“Ed King” by David Guterson

A fantastic book in its own right – i.e. judged as a novel, not an updating of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Guterson has an easy, just-self-conscious style – you know you’re being told a story, but he doesn’t intrude – and the whole – characters, scenes, dialogue – comes across vivid and credible.

As a version of Oedipus it also works, though I’m not sure if Guterson is trying to comment on the myth, or on Sophocles, or (just) using elements of the original to make something new. I suspect this last. For example, there is a leitmotiv of blindness, but Ed doesn’t end up blind. Several times Ed’s warned about digging too far, by people who can’t know the truth – and one of these is called Theresa (Teiresias, geddit). But there are a few too many throwaway references which don’t mean anything: someone has edema, a Caleb has the nickname Club, even the decidedly non-virginal Jocasta character is ironically, but meaninglessly, called Diane. It’s a nice idea, though, to begin and end with a chorus of web page comments.

Jocasta/Diane is a larger character than Oedipus/Ed: she starts the novel as a sexually and verbally precocious 15-year old, and ends up not killing herself but a squirrelled-away septuagenarian safe in Tasmania. Most of the novel is focalised through her: her drive, her ups and downs, and her sexuality provide most of the book’s power.

As for Ed, his climb up the software ladder to become a rival to Google (“Pythia (geddit) – even the corporate email addresses are @pmail) lets Guterson build cleverly to the climax, as Ed uses all the search-engine (he’s the “king of search”) power at his disposal, including a Siri-like “Cybil” [why not “Sibyl”?], to find out who his parents are. Guterson, as Sophocles, let’s the truth drip out bit by bit, making the last pages thrill. Ed’s and Diane’s responses to the truth, however, are where Guterson and Sophocles differ (as, meaningfully, did Anouilh in his Antigone, with his Creon’s forcing himself, not into abject exile, but back into the day job). We get unconvincing streams of Ed’s thoughts, concluding with his desire to find Diane and learn what really went on; this noise contrasts with Diane’s silence and (literal) flight. On the other hand, Sophocles’ Jocasta kills herself, and her son/husband blinds himself. The other major difference is that Sophocles’ characters suffer publicly, in the full glare of the open space in front of the royal palace, whereas Guterson’s deal with it all in secret. One question which might be relevant to this secrecy is whether the myth/play of Oedipus exists in their fictional world. I can’t quite remember if any characters mention him; Guterson certainly does on occasion, but, Oedipus’ not being part of their mental furniture would explain their rather confused reaction to what they’ve done.

Once, and once only, does Guterson step aside from his narrative, and give us a Murder-in-the-Cathedral moment: Ed and Diane have picked each other up and are going home for sex; Guterson stops us with:

Okay. Now we approach the part of the story a reader can’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?

He then asks male and female readers in turn what they would have done in the circumstances, and what difference that knowledge would or should make. Even though, for me, this device sheds no new light on the ‘original’, it’s a sudden and perfectly judged highlight in this modern novel. And now I feel like the apocryphal reviewer of Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover for “Gamekeeper Monthly”, who complained about the excess of irrelevant material crowding out the more interesting stuff on raising pheasants.

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