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Ed King by David Guterson

October 21, 2012

This is a modern take on the Oedipus story. The novel starts with an affair between a wealthy suburbanite and his underage British au pair. She becomes pregnant and abandons the newborn boy on a stranger’s doorstep. That boy grows to be Ed King, an arrogant but incredibly successful software tycoon with a public persona drawn from the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zukerberg and Steve Fossett.

Retelling Oedipus, which revolves around two highly unlikely coincidences, is a tough challenge. It requires a Herculean suspension of disbelief in the reader. On the ancient Greek stage, this kind of plotting was common. In modern literature, it feels a little absurd. And when the two main plot twists do arrive (again, not twists at all for those familiar with the Oedipus story), their implausibility is exacerbated by Guterson’s heavy-handed treatment of them. In one instance, we are brow-beaten with one character’s confusion and agony when he realizes what has happened. In the other, the more egregious of the two, Guterson abandons the narrative voice altogether and directly addresses the reader. It’s completely unnecessary.

The overall effect is like a table that has been pretty well crafted—because the characters and general storytelling are pretty solid—but for two misaligned joints. The carpenter has filled one with a glob of putty and built some strange decorative garnish over the other. I’m not sure how else Guterson would have handled it. It’s a difficult narrative dilemma, but I’m not willing to give him a pass for the difficulty of his task.

Maybe subtlety is out of the question anytime a Greek tragedy is your inspiration, but even the heavy-handedness of the title bugged me. Ed King. Get it? Oedipus the King? It leaves nothing for the reader to figure out. We just read.

It probably sounds like I disliked Ed King more than I did. If you’re willing to forgive the plot flaws—and certainly a lot of literature relies on implausible situations—the story itself is decently compelling. Because we know where the plot is going, the fun is anticipating the how. How do we get there? And in that, Ed King does hold some nice surprises.

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