In Seattle, 1962, Walter Cousins, a mild-mannered actuary, "a guy who weighs risk for a living", takes a risk of his own, and makes the biggest error of his life. He sleeps with Diane, the sexy, not-quite-legal British au pair who's taking care of his children for the summer. Diane gets pregnant and leaves their baby on a doorstep, but not before turning the tables on Walter and setting in motion a tragedy of epic proportions. Their orphaned child, adopted by an adoring family, becomes Edward Aaron King, and grows up to become a billionaire Internet tycoon and an international celebrity, the King of Search, who unknowingly, but inexorably, hurtles through life toward a fate he may have no power to shape.
Ed himself isn't introduced until quite a few pages into the book, although there are some postings about him at the very beginning. And most blurbs and reviewers have mentioned the whole Oedipus Rex theme. Knowing that going in, I found the book to be funny and entertaining, with a more important theme than the O.R. One. The consistent theme is that no matter who you are or what you do, bad karma is going to haunt you. And about everyone in these pages has bad karma.
The humor is dark in a shoulda-seen-that-coming kind of way, lots of irony. The characters are not necessarily likeable but I still wanted to learn more about them. The time period covers several decades, and I enjoyed the references to time-appropriate products and people, Walkmans and past presidents, early computing and video games. In my opinion, it's a thoroughly enjoyable book.
Thank you to Vine and the publisher for giving me an uncorrected proof for review.
The text is flat, the main characters stock actors from Silicon Valley. (The character of Ed King is made up of some of the more obnoxious traits of famous folk around here.) The only truly interesting character is the pilot.
I wasn't going to read this, but then I read the first two paragraphs of the NYT review, which seemed positive. I didn't want to know too much about the book, so I didn't read the entire review; had I read the whole thing, I would've found that the reviewer wasn't totally impressed, either. He (I think it was a he) seemed to think Guterson was trying some literary experiment by writing at a remove about tedious people--and that the experiment didn't entirely work. My take is a little harsher: Guterson tried to make a gas, and instead got a liquid.
The setting is Oregon, beginning in the 1960s. Walter Cousins has an affair with his underage British au pair, Diane Burroughs, who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son whom she abandons. The child is adopted by Dan and Alice King who name him Edward Aaron (his middle name a salute to the King of Rock and Roll). The rest of the novel covers Diane and Ed's lives. Diane constantly remakes herself; at different times she is an escort, wealthy wife, much-less-wealthy divorcee, cocaine dealer and life coach. For Ed, everything comes easily, since he has both looks and intelligence; with his attitude of superiority and entitlement, his encounter with Walter on an isolated road has predictable consequences. Ed and Diane meet and marry and become the king and queen of an internet domain. When Ed discovers that he was adopted and learns the identity of his parents, the result is a supersonic version of the myth of Icarus.
One problem with the novel is that it is long on exposition and short on dialogue. There is a definite lack of showing and much telling in the vein that this happened and then this happened and then this happened.
Another weakness is that all the characters are superficial and amoral. No one is likable, and their unrelenting superficiality and amorality begin to grate. Ed (a composite of modern America's gods of technology - Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg) is no tragic hero: he is not a good man with one major character flaw.
The soullessness of the characters is intentional. It conveys a message about modern culture since the book is somewhat a social satire with commentary on such topics as cosmetic surgery, the violence of gaming, global warming, and the ruthlessness of tech-titans.
The strongest appeal of the novel is seeing how the mythical elements have been modernized. Anyone who has read Sophocles will appreciate how some of the original tale has been incorporated: Ed, like Oedipus, is born to a man of dubious morals, is abandoned, and is passed on to a "kingly" family. Both experience foot problems. Ed's attempt to create artificial intelligence can be interpreted as his attempt to crack the riddle of the Sphinx. Ed names his search engine Pythia, the name of the Oracle of Delphi. The excerpts of internet chatter at the beginning and end serve as a type of Greek chorus. Unfortunately, sometimes the parallels are made too obvious. Does Ed really have to be told that he suffers from "an overwhelming and dangerous hubris"?
