David Guterson is the author of five novels, including Snow Falling on Cedars, The Other and most recently, Ed King – a modern retelling of the Oedpius Rex myth, in which the orphaned child of an extramarital affair grows up to become Seattle’s biggest internet multi-billionaire, the self-proclaimed ‘King of Search’. David talked to Granta editor John Freeman about his new novel and the intersection of myth and the modern world.
JF: Do you believe in character or destiny, and do you think Americans have any particular hang-ups when it comes to these notions?
‘Character’ has a solid ring to it, whereas my impression is of constant flux, endless permutation, more desisting and more arising. Mostly what’s perpetual isn’t character but illusions. This is reflected, I think, in Ed King, wherein illusions bind people to the wheel.
The conventions about Americans – manifest destiny, and that we’re self-made (or humbled) in the context of being set loose on a new continent – sound antiquated, shop-worn, and Eurocentric at this point. It’s not accurate to say that, pervasively, we view success as a birthright, or as the natural fruit of our steadfast laboUr. We’re apprehensive instead, and feel our moment has passed, which is why our politicians are forever insisting otherwise. We suspect, now, that everything is relative. In short, we’ve gone post-modern; we’re wandering. But in the realm of the algorithm, which is the terrain of Ed King – and where Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook appear ascendant – Americans can, and do, take heart. The new frontier, ironically, is our last bastion, and Page, Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg, god-like, man the barricades, mostly by virtue of their out-sized hubris and out-sized brains. Ed King, founder of a search company called Pythia, is in this category.
Ed King is, let’s not be coy about it, a rewriting of the Oedipus Rex story, which means a certain number of readers know the outcome before the tale begins. And yet there’s a dark centripetal force to this book. Why do you think this is? Do we really just love a good train wreck or do you believe some sort of moral instinct is activated by witnessing someone self-destruct?
We love a good train wreck and like to watch the cars pile up repeatedly, in slow motion and with commentary, on YouTube. Not a day passes now without yet another video, gone viral, depicting little more than a foregone conclusion – and, as this question suggests, all the better, or more propulsive, when the scene unfolds within a moral frame.
The fall from grace, too, is perennial fodder for our gaze. There was something Greek and classical about Tiger Woods, for example, facing the camera in tormented apologia after treatment for sex addiction in Mississippi. As each dressed-downed and shamed American politician denies and then admits to his fallen nature, we have a new opportunity to confront our own interest not just in the details but in the spectacle. Hubris, power, sex, ambition, frailty, pathos, descent, castigation: there but for the grace of gods go I, and as long as it isn’t me, great!
It’s much the same in Ed King. Certainly we know, from the outset – given the flap copy and summaries – where it must be headed. We’re familiar with the conventions of the oedipal story – kill your father, marry your mother, live large, suffer the consequences – but most of us can still use at least a modicum of catharsis and are happy for fresh invitations to distance.
As in The Other, the characters in this novel measure their self-worth comparatively, and the novel allows us to watch many different decisions play out. Is it fair to say it’s what leads many of them astray?
Ed King, Diane Burroughs and Walter Cousins – the major presences in Ed King – are all desperate in pursuit of happiness. Goaded and derided by impulse and ambition, they each try to press the right button – or snip the right wire – before a bomb goes off. What leads them astray is not comparison but blindness, of the sort that’s a staple of clinical disorders. The narcissist, the histrionic, the paranoid, the schizoid – they’re always the last to see themselves, and that, of course, is if they’re lucky.
Blindness is of course fundamental in Oedipus Rex. Tiresias is a blind seer; Oedipus doesn’t see until he’s gouged his own eyes out. Lack of eyesight yields inward vision. The rest of us stumble on, victimized by self-delusion and weighed down by certainties. We’re led astray by our truths, which turn out to be false. We think we know ourselves, and therein lies the problem.
Your novels are slowly making a kind of survey of post-war Pacific Northwest. Aside from the fact that you live there, what compels you about this period to continue coming back to it?
Since 1994 I’ve published five novels, including Ed King, set in the post-war Pacific Northwest, with but minor excursions elsewhere. I have been and remain interested in the tenor and meaning of a place so recently over-run, sawed down to surfaces, and re-made with no vision beyond present considerations. With little in the way of history to impede or direct, we’re a bit of an experiment – what happens to a colonial outpost, established in the name of resource extraction, freshly slapped up, raw, even wild, when it butts against modernity and, shortly thereafter, against post-modernity? In this context, both grunge and Microsoft make sense as expressions of loss in concert with freedom. Unmoored from history, tradition, institutions, we’re free to mourn ourselves and to love abstraction.
Jonathan Raban, who moved here from England in 1990, gets all of this better than just about anybody. He has the distance.
This is your first novel to actively explore the culture of Seattle’s tech boom. Obviously it’s had some obvious positive effects, but here it’s employed as a kind of example of hubris. Not so much the wealth amassed, but the idea that we can know the entire world through an algorithm. Given that your last few novels invoked faith, I wondered if this story became any kind of parable about a world without faith as you wrote it?
Faith was at the center of my 2003 novel Our Lady of the Forest, which is about a girl claiming apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the woods near a dying logging town. In 2008, I published The Other, whose central character has a fixation on gnosticism, one less spiritual than psychological. My prior two novels, Snow Falling on Cedars and East of the Mountains – written in my twenties and thirties – lack the spiritual impetus but are surely coloured by a moral vision of experience. There’s a distinct line of demarcation after East of the Mountains, a shift in my approach and world-view, if you will, which reaches a current culmination in Ed King, an urban tale with meta-fictional elements – a post-modern re-telling of the oedipal fable.
In Ed King, the constituents of the Oedipal plot are a screen onto which I’ve projected questions about fate and reality. As 21st century post-modernists, we no longer traffic much with fate, but writers of fiction have always trafficked in it, with themselves, naturally, as its omnipotent purveyors. It may be that no one pulls the strings in this world, but in that world, of course, there’s always an author, and for characters that’s Author with a capital A, please, otherwise – if it suits our designs – we’ll just show you the door. ?