Thursday, January 5, 2012

Starting the Year with an Oedipal Tragedy

"Which is harder to stomach about the unfortunate pairing of Guterson’s characters?"

A week into December, around the time New Year’s resolutions start taking shape, I visited the University of Toronto for the Book and Periodical Council Idea Exchange about public school libraries. When panelist Annie Kidder referenced a study about the positive neurological effects of reading fiction, I slunk down in my chair in the sea of librarians. It hit me that 2011 was about to pass without me having read a single fiction book, as I’d been completely absorbed by non-fiction. As luck would have it, that very day, the winner of the bad sex in fiction award was announced, making for an easily attainable resolution: the first book I would read in 2012, once my inter-library loan came in, was David Guterson’s Ed King (2011, Alfred A. Knopf). [Spoiler alert: skip the following paragraph if you want to avoid the details of the plot].

A modern day Sophoclean tragedy about patricide and incest, the novel begins with the events leading up to the conception of an Internet visionary. Walter Cousins, a father of two, has an affair with his au pair, Diane Burroughs, while his wife is hospitalized for mental illness. She becomes pregnant and demands child support even though she secretly leaves the baby on a Seattle doorstep. The baby is raised as Edward Aaron King by a local couple but is never told he is adopted. This choice may or may not have affected his emotional development, contributing to his predilection for older women and to the adolescent rage that causes him to drive a stranger, who happens to be Walter Cousins, off the road to his death. The book ends with his suicide at age 54, as he flies a plane above the allowable altitude while processing the sickening news that it was his biological father he killed and that his wife of almost twenty-five years was his biological mother.

Reading the book, I found myself reflecting on the caption within a General Idea photo screen-print called Oedipal Triangle that I’d just seen at the Art Gallery of Ontario: “This three-way relationship is easy to set your sights on.” In contrast to that sentiment, when Ed King finally discovers his father’s identity via DNA analysis and phone calls, his reaction, just before asking the question, “Who was my mother?” was “He wasn’t sure he wanted to look.”

Guterson acknowledges the complicated position of the reader. When Ed and Diane begin their romance, he interrupts by saying, “Now we approach the part of the story a reader can’t be blamed for having skipped forward to…most people, on hearing about the Oedipal complex, feel both resistant and drawn.” It would be difficult to interpret Diane and Ed’s encounter as anything but ‘bad sex,’ and not just because of its phrasing, which is rife with euphemisms. Which is harder to stomach about the unfortunate pairing of Guterson’s characters? The fact that Diane’s mind flits back to Walter Cousins while in the act, or the thought of adult Ed smelling “breast-fed”? Shudder. In spite of his “general body worship” of Diane, it is a match made in hell. Even so, their physical chemistry is described as exhilarating years into their relationship. If Ed and Diane were not tied by blood, it would still be distasteful to read about Ed calculating the number of times they’d had sex in the same way that Rachel called Ross a loser on Friends when he boasted the number 298 in response to a furniture salesman who didn’t believe they’d once dated.

It’s only marginally easier, to use General Idea’s wording, to read a description of statutory rape (Walter and Diane) and the next closest thing, Ed having sex with his adult math coach when he is in the eleventh grade. Even the healthiest relationship supports the bad sex in fiction award, given the account of Ed’s adoptive mother—then pregnant with Ed’s younger brother—copulating with her husband with flabby legs likened to cottage cheese and milk laden breasts compared to squirt guns.

Further to the announcement of the award at London’s In & Out Club, Guterson commented, “Oedipus practically invented bad sex, so I’m not in the least bit surprised.”

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