One day last November, my friend and I were browsing a copy of the day's 'Metro' newspaper. In the entertainment section when we came across a book review for a book called 'Ed King'. Why did it catch our eye? Well, because the review mentioned that the novel was a modern retelling of the Greek play 'Oedipus Rex'- and both of us are Classics students at university!
Nine months later, I've finally got round to renting out 'Ed King' and reading it. The author is David Guterson, who has also written the books 'Snow Falling on Cedars' and 'The Other'. Although this is the first work I've read by him Guterson is a bestselling author so I had high hopes for 'Ed King' not only as a modern adaptation of a classic Greek play, but also to be a great standalone novel in its own right.
In 1962, actuary Walter Cousins makes the ultimate mistake when he sleeps with his children's nanny, 15-year old British girl Diane Burroughs. Unfortunately, the result of their 1 month affair is a baby whom Walter persuades Diane to put up for adoption- a plan which fails. While Diane flees with her newborn child and leaves it on a doorstep, continuing her life by trying to integrate into American high society, Walter goes back to his struggling family life- until he is killed fifteen years later when a young driver crashes him off a road.
The child, soon adopted, grows up to be Ed King: a smart, if somewhat overconfident man who becomes one of the most powerful and richest men in the world as the head of 'Pythia' (a 'Google'-like corporation). It is during his rise to power that he meets Diane- fifteen years his senior, but able to pass for much younger due to facial plastic surgery over the years...
Many will be familiar with the Greek myth of Oedipus, whom unknowingly marries his mother and kills his father. Fortunately for many, 'Ed King' doesn't heavily rely on 'Oedipus Rex' and is a good novel in its own right; rather it's a part modern retelling, part social commentary with plenty of American cultural references over the decades in which the story takes place. Even so, there are a few nice allusions to the play (the company 'Pythia', a dream sequence Walter has which turns out to be prophetic on later events, heck even the main character's name itself!) to show its roots, which I think is a nice touch whilst it doesn't alienate anyone whom doesn't know the full myth. Even though I do know how the original story goes, Guterson's witty and engaging storytelling technique is such that I was still engrossed in reading it to the end just to know how everything unravels.
There is one weak point in the narrative however, which is the inevitable moment when Diane and Ed do "it". Guterson decides to break the fourth wall at this point, knowing that people familiar with 'Oedipus' were waiting for this bit, as if he's having a laugh at the two knowingly related people too. Unfortunately this is at the reader's expense because it ruins the narrative here and results in a poorly-written, boring sex scene which unremarkably is the closing point of the chapter.
We get three narrative strands through the story (which quickly go to two) through Walter, Diane and Ed. This allows us to see events and how people's lives go from these POVs, and it's interesting as to how certain events throughout the novel are seen at different perspectives. For example, in one chapter Ed kills a man by crashing him off the road in a fit of anger; in the next chapter, we see what Walter was doing in the last months and days before his death. See the connection here? Since the story begins with Ed's death being reported online (and ends with a further report), so immediately I wanted to keep reading to learn how the Ed ends up the way he does and how it links his fate to that of his birth parents.
The characters in 'Ed King' are developed brilliantly with three main characters that are very realistic. We don't see much of Walter after the middle of the book for certain reasons, but we get clear impressions of a mild-mannered, slightly gullible man who clearly regrets his mistake, especially for the long-term consequences it causes in the relationships in the rest of his family. He was perhaps the character I sympathized with the most. Diane on the other hand is a clever, manipulative woman who is determined to get the better of others by both staying young and beautiful, even if it means doing some rather immoral things throughout the novel. I dislike her but I did admire the way she moves up and down the social ladder.
As for Ed himself, I had mixed feelings, mainly due to the fact that Guterson writes him rather...'distant' until he reaches adulthood. During his [smothered] childhood years we learn about him as he grows but I didn't really connect with him until his motor-related incident. Nevertheless he is soon portrayed as a formidable man who is brilliant at many things that allow him to reach to the top. His huge ego and arrogance makes him, not somebody to root for even given the inevitability of the novel, but then again the character he's based on isn't a paragon of perfection either. In fact, none of them truly likeable due to the scope of their actions, but they're still flawed human beings whom we can relate to in one way or another.
I enjoyed 'Ed King' because of its well-written characters and Guterson's excellent, humorous narrative. It builds perfectly on the myth and the modern twists and focus on narcissism and greed fit in with the original morals. Whether you know the myth or not this is still a book for readers of modern fiction to check out!
(Review also on Ciao under the name Anti_W.)