It can be hoped that Guterson's book will entice people to read or re-read the original drama; its lessons about ambition and hubris need not be modernized to be seen as relevant today as they were in the time of Sophocles and Aristotle.
The story begins in 1962 Seattle, just when actuary Walter Cousins finds himself in need of someone to help him care for his two young children. Lydia, Walter’s wife, has been hospitalized in a psychiatric facility, and he is unable to cope with all the demands he suddenly faces. Walter sees fifteen-year-old English au pair Diane Burroughs as the perfect solution to his problem. Immediately smitten as he is by the teen’s irreverent persona, Walter should have sensed trouble ahead. Unfortunately, he does not – and his affair with the girl produces an illegitimate child he wants desperately to hide from his wife.
This boy baby, after he is adopted by a wealthy, childless Jewish couple, will become Ed King, the book’s title character. Decades later, Ed will have earned his own fortune, reputation, and cult following (a la Steve Jobs), and will be known to the world as “The King of Search” for having developed what seems to be the ultimate search engine. In the meantime, Diane Burroughs, Ed’s mother, has used her wits to con her way into (and out of) a fortune or two of her own, and his father, the philandering actuary, has used his to keep Lydia in the dark about his long string of love affairs.
Ed King, despite beginning in 1962 and ending in the future, is not a particularly long book - coming in at just 320 pages. But using relatively few pages to cover more than six decades in the lives of several key characters as he does, forces Guterson to use an annoying amount of third-person summarization to catch the reader up when the author wants to skip over large gaps in time. That these sections of the book are sometimes dominated by page-long paragraphs detailing some of the book’s driest material, often kills the flow developed in previous chapters and makes it difficult for the reader to maintain momentum.
Surprisingly, despite the intimate details revealed about Ed’s physical relationship with his mother, that relationship comes across as far less shocking than one would imagine. The premise of Ed King is interesting but the first half of the book, during which Ed and his parents get themselves into their ultimate predicament, is the book’s stronger half. This one is intriguing, but I do not expect it to make many “Best of 2011” lists.
Rated at: 3.0
One of my peeves is that while some authors paint a vivid portrait of place, Guterson names places but never gives the locations character or roundness. Like every other cliche northwest portrait, the focus is the weather. Grey, dark, bleak and rainy. Seattle has that but it also has spectacular sunny days July through October with a bright technicolor landscape from which to draw. He also names neighborhoods without ever drawing out the character of those neighborhoods.
Of course everyone who lives here is a techie. That's old, boring and cliche. Only a few from here are homegrown techies. Most of the geeks come from outside of Washington State to work in the tech industry. Washingtonians have deeper and richer histories than Microsoft. That is lost in this book which starts in 1962 and fails to pull out the real history of the city.
The characters are also cynical and each has an air of sleaziness or criminality attached to them. For that to be effective or make you want to have empathy or even care a little about the characters there has to be some redeeming quality.
Given the importance of Walter, he is never fully rounded and I felt nothing on his demise. Diane was an out an out con artist and again, I felt nothing for her. Simon isn't drawn well and it became confusing during Ed's teenage years as to how old he actually was - at first he seemed like he was about 18 or 19 and suddenly he's back to 16 or 17 and a high school junior. He moved from 19 to 27 in less than a chapter and it didn't feel like those formative years were filled with experiences beyond sex.
While the book is meant to evoke thoughts of Oedipus and Electra, the incessant descriptions of sex got boring quickly without evoking the above mentioned real stories about the agonies of those loves and the soul searching. I know he can write soul searching because I really felt that in "The Other." This time, the souls were empty.
I will pass my copy on to others who are interested in the author but I won't recommend it - I will be interested to see what conclusions those avid readers and fans of the author draw from it.