We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is a very frustrating book. It is a compilation of letters Eva Khatchadourian writes to her husband about their son Kevin. Who is in jail. For having shot at and killed seven children, one teacher and one cafeteria worker at his school. The setting is a typical American town, only a little while before Columbine. The mother details her relationship with her husband, leading up to the birth of the son she never wanted to have, a child who is loved and pampered by his father and who grows up hating his mother. She hates him too and, she claims, not without cause.
After much deliberation I have come to the conclusion that I do not like this book. Not only because it is a hard read filled with distasteful characters and events that make you want to throw up, though that does help. It is grossly overwritten, presumably under the pretext of making Eva, a writer by profession, sound appropriately literary. It ends up bogged down by tedious detailing. The writing is hardly plot-driven and focuses more on its human elements, a good choice, I must admit, considering its theme. The problem is, the book sets big fat goals, and fails miserably to reach most of them.
The aim of the book, reinforced by its title, is to force us to think about some of the questions a high school massacre would inevitably raise – misfits and bullying, if it is the parent at fault, can a person be inherently evil, is it wrong to hope for the best as a parent and push the occasional wrongdoing under the carpet, is redemption ever possible. Shriver is right, we do need to talk about Kevin. It is a very important discussion and the book concerns itself with immensely valid arguments, but here is the thing, it adds nothing of value to the discussion. The story achieves nothing new.
I read an interview about the book on The Guardian titled, “Lionel Shriver talks about Kevin.” Witty. This is what the author has to say,
“Book clubs have also powered Kevin as he went viral, and I’ve visited a few, where groups cleave into ferocious camps: one convinced that the boy was evil from day one, the other just as convinced that his mother’s coldness was criminally culpable. A fine spectator sport in which I never participate, since what the book means is no longer up to me.”
Spectator sport? How casual. Would it not have been better if Shriver had an agenda? Her own answer to the questions about Kevin. It would be worth talking about if the book wasn’t so indecisive. If it did more than show that a hitherto unanswerable question is still, well, unanswerable. If it stated and attempted to prove to us that it is in fact the parent that makes the child criminal. Nurture is the culprit. Or, the other way round. The mother could have been reliably not-at-fault, and Kevin the cold terror she believed he was. The book could have told us preventive counselling can be of no help, for instance. Had Shriver made a statement, picked a side and boldly backed it up, it would have been admirable. A unique perspective to an existing discussion. All it does now is the wasteful job of adding fuel to an already vicious fire.
Incidentally, I was recommended the book at the book club. A club discussion on this book would be a bad idea. As an active participant, I would be on the “she-was-also-at-fault” side. Eva is your classic unreliable narrator. The letter seems like a defence offered by an impassive person now sinking into guilt-driven lunacy; inconsistent and vindictive, at once defiant and helpless. The other camp at the club would be people convinced Kevin was born a sociopath. Neither arguing party would manage to prove their point. Everyone would go home stubborn and drained and somewhere, Shriver would smirk contentedly at all the talking about Kevin she started.
One of the purple, disturbing, discussion-provoking moments,
“Franklin, I was absolutely terrified of having a child. Before I got pregnant, my visions of child rearing- reading stories about cabooses with smiley faces at bedtime, feeding glop into slack mouths- all seemed like pictures of someone else. I dreaded confrontation with what could prove a closed, stony nature, my own selfishness and lack of generosity, the thick tarry powers of my own resentment. However intrigued by a “turn of the page,” I was mortified by the prospect of becoming hopelessly trapped in someone else’s story. And I believe that this terror is precisely what must have snagged me, the way a ledge will tempt one to jump off. The very surmountability of the task, its very unattractiveness , was in the end what attracted me to it.”
In contrast, the book began with a promisingly pretty moment that actually made me smile,
“Dear Franklin, I’m unsure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to write to you. But since we’ve been separated, I may most miss coming home to deliver the narrative curiosities of my day, the way a cat might lay mice at your feet: the small, humble offerings that couples proffer after foraging in separate backyards.”
The rest of the letter and those that followed were vague and disappointing.. It is not enough to write about an important topic. A good writer has something new to say. Lionel Shriver, unfortunately, doesn’t.