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When I say Oedipus Rex, chances are you have a pretty visceral reaction. My first thought is of someone gouging out his own eyeballs. I don’t know why that particular image has remained with me ever since first reading parts of the play in middle school, but it has. (It might be my affinity for the dramatic.) The story of Oedipus is deeply imbedded in our collective unconscious—whether from reading the play or studying Freud’s stages of psychosexual development. It is a story that triggers our deepest anxieties about identity and destiny. Then, there’s always the significant gross-out factor of the story—marrying one’s mother. (Everyone say “Ewww” together.) David Guterson captures this sense of looming disaster in his creative retelling of Oedipus Rex, Ed King.
Adopted by an affluent and doting Jewish couple, Ed grows into a mathematical genius, attends Stanford, and becomes a titan of the technology sector. But, his core is very different from that of the good natured and warmly generous Kings. Ed is aggressive, athletic, and driven. He is ruthless and callous in competition. He tempts fate, and we all know how well that is going to work for him. This, of course, was one of my concerns about this novel: Could I enjoy it, knowing what was going to happen? In some ways, these classic stories are like the stories we wanted to hear over and over as children. Their archetypal characters are timeless and universal; they touch a nerve. Ed King is a wonderfully modern Oedipus Rex, and knowing how it would all turn out didn’t stop me from wanting to turn the page (even if it was with one eye shut).
Like Oedipus Rex, Ed King isn’t really about the plot. The book’s appeal are its numerous themes—nature and nurture; the pitfalls of ambition and vanity; the breakdown of community; the sins of our mothers and fathers; the dangers of pride. You get the idea. Big themes of Greek Tragedy proportions. At times the exploration of these themes feels a bit heavy-handed, but just remember the original: Oedipus going into Jocasta’s room and plucking out his eyes with one of her gold brooches, then wondering off blind and bleeding while a chorus laments his fate. Now that’s a tragedy of epic proportion, and I love it!