We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver, Counterpoint 2003
Warning: spoiler alert
What do you do if you don’t actually like your children? And what happens if your offspring grows up to become a killer? These are the questions posed in Shriver’s blistering novel on murder and motherhood.
The novel generated a great deal of controversy – in a delightfully cheesy summation, the Belfast Telegraph said that: ‘Maybe we all need to talk about Kevin.’ I sense that this controversy stems not so much from the choice of school shooting as subject matter, but in Shriver’s challenging of the view that parenthood is always and everywhere the right thing. In the interview I’ve linked to above, Shriver says this:
I think that parents feel to give voice to what they don’t like about parenthood is to betray their children and that is why I found a number of woman, in particular, have been grateful for this book. It’s someone giving voice to his or her reservations. And Eva speaks for them about the things that they have never felt they had permission to say.
Eva Khatchdourian doesn’t like her son, and she doesn’t like the idea of procreation to start with. By thirty-seven she has built a fortune on her business producing Rough Guide-style travel books, and is the epitome of the self-made career woman. She agrees to childbirth in deference to her husband, the wholesome, musclebound Reaganite Franklin. Franklin is such a caricature of the American Dad that he almost – but not quite – becomes fantastical parody. In love with the idea of fatherhood and the family life, he adores Kevin and goes to great lengths to place the best possible interpretation on his son’s misdeeds.
In a criticism of the novel, one reader described Kevin himself as ‘a monster, the spawn of Satan like Damien in The Omen. He has the manipulative, divisive intelligence of a criminal from the moment of his birth.’ It’s true that Kevin appears sociopathic from almost day one. In addition to murdering eleven people, he destroys cherished possessions, sabotages property, gets a teacher fired and burns out his sister’s eye with bleach.
Evil has many facets and the impression we have of Kevin is not so much active malice as a ferocious, uncompromising indifference. He has almost no interests, no friendships, no desires – indeed, he has contempt for the very idea of interests and desires. Kevin’s selected victims have one thing in common – they are all passionate about something; politics, sports, drama. Not content with being desireless himself, he seeks to punish people for having desires.
To characterise as monstrous implies fantasy, yet I found Shriver’s portrayal of Kevin chillingly realistic. (Indeed, Shriver says she gets letters claiming that ‘We have a Kevin’ – prompting the author to quip that she began to fear leaving the house.) The name itself recalls Harry Enfield’s comedy adolescent. I’m only eighteen months older than Kevin, and I see in him our generational tics and affectations. The obsession with pop culture, not for enjoyment thereof but as a means of keeping score. The use of prejudice and epithets purely to get a rise out of someone. Most of all, the pretence of jaded experience, of having seen it all before. Like Kevin, I used to respond to every new fact with ‘I know.‘ ‘How can you know so many things, you’re a kid,’ my father once said, in justified exasperation.
The novel hinges on the classic nature/nurture debate: was Kevin born evil or is his crime a reaction to an uncaring mother? And Eva clearly loves his sister more. His father loves not Kevin but the idealised persona of the Little League son that he constructs in spite of KK’s true nature. In turn, Kevin creates his own persona: ‘Kevin is his own construct,’ Shriver says. When Kevin is six, Eva breaks his arm by hurling him across a room – convinced that Kevin is dragging his feet over nappy training. Since Eva narrates, we have no choice but to perceive events through her eyes, although many of Kevin’s minor atrocities are open to ambiguity and alternate interpretation. (And son and mother are alike in many ways: their looks, arrogance, sense of superiority.)
Near the end of the novel, Kevin is interviewed in his cell as part of a documentary. The journalist asks about his relationship with his mother. Watching the programme at home, Eva expects to be denounced and is shocked when, instead, he praises her career achievements. ‘Lay off my mother… Shrinks here spend all day trying to get me to trash the woman, and I’m getting a little tired of it, if you wanna know the truth.’ Eva also sees, on a wall of Kevin’s cell, a photograph of her that went missing years ago and that she thought her son had destroyed. ‘I guess I’ve always assumed the worst,’ Eva admits.
There’s also the point where a ten-year-old Kevin falls sick and becomes friendly and responsive, actually taking an interest in his surroundings. It takes a lot of energy, Shriver says, to generate that outer, cynical, sophisticated self that many teenagers, and adults, fabricate.
Everyone is constantly asking Kevin why he did it, and Shriver rejects all conventional explanations. News stories about other high school massacres recur again and again in the novel, like a background hum. Four years after the book was published, there was a university shooting, courtesy of twenty-three year old Cho Seung-Hui. Eva’s recurring complaint is that no one in America takes responsibility for anything, and that people apportion blame on anyone and everything except the individual who pulls the trigger.
It’s not a crime of passion. Kevin plans the massacre meticulously, even researching his defence in advance (and managing to secure a lenient seven years). He takes care to differentiate his crime from the dozens of others – there is no note, no videotape explaining his social alienation, no Marilyn Manson CDs. You can’t even blame the NRA, because Kevin kills with crossbow, not firearm – a way for both Shriver to avoid political simplicity in her novel and for Kevin to avoid giving ‘bien pensant liberals like [Eva] yet more evidence for their favoured cause of tighter gun control.’ It’s this urge to differentiate himself that is the only clue to Kevin’s motive: when Eva asks why he didn’t murder her as well, Kevin replies that ‘you don’t kill your audience’. And he’s outraged when Klebold and Harris upstage him only ten days after his own atrocity.
Our last encounter with Kevin comes as he is awaiting his eighteenth birthday, and transfer to an adult prison. Visiting her son in juvenile hall, Kevin presents her with his sister’s glass eye, which he has been keeping safe for two years. ‘It was like she was, sort of, looking at me all the time. It started to get spooky.’ Eva replies: ‘She is looking at you, Kevin… Every day.’ This is a beautifully constructed scene, both macabre and touching.
In it Kevin seems human. In this podcast, Shriver says:
I was hoping to portray this as strength… It’s only as he’s turned eighteen and he’s looking at manhood, and manhood in an adult prison, that he becomes a boy, and he embraces his own naivety and his own youth. For Kevin, getting smart is realising that he’d been an idiot, so you know he’s gone through all these different justifications of why he did what he did and they grow more and more sophisticated in one way, but real sophistication is coming to the end of all that and realising that he had no idea why he did what he did, and for Kevin being utterly mystified is really, that’s when he gets it, that’s when he’s grown up, that’s when he’s sophisticated, when he is confused by himself. It’s when he thinks he understands himself that he’s being fooled.
Shriver finishes with, if not redemption, then the hope of redemption in the future. It’s significant that hope comes when Kevin turns eighteen: the message, perhaps, is that we all at some point have to put away our childish and deadly toys.