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Oedipus Rex, primo bad sex

"Ed King" retells the myth, this time in Seattle, with tedious, unending minutiae.

nolead begins Ed King
nolead ends nolead begins By David Guterson
Alfred A. Knopf. 304 pp. $26.95

This novel just won the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for 2011 from the Literary Review in Britain. The sex is bad, that's for sure - I won't quote the sentence about the bar of soap employed as an instrument of abuse - but that is the least of the book's problems.

The worst would be just how boring it is.

The title - the name of the protagonist - is a giveaway. Ed King. Ed Rex. Get it?

Yes, this is a retelling of the story of Oedipus Rex, who killed his father and married his mother. This time it's set, not in Thebes, but (mostly) in Seattle.

After the briefest of prologues, the story begins in 1962. Actuary Walter Cousins hires a cute au pair from England to help with the kids while his wife gets over a breakdown. Diane Burroughs claims to be 18, but turns out to be nearer 15. Which doesn't keep Walter from making what he comes to think of as "the biggest mistake of his life." That would be sleeping with Diane and getting her pregnant.

I will spare you, dear reader, the details of how the child gets born, how Diane changes her mind about putting him up for adoption, how she changes her mind again, and leaves the baby on somebody's doorstep.

The child grows up as Edward King, secretly adopted son of Dan and Alice, who not long afterward, to their great surprise, have a son of their own, whom they name Simon.

Diane Burroughs, meanwhile, has hit on Walter for $500 a month in perpetuity, while making ends meet turning tricks under the nom de nuit Candy Dark. One of her clients takes her to an affair at a plush country club. It won't do to introduce her as Candy Dark, so she goes as Diane Davis. There she meets Jim Long, heir to a family-owned ski-making business. They marry, but eventually Diane's past catches up with her and she's back on her own with 85 grand - 30 that she saved from Walter's stipends, the rest her measly divorce settlement.

Walter's contributions had ceased, since he was driven off the road by an enraged teenager along a remote stretch of highway. That teenager, of course, was Ed King. He seems genuinely remorseful over what he has done, but a little therapy and the right prescription soon get him over it, and he's at Stanford studying math. He has, you see, this thing for algorithms, which will result in his becoming the super-rich King of Search, head of Pythia, the ultimate Google.

Ed also has this thing for older women. So it's no surprise that, when he meets Diane, they hit it off as if they had known each other all their lives. They meet at the Pacific Science Center when Diane - who has morphed in her early 40s into a life coach - asks the tall, handsome young man a question while both are standing in front of the Probability Exhibit, a relic from 1962's Seattle World's Fair, which the teenage Diane had seen in the company of the late Walter.

Whereupon, our author takes it upon himself to step out of his role as narrator:

Okay. Now we approach the part of the story a reader can't be blamed for having skipped forward to - "flipped forward to" if he or she has a hard copy, but otherwise "scrolled to" or "used the 'Find' feature to locate" - the part where a mother has sex with her son. Who could blame you for being interested in this potential hot part, and, at the same time, shuddering at the prospect of it?

He goes on a bit, and then takes us to the part about the soap.

The idea of skipping ahead to this isn't all that bad, because the last 60 pages or so are much better than those preceding them.

There are several problems at work here. One has to do with Guterson's way of achieving verisimilitude: by cataloging the minutiae of his characters' lives. I could cite the excruciatingly detailed accounts of Ed's childhood obsessions with, first, superhero comics, then baseball cards, then movies, but I'll settle for a bit about the Long family - the one Diane married into - enjoying themselves:

The Longs were energetic social drinkers, and when they got on a roll, they loosened up. The vacationing clan would gather at poolside, and the brothers would compete as cannonball artists or shove their wives into the water. The characteristic family laugh was a cackle that . . . ricocheted from one side of the pool to the other when the Long wives perched on their husbands' shoulders, grappling, grunting, giggling, and cursing while their lesser halves made uproarious comments. The commentary became more subdued and solemn when the men engaged in underwater contests of aerobic capacity, only to devolve again toward the bawdy and inane when the women tried synchronized swimming. Finally, the Longs would haul out at poolside to chat, snack, and bask in the late sun. After showering . . . .

But enough! There are pages and pages of this sort of thing, and none of it brings any of these people to life, let alone makes them interesting. Moreover, in addition to the adventures of Ed and Diane, there are the accounts of Walter and his family, of Alice and Dan King's parents (who come off as Jewish versions of stage Irishmen), and so much more that invariably adds up to very little.

Which brings us to the main problem. The best-known version of the Oedipus story is the play by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex. It is, among other things, admirably economical. Its doomed characters have their flaws, but they also have a certain grandeur. The characters inhabiting this novel are precisely the kind of people you never want to have sidle up to you in a bar.

The novel also misses the point of the myth: Oedipus blinds himself and becomes a wanderer, but by the end of his life has grown wise and simply disappears, apparently both forgiven and redeemed.

Guterson has performed a strange alchemy, turning tragic gold into the most banal and leaden dross.