Two Modernizations

By Velvet Belle Tree


IÕve just read Ed King, a modern retelling of Oedipus Rex, by David Guterson.  Before I tell you why it didnÕt work, IÕd like to tell you about a modern retelling that did work.

I assume that everyone knows that the musical West Side Story (book by Arthur Laurents) is a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet.  West Side Story takes place in the mid-twentieth century in Manhattan.  The rivalry is between two gangs: the Sharks are immigrant Puerto Ricans and the Jets are white, Polish, and one generation away from being immigrants.  Tony, a Shark, is trying to break away from the gang and make a better life for himself.  Maria is the sister of the leader of the Sharks; sweet, innocent and just over from Puerto Rico.

At their first meeting, Tony and Maria fall in love.  But unlike in Romeo and Juliet, where their families are old enemies, here not only are their families (the two gangs) enemies but their cultures are antagonistic.  When the gangs fight and Tony is killed when he tries to stop it, it is a true tragedy and MariaÕs grief is palpable.

The story is true to its time. We know that such gangs existed and what their attitudes towards each other were. When Tony and Maria fall in love weÕre on their side.  We want them to be happy but we know that given their circumstances and their cultures their chances for happiness are slim. 

Now imagine what the story would have been like if Tony was just another gang member content to stay in the gang and Maria was a sluttish girl who just wanted to be a gang memberÕs girl friend.  Who would have cared what happened to them?  Would TonyÕs death have been a tragedy?

And thatÕs the problem with Ed King.  In Oedipus Rex, OedipusÕ real parents are a king and his queen and heÕs adopted by another king and queen.  In Ed King, his biological parents are Walter, a 34 year old man and Diane, the 15 year old British au pair (who somehow fooled the State Department into thinking she was 18). 

Diane leaves the baby on a doorstep but makes Walter think that sheÕs bringing him up so that she can get money from him.  The baby is adopted by a family named King.  Diane then becomes a high-end prostitute and meets a well-off man (who doesnÕt know sheÕs a prostitute) who marries her.  ThereÕs no real reason why he falls for her and marries her.  SheÕs made up a story about how she makes a living and somehow he doesnÕt find out that itÕs fiction during their year of courtship.

Meanwhile, Ed is growing up and is a miserable teenager.  HeÕs driving his car with a girl friend when in a fit of road rage he kills Walter (Oedipus Rex has been cited as the first incidence of road rage.).  Ed does feel remorse after this and straightens out.  But he is sexually precocious and promiscuous including an affair with a teacher when heÕs a senior in high school, thus inaugurating a predilection for older women.

DianeÕs marriage breaks up and then she goes through a period of being a coke dealer.  Then, she morphs into a Life Coach.  There is nothing that she has done before to prepare her to do this.  Yes, sheÕs conning her clients, and the author is making fun of people who go to a Life Coach, but still, she does things that sheÕs totally unprepared for.

Ed is a math genius and after graduating from Stanford starts a software company to make, among other things, a search engine and becomes known as the Search King.  He eventually becomes rich — rich in the same category as Bill Gates. (Strangely, Google is mentioned in the story — how can there be a hugely successful search engine company in addition to Google?)

When heÕs 29, Ed literally bumps into Diane.  Their meeting, at a museum, is purely coincidental.  Within an hour theyÕre in bed.  For some mysterious reason, Ed falls in love with her.  They marry and stay married until the tragic end of the story about 25 years later.  Why does Ed fall in love with her?  There is absolutely nothing to recommend her as a human being.  Why does he stay married to her?  There is nothing told about their life together to indicate what holds the marriage together.  There is no doubt why Diane stays in the marriage — Ed is now one of the richest men in the world.

IÕve called the ending tragic, but thatÕs not really true.  Tragic, is when bad things happen to good or simply decent or in some way valuable people.  But the main characters in the story are neither good nor decent and besides, what happens to Ed is done by himself, caused by his own hubris and nastiness.

Walter, after having committed statutory rape, becomes a serial adulterer until caught with his wifeÕs best friend.  He then stops but his wife stays with him.  His children know and have lost respect for him.  His wife eventually re-marries.  His death is certainly no great tragedy.

And Diane is the worst character.  Who can care what happens to her?  Her life goes down, and then bounces up, but not through any great effort on her part, just pure luck. And the cycle repeats. First husband rich, second husband extremely rich.  And though things finally blow up, sheÕs seventy when it happens.  And it appears that she might have landed on top in the end.  So she was married to her son; big deal, she didnÕt go crazy or anything like that, just disappeared.

A book in which we can neither care about the characters nor believe in them nor find the story interesting, must be considered a failure.  Which is a shame, because GutersonÕs first book, Snow Falling on Cedars, was wonderful.