I Believe I Can Fly
David Guterson’s epic launches into Icarus and incest
Ed KingDavid Guterson
(Knopf · hardcover · $26.95)
Writing a modern-day epic as an allegory to Greek mythology—those are some big shoes to fill. A little book called Ulysses comes to mind. David Guterson undoubtedly knew this when he began penning Ed King, a novel that posits the question, What if Bill Gates was a murderous motherfucker?
OK. To be fair, Ed King doesn't really ask that. It just happens to be about a guy who lives in Seattle and becomes one of the world's richest men by building a globally dominant tech company. He also kills someone and has sex with his own mother. (Ed King, Oedipus Rex—get it? Personally, I think "So-crates" from Bill & Ted is a better ancient Greek nominal riff.) It should also be noted that the story of Icarus plays heavily into the novel. Apparently the sky's the limit if you're going epic.
But before Ed King burns out, it's fiendishly entertaining. The story opens with Walter Cousins, a thirtysomething actuary, entering into an affair with his 15-year-old British au pair, Diane Burroughs. Walter and Diane have a child out of wedlock.
Diane may be young, but she's a scheming narcissist who milks Walter for everything he's worth. She's also Guterson's most well-fleshed-out character in a book where people are often more like vessels of symbolism than human beings. When Walter's wife returns from a mental institution, Diane leaves, dumps her baby on a doorstep and delves into a career of professional hustling. Guterson writes, "Wallowing in the wounds of high-end prostitution, she remembered her son, wondered about his welfare, and regretted her decision to abandon him."
Guterson's writing is not necessarily artful, but he does create a charming picture of his native Pacific Northwest. And the first half of the book has enough scandal and deceit to give it a subtle but well-tempered cinematic flair. The author is, after all, most well-known for his bestseller Snow Falling on Cedars, which was adapted into an Ethan Hawke vehicle. If Ed King were more pared down—like the aforementioned PEN/Faulkner Award-winner—it would be great fodder for the silver screen.
Unfortunately, Guterson decides to go for the sweeping epic thing, which happens to be the book’s downfall. The intertwined narratives of Ed’s upbringing in a working-class Jewish household and Diane’s successful but unfulfilling life as a hustler are a good starting point. An endearing play on feelings of displacement and disconnect begins to blossom. But in a headachingly obvious nod to Forrest Gump, the book's characters become entrenched in a series of decade-defining events, spanning from 1960 to the near future. Tangents about the evolution of the video game industry add nothing to the book, other than evidence that David Guterson did a lot of video game research.
The same tendency toward extraneous elements is at work in Guterson's exponentially rising number of characters. It’s a device—used overburdeningly—for mirroring the Greek tragedies he bases his book on. Rather than sticking to the three or four good ones he created, he throws in characters such as a contrarian airplane pilot named Guido Sternvad who flies billionaire Ed King around. Guido's dialogue consists of anagrams, often with a heavy-handed foresight toward the grim fate of the protagonist. "Edward King. Dark Winged!" he proclaims. (Icarus reference—get it?) It's a dull tool used ad nauseam in films like Secret Window and Shutter Island. Culturally, we should have drawn the line at "Redrum."
The idea of probabilities is also a big theme in the book. Ed, like his father, is a numbers guy. And as a series of unfortunate improbabilities in his life are realized, many things that would not happen in the real world happen here. While I understand that Sophocles didn't exactly exercise sleight of hand like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ed King's tragic coincidences are more than a tad predictable. It almost delves into self-parody as Ed begins to connect the dots that comprise his Oedipal existence: "No, that's insane," he thinks. "That's a movie plot. Could I engage in a more ridiculous line of thought?"
By the end, Guterson almost completely abandons that “show, don't tell" maxim. As the story reaches its climax, the author steps outside of it and confronts his audience in a way that reeks of Chuck Palahniuk in its overt stylism. "Okay. Now we approach the part of the story the reader can't be blamed for having skipped forward to," Guterson writes, "the part where a mother has sex with her son."
Ed King is not great writing, although it at times proves that Guterson has the talent to create a compelling narrative. His aim in this case is just too lofty. I could see Greek history majors chuckling to themselves about how Guido is "so Tiresias," but then again, a Greek history major would probably be reading better books. Ed King is a perversely attractive novel. It's got all the elements for one of the most scintillating airplane reads of your life. Unfortunately, it's fraught with turbulence due to an overambitious pilot.