Ed King by David Guterson
This is such a clever idea for a novel that it's a wonder no one has thought of it before. Or if they had, perhaps they would have decided against it, because it's so hard to pull off. David Guterson, author of the best-selling and much-loved Snow Falling on Cedars, has written the 21st-century novel of Oedipus Rex, a "myth for our times". Ed King: get what he did with the title? It's the story of a baby boy given up for adoption, who goes on to become one of the world's richest and most powerful men. While, of course, killing his father and sleeping with his mother along the way.
Most of all, though, it's a tale of human error and hilarious idiocy. Ed's father, Walter Cousins, illustrates this beautifully: he's a self-deluding, well-meaning actuary who ends up sleeping with the au pair when his wife is hospitalised with a nervous breakdown. Oedipus, sorry, Ed, is conceived. The au pair, Diane, is no schmuck, however. She dumps the baby on a doorstep but manages to convince Walter that she is raising the child as a single mother. He coughs up. Walter's hush money allows her to maintain herself in the manner to which she would like to become accustomed. (Quite literally - she ends up having a lot of plastic surgery, allowing her to become young enough to seduce a man her son's age. Clever, eh?)
The baby is adopted by a lovely Jewish couple, Alice and Dan, who name him Edward Aaron King: "Dan, especially, was an Elvis fan." Ed has a relatively normal, if slightly smothering, all-American childhood. He annoys and is annoyed by his brother Simon and spends his barmitzvah money on a 1966 Pontiac GTO, complete with racing stripes, which he paints on himself. It is while in this car that he has an altercation with another driver, an irritating middle-aged man, whom he runs off the road. The man is Walter, who breaks his neck in the ensuing crash.
By this point, we are starting to get the whiff of inevitability, especially as Diane has been quietly remodelling herself for several years now and can easily pass as the sort of woman Ed might go for. Ed himself is destined to become - what else? - king of internet domain Pythia, a search engine. He takes in Stanford on the way and a succession of therapists, who attempt to diagnose his malaise: "And who are you?" "I'm me." "And who is 'me'?"
There are obvious problems with transplanting Greek myth to the digital age, not least sincerity. At times, despite myself, I became invested in Ed's character, only to find myself feeling annoyed that the author seemed to be mocking him. We laugh at Ed visiting the shrink to get "mental health medication" because we know that his life's trajectory is going to throw him some "lifestyle issues" that are not really possible to medicate away. It's hard to be moved by a story and laugh at its cleverness at the same time.
Guterson certainly had a lot of fun writing this, occasionally, perhaps, too much fun. I bristled slightly during the opening chapters when Diane, then a young, very English au pair, seems to talk with some sort of Dick Van Dyke disorder: "A lass with a lasso, then, for when they're mucking about starkers," she says, describing her role as a nanny. (Who talks like this?)
When she asks Walter for a can of beer in the kitchen, she says: "I'll have what you're having. A pint." (Who drinks pints at home?) But it's all to point out that Walter is attracted to her exoticism (and possibly she's putting on these ludicrous anglicisms to seduce him anyway).
Overall, Guterson's way with words and characters is both persuasive and a bit too-cool-for-school.
Walter's life was ruined when his wife's "cheesecake magnetism evaporated, never to return". A fortune-teller reveals to Ed: "In your present condition you suffer from a terrible inflation, a terrible narcissism, and an overwhelming and dangerous hubris." This really does feel like sniggering at the back of the class.
There is so much going on in this novel, packed as it is with cultural references and knowing winks to the zeitgeist, that it's worthy of several spin-off mini-series. I lost my way a few times but was - mostly - pulled back on course by Guterson's seductive, if occasionally smug, story-telling. And if you're thinking of flipping forward to the chapter "where a mother has sex with her son", Guterson has already got your number. (But it's on page 240.)
- OBSERVERBy Viv Groskop