“Ed King” by David Guterson, Oedipus Today

“Ed King” by David Guterson  (2011) – 304 pages

 As many of you have probably heard by now, “Ed King” is a modern retelling of the Sophocles play Oedipus Rex, that ancient tragedy of a doomed family. 

 This is a great idea for a novel, because the idea of fate is just as valid today as it was in ancient Greece.  We still haven’t pinned down the exact link between one’s behavior and one’s destiny and one’s family’s destiny   Many believe there is a link, and that fate is not just a random series of events.  Many believe we are sinners in the hands of an angry god.    

 This new novel takes place in the three West Coast states of Washington, Oregon, and California.  The story begins in 1962, the year of the Seattle World’s Fair, and continues through the beginning of the personal computer up to the Internet era of today and beyond.   It’s the life story of Ed King from his conception.

 So what is the sin in “Ed King” that sets off the events that occur over the next fifty years?  The answer is in the first sentence of the novel.  “In 1962, Walter Cousins made the biggest mistake of his life: he slept with the au pair for a month.”  She is the fifteen-year old English au pair girl, Diane, who was hired to take care of Walter’s kids while his wife is in the hospital for a nervous breakdown.   As with ‘Oedipus Rex’ the key to the Ed King story is the adoption of the baby, so the kid cannot recognize his real parents.  Even today it is not that far-fetched that an adopted child could sooner or later run into his real parents.

 In Sophocles’ play, Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx.  “What is the creature who walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?” Oedipus replies, “Man, who crawls on all fours as an infant, walks upright later, and needs a walking stick in old age.”   In the novel, Ed King invents a new search algorithm, starts an Internet company Pythia, and becomes a billionaire.  Just as people now say, ”I googled ‘Sophocles’”, in the novel they say ‘I pythed ‘Aristophanes’”.

 So does David Guterson succeed in his re-telling of the Oedipus story?  To a large extent he does succeed.  The events in the novel are vivid and well-told, and I will probably remember this novel long after I’ve forgotten many others.

The long winding road of Ed King’s life fits together well as a story, though somehow the prosaic events of the last fifty years do not resonate with the same tragic drama as the Oedipus story.   The original Oedipus is a risqué, tragic sex story, yet that part of the story in this American re-telling seems almost banal without the catastrophic implications.

  The ideas of an individual fate and a family fate are not as powerful as they once were.

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