her charms.
We all know the basic outline of the Oedipus story. The delight in reading Guterson's version comes from his telling of a completely fascinating rags-to-riches tech-boom story (and our tech giants have been the royalty of our country for the last three decades, have they not?) and how he interweaves the Oedipus story into his.
This book is particularly a must-read for fans of the Pacific Northwest, as Seattle and Portland play large roles and such minor burgs as Wenatchee and Leavenworth get their moments to shine.
All in all, a first-rate effort by Mr. Guterson. Funny, human, and above all, tragic.
The only reason I am giving Ed King any stars at all is because Guterson writes so well. He can be wickedly funny and you feel he has something important to say about our information-swamped, over-indulged, tummy-tucked and self-absorbed modern age. He also throws a pretty sharp left hook at our tendencies toward raging hubris. You just wish he would let up on his one-two punches every now and then and work-in something even slightly positive to root for. The lack of even a smidgen of anything good and bright to serve as a contrast to all of his dark and empty luridness takes a lot of the wallop out of his punches.
I'm no scholar of Greek mythology, but I have to say, Guterson's interpretation of Oedipus Rex doesn't jive with what I remember about it from high school. He's got all the icky details of the story with its twisted plot of mistaken identities and crazy co-incidences niftily re-packaged for our current age, but I think he's missing the main point. In the original version I always thought Sophocles came up with the most deeply disturbing human deeds he could imagine in order to drive home his idea that people who have the nerve to deny their fate are going to eventually find themselves in seriously deep do-do. The lesson to be drawn from Sophocles' original is that the surest way to seal your fate is to have the conceit to try and dodge it. There was a good reason why Oedipus Rex suffered the way he did, while in Ed King's case all the horribleness with his mum and dad comes across more like pure sensationalism. There's no good reason for any of it.
Here's another thing that bothered me about this novel. It starts out as a dark and scathing satire of our present age but the last chapter suddenly sends you into the future and you wonder if what you're reading is meant to be science fiction. Guterson also mixes his mythological metaphors. The novel starts out all Oedipus Rex but ends with an obvious nod to Icarus - the kid in Greek mythology who thought he could fly up there near the sun in the realm of the gods.
In my opinion, Guterson should have gone with the Icarus connection right from page one. Draw an analogy between the melted waxes in Icarus's man-made wings to the vacuous truths of Ed King's computer search algorithms and his quest for infallible Artificial Intelligence. A novel titled something along the lines of Eric Russo would have made for a more meaningful and less gratuitous novel than the one called Ed King.
The premise is very appealing to any bookworm, a retelling of Oedipus Rex. The opening holds a lot of interesting parallels with the nondescript accountant having an affair with his family's au pair, resulting in a baby. Whether or not you know the Oedipus cycle, you read eagerly on, some for each of the mythological events to take place and others because the characters act so despicably.
The problem for me was that Guterson uses too much summary in the book, moving from person to person and decade to decade without developing scenes. There is very little direct dialog. I wondered if the narrator was the Greek chorus, commenting from afar with atonal voices.
Whatever the reason, the result was a book with long, boring passages, some of them filled with abstract mathematical theory, which just plain held nothing to lead the reader into hanging on for another chapter. Alas, the best I can offer here is two stars to this beloved author.
I would love to see him revise this book and tell it with his usual polish and style.
Finally, I completed reading the jargon-filled character development included in Ed King and noted many similarities between it and Oedipus Rex. Like how Ed King had curved feet and King Oedipus had messed up ankles because of those pins his folks jammed through them. Plus, Ed King marries his mother! Just like King Oedipus! Except King Oedipus had a warning, and Ed King didn't, so no fair!!!
Ed King dies in a horrible plane crash at the end because he tried to make his Citation X fly over a thunderstorm, just like Icarus crashed after he flew too close to the sun, except Icarus wasn't married to his own mother for Christ's sake and also Icarus crashed due to something other than getting too close to the sun because as you gain altitude the temperature drops. I think Icarus's wings got brittle from cold and that's why he crashed. Melted my ass.
Also Ed King is the baby born to Diane the au pair after she screws the actuary in the first chapter. Diane the au pair later marries her own baby.
I hope Guterson turns more Sophocles plays into novels, like maybe one about Ajax that includes the wife of a Seattle doctor struggling with hyper mania while she cleans her kitchen with Ajax floor cleaner!
In conclusion, I liked the plane crash the best because it meant I was almost finished reading. One question, though: In Sophocles's Ed King, Ed King ("Oedipus") gouges his eyes out when he discovers he's been fornicating with his own dear mother. In Guterson's Oedipus, there's no eye gouging at all. Maybe Ed King's eyes got gouged when he hit the earth at 600 miles per hour, but they probably just burst along with the rest of his guts. Poor Ed King, dying like that. Too bad he didn't just land his plane and gouge his eyes out and replace them with nice replica eyes and get on with life. Though he wouldn't have been able to enjoy the scenery from his office window as much.
P.S. Why did Ed King have a 747? And where did he get the money for it, considering that they cost around $200 million and the 747 ownership is mentioned many pages before the early venture capitalists invest $600 million? Did he spend most of the company's money on a 747? What did he use it for? That's crazy. Too bad Ed King/Oedipus Rex didn't chase after his wife and subsequently crash to death in his 747! That would have made a big dent in the ground, though what a waste of a perfectly good 747.