In the tissue-thin pages of “The Norton Anthology,” the canon of world literature looks delicate and staid, but it’s as violent a Darwinian contest as any fought in the primeval forest. Strong, adaptable stories survive; muddled, time-bound stories die. Euripides’ “Medea” still roars over the millennia. George Lillo’s “The London Merchant” might have taken the 18th century by storm, but now it sleeps with the woolly mammoth.
Sigmund Freud, in his foundational work “The Interpretation of Dreams,” considered why, despite the passage of 2,500 years, “Oedipus Rex” is still capable “of moving modern men no less than it moved the contemporary Greeks.” He speculated that “there must be a voice within us which is prepared to recognize the compelling power of fate in ‘Oedipus.’ ” He went on to recognize in this dysfunctional family — long before “Cougar Town” came to ABC — a basic pattern of psychological development: a sexual desire for one’s mother and a murderous rage against one’s father. Psychology has evolved since those heady days in Vienna, but there’s no denying the immutable terror of Sophocles’ tragedy. Like other archetypal stories, it lends itself to creative retelling, restaging and reinterpretation.
Which only adds to our eager anticipation of David Guterson’s new novel, “Ed King,” a modern-day version of “Oedipus Rex.” In the three novels since his spectacularly successful debut, “Snow Falling on Cedars” (1994), Guterson has focused on alienated people driven into the woods by shame, or illness, or a thirst for the truth. The disgraced king of Thebes would seem to fit comfortably in that line of his tragic loners, and, indeed, there’s something weirdly titillating about seeing the ancient details of Sophocles’ story transferred to the late 20th century. But that titillation isn’t enough to animate this ill-conceived novel, which somebody should have strangled at birth.
The opening, though, when Guterson sets down the terms of his re-imagined tale, is perversely appealing. Walter Cousins is a philandering actuary who “weighs risks for a living” but now finds himself troubled by fate. With his wife in the hospital, he’s left alone with his children’s nanny, Diane, a flirtatious young Brit who was “a drop-dead ringer for the sixteen-year-old Disney darling who’d been in newspapers and magazines lately for turning down the lead role in ‘Lolita.’ ” On a family outing to the Fine Arts Pavilion one afternoon, they all stare at a painting called “Oedipus and the Sphinx.” With those allusions firmly in place, events proceed apace in a sweaty-palmed narrative that finds 15-year-old Diane pregnant and Walter’s life on the edge of ruin.
This first section is far and away the most engaging, and the themes of risk, fate and family determinism all cleverly point toward trouble. Walter’s panic tests his faith in statistics and his power to control events, and Diane’s transformation from cute temptress to steely extortionist is even more delicious (she’s the whore with a heart of bile who enlivens every scene). But once Diane abandons her baby on a random doorstep, the novel begins to skate through unfolding events. Where Sophocles holds us arrested for a single day, Guterson zips through the years in a kind of narrative shorthand that tracks events in the Greek play without translating its meaning, its power or its horror. The characters are set at such a dulling distance from us that usually we can’t feel anything but distaste for them.
Baby Ed grows up to be a wild, brilliant young man (perfect except for his slightly deformed ankles). His adoptive Jewish parents, the Kings, treat him like a prince. (Get it?) He has a nasty run-in with you-know-who on the highway. But later, as an amalgamation of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Larry Page, he makes a fortune by figuring out how to solve impossibly difficult riddles on the Internet. And then he meets a sexy older woman . . . .
At that point, Guterson stops the action and addresses us directly in a licentious tone that should excite any middle-school boy who makes it this far: “Now we approach the part of the story a reader couldn’t be blamed for having skipped forward to.” Actually, I wouldn’t blame you for skipping this book entirely, but if you must, turn to page 236. What follows are three pages that might very well win the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex Award, including my personal “ick” moment: “Ed smelled vulnerably digestive.” In the smutty hands of Chuck Palahniuk, all this might have been a gas, but here it just made me want to take my wife’s hairpins and stab out my eyes.
So what exactly are we to make of this novel, which eventually sees Ed at the height of his hubris evolve into a billionaire version of Ray Kurzweil, determined to live forever “in the very heart and mind of God”?
Almost every line is infected with an acid tone meant to punish these trite, ambitious, self-absorbed people. Guterson’s criticism of the corrosive effects of vanity, money and media mania, which animated his far more thoughtful novels “Our Lady of the Forest” and “The Other,” is in these pages relentless and obvious. He’s knocking on the doors of Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen and Lionel Shriver, but he doesn’t demonstrate the requisite wit or stylistic panache to pull off that kind of satire. The result is a mirthless story that’s tedious where it should be suspenseful, bitter where it should feel cathartic.
A tragedy, indeed.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By David Guterson
Knopf. 304 pp. $26.95