Novels of Seattle: Are they mirrors we dare look into?

Three books probe into the good, the bad, and the ugly of Seattle's soul.
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A Seattle celebration of New Year's.

Three books probe into the good, the bad, and the ugly of Seattle's soul.

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.

The larger arc of the story is that it is part Wizard of Oz, with Bernadette as Dorothy. Seattle isn't so much the Emerald City as a strange landscape of weird neighbors, techie Tin Woodsmen, neurotic moms (Bernadette calls them "gnats"), and mossy Munchkins with their weird habits. Seattle is a place where the super-affluent liberals dodge beggars in the doorways of Nordstrom. Semple zeros in on the absurdities of a city of progressives, prosperity, and provincialism, but also the real-life problem of making a good life there. Seattle, she seems to suggest, has the potential to be Kansas — a place where the good life, the sane life, a creative life are all possible, if you can find your way.

Semple didn't set out to write a Seattle novel, she says, and it's true that the story could have happened in, say, Silicon Valley or Denver, but the themes work extremely well in a city always striving for "quality of life," and in so doing seems to twist itself or its residents in knots.

Writer Floyd McKay wrote in 2009 that Jim Lynch could well be the "next big name" in Northwest writers, and his Seattle novel, Truth Like the Sun, makes that case. Lynch's book is very much, and by intention, a Seattle novel and keys off the '62 fair to offer a contrast between the city of 21st century fantasies, and the actual city of the early 21st century.

The protagonist is a likable civic presence named Roger Morgan, who in the world of Truth Like the Sun ran the fair and built the Space Needle. He's a blend of Eddie Carlson, Joe Gandy, and Jay Rockey — real-life movers and shakers of the Century 21 Exposition that created the Seattle Center. He's a fixture, called "Mr. Seattle," the embodiment of the older city's self-image (which Lynch also sees as a bit narcissistic): good looking, a smoothie, folksy, full of itself, enamored of its own good intentions. Late in life, he leaps into politics to run for mayor, in part because he believes the town has lost its way and its vision. The Seattle of 2001 has become too urban, a city whose recent economic boom has left it with "more insensitivity and hostility."

As a candidate, he puts himself "in play" and runs into the buzz saw of New Seattle in the form of a reporter named Helen Gulanos. A recent arrival from back east, she reflects much of the skepticism and contempt newcomers have for the quirks of the town, not unlike the fictional Bernadette. Her job as a journalist is to find the real Roger Morgan, or rather the real old Seattle. As a mayoral candidate, she's going to give him the scrutiny he deserves.

An interesting tension is the whole idea of "past" in Seattle. In the mid-20th century, Seattle was a blank slate, with visionaries like Morgan set to create a new city from the raw material of the old frontier town. As Lynch writes on the first page of the book, the Morgan perspective in the Seattle of 1962 is that it's "so short on history, it's mostly all future anyway." But newcomer Gulanos begs to differ. She's there to find the true story of Morgan and how he got where he is, and that means digging into the history of the city since '62. If that takes some of the shine off the glistening glory days, so be it.

The Morgan/Gulanos clash drives the narrative, much like it drives our civic debates about Seattle ideals and realities. A city of billionaires and Nickelsvilles, a city of vision and close-mindedness, a city of high ideals that often glosses over its failings, or dwells too much on them.

Lynch changes history — it is a novel — but he, like Gulanos, wants to make sure that Seattle doesn't bury its dark side. The Space Needle might be an icon, the Space Gothic arches of the Science Center might suggest a modern Xanadu, but the fact is that the old Roger Morgan Seattle was also a city of back room deals, police pay-offs, prostitution, nest-feathering, and corruption that extended from Skid Road to City Hall to Police Headquarters.

These books tussle with fundamental Seattle issues. Has success spoiled us? Does money corrupt? Can Seattle live up to its utopian ideals? They describe rainy skies and self-absorbed yuppies and a city not as perfect as often advertised. Seattle as a character in this new fiction is emerging as pretty but neurotic, with an overweening sense of self, but a good heart, bathed in natural beauty, but still a place of moral hazard. We're over the rainbow. We're a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And many of us are chasing rainbows.

It's good to know that this is the stuff of great stories in the hands of some very fine writers, a nice reward for a city of readers.

(Disclosures: I have done several joint appearances with Jim Lynch, and was one of many people he talked to in researching his book. I used to be on the NPR show "Rewind" with David Guterson's sister, the novelist Mary Guterson, who is very, very funny. And I recently met Maria Semple on a public radio show talking about her book and the city portrayed in it. I was delighted to learn she has a Space Needle connection: her father, Lorenzo Semple, Jr. co-wrote the screenplay for the classic '70s thriller, The Parallax View, which famously (or infamously) features an assassination on the Needle's Observation Deck.)


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.