Does the Great Seattle Novel exist?.
If there is one, there's a good chance it was written in the past year, as the city has become a vital character in some fascinating, fun books by David Guterson, Jim Lynch and Maria Semple.
Seattle has often been a feature of great poetry (Richard Hugo) and non-fiction prose (Tim Egan, Jonathan Raban), but less frequently compelling in fiction. Is there a Great Seattle Novel? Maybe. This year has seen a burst of terrific, fun, and nationally noted Seattle novels where the city is a main character in stories that are trying, among other things, to work out the nature of the city's own character.
I'm talking about David Guterson's Ed King, published late last year; Jim Lynch's Truth Like the Sun, published last spring; and Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, which came out this summer. In addition to being fun, fascinating reads, they all wrestle with themes involving Seattle's modern identity, how we cope with change, how we've changed.
Guterson's book starts with the Seattle World's Fair of 1962, and is a retelling of the Oedipus story. An illegitimate child, conceived on the occasion of the birth of modern Seattle, grows up to kill his father, marry his mother, and become a high-tech Gates/Jobs/Allen-type billionaire. The story ranges over the Northwest, from Portland to Eastern Washington, but Ed King/Oedipus, wealthy as the "King of Search," has a castle on the Eastside from which he rules the Internet.
We readers squirm at the inexorability of fate, the incest, the amoral and self-serving characters. Some critics found the book too short on surprises — it hews closely to the well-known tragedy. But the placing of the story in the context of the emergence of high-tech Seattle seems like a statement on what we have become.
At one point, Ed King goes to a fortune teller who tells him "In your present condition you suffer from a terrible inflation, a terrible narcissism, and an overwhelming and dangerous hubris." Sounds a lot like fin de siècle Seattle. King also has his Icarus moment, literally flying too high, and to his doom. It's hard not to see this as a comment about the Dot-com bubble, the real estate crash, a morality tale of a city that inflated to "world class" ambitions and that had, before the 2008 crash, 68,000 millionaires.
Ed King is a bit stagy and allegorical, but entertaining and full of local detail. Crosscut's critic Nick O'Connell, who has long studied Northwest literature and writers, called it "perhaps the most entertaining account of contemporary Seattle ever written." Guterson has shown an amazing eye for local detail. His previous book, The Other (2008), about a pair of high school chums coming of age in '70s Seattle, is an absolutely pitch-perfect evocation of its place and times. Ed King has less intimacy, but holds up a mirror that asks us to look at ourselves with the honesty (and accuracy) of the fortune teller.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette is another take on contemporary Seattle, like Ed King with an emphasis on the influence of tech and the money it brings. Here, author Maria Semple rewrites not Oedipus but the children's bedtime story, Runaway Bunny, except the runaway is a mom, Bernadette Fox. She's married to a Microsoft genius and TED-talk celebrity and they have a brilliant teenaged daughter, Bee. Bernadette herself is a onetime MacArthur "genius" grant recipient. Mom has a breakdown and disappears, and her daughter is determined to find her.
Bernadette is a former L.A. architect, an emigrant dealing with both her "issues" and genuine trauma, but she's flailing amidst the culture shock of moving to Seattle — not unlike former Hollywood scriptwriter Semple. The book is filled with anti-Seattle rants, ranging from the ubiquity of Craftsmen homes and Chihuly glass to the passive aggressive drivers. Some things Bernadette likes. As a monied Californian, she describes the cheapness of Seattle real estate as akin to shopping at Ikea: Oooh these Bainbridge cottages are so cute, I have to pick one up. To help her with chores like that, she has the help of a digital assistant in India. As Judy Lightfoot pointed out here, it's hard to write satire when so much of Seattle reality is already parody.
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