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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Archival Review of ED KING by David Guterson

In yesterday’s posting, I focused on some best and worst sex scenes in literature.  From the latter list, I mentioned I had read only one book, Ed King by David Guterson.  I thought I’d post my review of the book from my archives, but first I thought I’d share the comments made about the book when it won the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award in 2011:

“Freud bullied his way into David Guterson’s adaptation of the Oedipus myth, Ed King (Bloomsbury), which includes a lengthy description of mother–son bonding that Sophocles had seen fit to leave offstage:
“‘So she took him by the wrist and moved the base of his hand into her pubic hair until his middle fingertip settled on the no-man’s-land between her ‘front parlor’ and ‘back door’ (those were the quaint, prudish terms of her girlhood), she got him on the node between neighboring needs (both of which had been explored by johns who almost never tarried).’
“It’s hard to work out what is more excruciating, Guterson’s jarring language – we’re later treated to ‘membrum virile’, ‘skin flute’ and ‘family jewels’ – or his naive belief that a sprinkling of inverted commas is sufficient to ironise his euphemisms” (https://literaryreview.co.uk/bad-sex-report2011).

Schatje’s Review of Ed King
2 Stars
The book is a computer-age retelling of Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex which Aristotle considered the perfect tragedy. Unfortunately, Guterson's reworking of the Greek tale of patricide and incest is not quite so perfect; in fact, it won the 2011 Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award for the worst description of a sex scene in a novel.

The setting is Oregon, beginning in the 1960s. Walter Cousins has an affair with his underage British au pair, Diane Burroughs, who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son whom she abandons. The child is adopted by Dan and Alice King who name him Edward Aaron (his middle name a salute to the King of Rock and Roll). The rest of the novel covers Diane and Ed's lives. Diane constantly remakes herself; at different times she is an escort, wealthy wife, much-less-wealthy divorcee, cocaine dealer and life coach. For Ed, everything comes easily, since he has both looks and intelligence; with his attitude of superiority and entitlement, his encounter with Walter on an isolated road has predictable consequences. Ed and Diane meet and marry and become the king and queen of an internet domain. When Ed discovers that he was adopted and learns the identity of his parents, the result is a supersonic version of the myth of Icarus.

One problem with the novel is that it is long on exposition and short on dialogue. There is a definite lack of showing and much telling in the vein that this happened and then this happened and then this happened.

Another weakness is that all the characters are superficial and amoral. No one is likable, and their unrelenting superficiality and amorality begin to grate. Ed (a composite of modern America's gods of technology - Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg) is no tragic hero: he is not a good man with one major character flaw.

The soullessness of the characters is intentional. It conveys a message about modern culture since the book is somewhat a social satire with commentary on such topics as cosmetic surgery, the violence of gaming, global warming, and the ruthlessness of tech-titans.

The strongest appeal of the novel is seeing how the mythical elements have been modernized. Anyone who has read Sophocles will appreciate how some of the original tale has been incorporated: Ed, like Oedipus, is born to a man of dubious morals, is abandoned, and is passed on to a "kingly" family. Both experience foot problems. Ed's attempt to create artificial intelligence can be interpreted as his attempt to crack the riddle of the Sphinx. Ed names his search engine Pythia, the name of the Oracle of Delphi. The excerpts of internet chatter at the beginning and end serve as a type of Greek chorus. Unfortunately, sometimes the parallels are made too obvious. Does Ed really have to be told that he suffers from "an overwhelming and dangerous hubris"?

It can be hoped that Guterson's book will entice people to read or re-read the original drama; its lessons about ambition and hubris need not be modernized to be seen as relevant today as they were in the time of Sophocles and Aristotle.