Lionel Shriver: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Lionel Shriver: We Need To Talk About Kevin

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We Need To Talk About Kevin

Author: Lionel Shriver
Publisher: Counterpoint

Following the rash of school shootings in the mid- to late '90s, pundits and politicians scrambled opportunistically to explain the events. Leftists argued that the proliferation of guns afforded damaged young minds easy access to trenchcoat-filling arsenals, while on the right, cultural critics fingered explicit violence in television, video games, movies, and music, which they said erased any meaningful distinction between pretend killing and the real thing. In Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin, a thoughtful and deeply disquieting novel about a mother coming to terms with her son's Clinton-era rampage, the question "Why?" becomes a black hole, slowly drawing its narrator into an unaccountable vortex. Looking back on her child's history, from her trepidation over his conception to the afternoon he penned his victims (seven students, one teacher, and a cafeteria worker) in a gymnasium, Eva Khatchadourian finds no answers, only blame, much of it directed at her. Beautifully conceived as a series of confessional letters from Eva to her husband Franklin, the book swiftly dispatches all the facile "causes" that are usually linked to school shootings. The mirthless Kevin, who shrewdly anticipated a lighter sentence by staging the attack two days before his 16th birthday, didn't use a gun, nor did he have access to (or even interest in) violent media of any kind. Unlike the Columbine kids, he wasn't a bullied outcast aching for revenge–his classmates gave him a wide berth–and he wasn't some unmonitored latchkey kid. By rescuing the incident from armchair analysis, Shriver allows herself to enter a deeper and more chilling inquiry into parenthood in general, examining the nature/nurture push-and-pull in figuring how much (or how little) parents can be held responsible for how their children turn out. Far from making excuses for Eva, Shriver fills her letters with lacerating testimony about a travel-book entrepreneur reluctant to sacrifice the globe for the home, someone who doesn't take to motherhood easily and often seems calcified by her resentment. Whether or not Eva's negative vibes somehow imprinted her son, Kevin was a hardened misanthrope from day one, when he refused to accept mother's milk, and the letters recount a laundry list of horrific preludes to the main event. In spite of her dutiful (and sometimes mechanical) attentiveness, Eva was convinced from an early age that her son was disturbed, even evil, but she got no sympathy from Franklin, whose "gee-whiz" notions of '50s-style fatherhood rang hollow for both his wife and his son. Shriver lets Eva off the hook a bit by giving her a second child, whose uncommon frailty and sweetness seems as determined as her son's opaque menace. But in a larger sense, We Need To Talk About Kevin uses this extreme case to breach a dirty little secret about family life: Much as parents are expected to love their children unconditionally, sometimes the kids don't turn out well–or, more shamefully, their parents don't really like them. Only after closing the book with a shocking and masterful succession of revelations does Shriver quietly emerge from the darkness, allowing the true bond between mother and son to come finally into view.

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