We Need to Keep Talking About Kevin

In the book I’ve just finished reading, several rather unpleasant things happen. Arguably the first most significant even is when, about 200 pages in, a mother throws her six-year-old son across the nursery so hard he breaks his arm. Upsetting, yes, but not for the reasons you might think. Because as the arc of the small child was described in detail, I felt joyous. Fantastic, I thought, that little sod is finally getting his just desserts. Serves him right. My emotional reaction so unnerved me that I had to put the book down for a minute. Did this mean there was something wrong with me? I am an aunty of six beautiful children, and would react with horror at any physical violence befalling them. I certainly wouldn’t put the seat of blame on one so young. So what was different?

Here we have the clever work of the author. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver walks the balance so carefully and so adeptly that you could consider it, at one and the same time, a story of a dreadful mother or of a dreadful son. It’s clear, at that point in the novel, I was rooting for the mother. But now I have closed the pages, reached the awful twist at the end that, had I thought about it, I knew was coming from quite a long way back. And I’m left feeling rather torn.

Perhaps I am a little too overly aware of the techniques at use here. From the beginning, the book is written as a confessional: heartfelt letters to a missed lover, full of deep meditation and self-examination. On more than one occasion, we hear her decry her lack of emotion, how much she wished she could have done things differently. In using this style, both the first person and the tone of the language, the reader is angled towards her side. I’m also becoming more aware of structure. Before the dreadful arm incident, we have already found out how many people Kevin has killed, and met him in prison, where he comes across as a narcissistic, remorseless, spoiled teenager. The inclusion of particular parts of a narrative, at different points in the story, only allows the reader to see things bit by bit, therefore colouring our experience of the characters.

But then, as we move through the story, we realise how little we know of the truth. We are seeing the world through a very narrow lens, which can be distorted in any way the narrator chooses. While the book might ostensibly be set up to answer the question of why such terrible things happen, I rather think it’s far more about being a parent. The assumed narratives surrounding parenting are so established that it feels awful to veer from them even for a moment. I’m almost certain that all parents have looked at their children at one point in their lives and wished that they’d never been born, loathe as they may be to admit it to themselves. In crafting a complex narrative, Shriver has allowed for the full fears of the worried parent to be realised, either through massive overcompensation or suspicion. Because it’s a novel, the stakes are placed so much higher, and the end result of your decisions result in tragedy. What I like to think Shriver is also saying, is that being a parent is damned hard work. Despite the fluffy images you see on the TV, or the exuberant posts of your friends on Facebook, all families experience times when they feel like they hate each other, and they make bad decisions. And that’s ok.

It also points a few fingers at the voyeuristic nature of the media. While in prison, Kevin can only talk about perpetrators similar to him. How they ‘rate’ compared to his body count, execution, what happened next. Which always seems to be what is reported. In the book, the mother commits to memory the names of two victims, because they barely get a mention in news coverage. All too often we gleefully rub our hands together, wanting to find out more about the sick, twisted individual, when actually our time should be spent on those who lost their lives. Let’s not give these people any more airtime, it only exacerbates the problem. And by the end of the book, the reader is just as bad. We have spent the whole novel dying to found out what actually happened on Thursday. Yet, by the time it was told, I felt disgusting. I, too, had been anticipating the gory bit. Her dispassionate reporting of an horrific event reveals to the reader their voyeurism, and that there is nothing positive to be gained here.

It is worth considering the question of blame, in both the specific and the general sense. Ultimately, it’s not an easy question. It saddens me that mass shootings are so common in the US now it almost isn’t news. This book was written in 2003, and yet still the scrolling list of dead people persists. I don’t know if it’s the lack of clear motive for some of these crimes, or the awful thing it does to our view of children as innocents if we imagine them killing each other. But I do think this book is important. In the background of the novel there is the media, and society, and all of the things that we are told are supposed to make you happy, are things that Kevin has. And he still isn’t happy. He seeks infamy because he can’t see how else to make an impact on the world.

It could be mental illness, it could be a lot of things, but acknowledging that tragedies like this happen and that blame is hard to apportion is important. There are no easy solutions to complex problems. The mainstream media could do with reminding of that.

Perhaps it was easier to make Kevin seem like a horrible child from the outset, because otherwise it might be a little too unnerving to see the violent outcome. Or perhaps it was also easier to make his parent someone who was unsure in her status as a mother, because then we can look at her coldness and think that there must be some explanation. How much harder it is to imagine a pretty normal family involved in something like this.

The truth is, there often isn’t a ‘why’. Or at least, not in the nice, neat way we would like there to be. People are greedy, and mean, and cruel, and they can do awful things to each other. Authors are there to remind us that the most seemingly horrific acts have a whole set of tiny steps that led up to them. Encouraging us to see from the perspective of those we make into monsters is exactly why literature is important.

Politicians should be there to protect the public from people so easily getting hold of firearms. This is where the US has failed its citizens, again and again. As fascinating and clever as it is, it would be far nicer if this book existed as a hypothetical study, rather than as a reflection of too many true stories.

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

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