Sunday, March 3, 2013

We Need To Talk About Kevin


We Need To Talk About Kevin
By Lionel Shriver




I've been putting this book off for years. No real reason why. I've wanted to read it for ages. But the imminent publication of Shriver's new novel The New Republic, and the prospect of reviewing it in May (stay tuned) gave me the needed motivation to finally pick this novel up. And I'm kicking myself for not doing so earlier.

We Need to Talk About Kevin reminded me, in a lot of ways of Bret Easton Ellis's classic novel American Psycho. As with American PsychoWe Need To Talk About Kevin is a meticulous study of modern American antipathy and sociopathy. But unlike American Psycho, which delves so deep into the antisocial behaviors of disturbed protagonist Patrick Bateman that it remains unclear whether the events described in the novel actually occur or simply remain imbedded in Bateman's disturbed mind, Shriver's narrative paints an all too real portrait of modern American psychosis. Shriver's writing is razor sharp (though sometimes overwrought and overdone) and many a salient point is made about how and why these shooting continue to occur.

What I think sets We Need to Talk About Kevin apart from Ellis's novel is the manner in which Shriver uses characterization to sharpen the focus rather than blur the lines of what goes on in the head of a killer (or potential killer). Where Ellis clouds the reader with disturbing imagery and demented ideas, Shriver imbues us with anecdotal evidence from the mother of the killer. And while we cannot take everything the narrator says at face value, certainly some of what she says has inherent value in deconstructing Kevin's mind. And with Eva Katchadourian, Kevin mother, Shriver has created a character every bit as nuanced as Patrick Bateman. And she's not even the killer.

Kevin is an angry kid. He's been angry since the day he was born, or so says his mother, Eva, the narrator of this story. We Need to Talk About Kevin is organized as a series of letters from Eva to her estranged husband, Franklin, two years after Kevin killed eight students, a teacher and a cafeteria worker. The novel is both shocking and insightful that addresses many of the overarching causes of such shootings, including anti-social behavior, dismissive parenting, over-parenting, neglect and middle-class malaise, among others.

In her letters, Eva examines her relationship with Franklin, their subsequent decision to have a child and the years leading up to their son's killing spree. However, Eva is the very definition of the "unreliable narrator." She is over-analytical, selfish, judgmental and completely lacking in self-pity (ironically, these are the same qualities that she professes to abhor about the "typical American"). On the one hand, these qualities provide the reader (and Franklin, presumably) with a stark, brutally honest account of what she thinks occurred it is not difficult to see where Kevin developed many of his character traits. As the old proverb goes: The apples doesn't fall far from the tree.

Naturally, Eva asks the inevitable questions: Why did he do it? and How much are her and Franklin to blame? Was Kevin born bad? Or was it that Eva? Was it that Franklin's bygone/never-was 1950s, Ward Cleaver version of fatherhood? Or was it simply that once Eva began to see a trend, she couldn't stop seeing it, in a sense concocting a personal conspiracy theory between herself, her husband and Kevin? 

We delve deep into the darkest places within Eva as she sorts through these difficult questions and despite her failures as a parent, we find ourselves deeply concerned for her well-being and sympathetic to her situation. Considering the way in which we tend to vilify the parents of school shooters so instantaneously via television news, it seems essential that someone would come along and deconstruct the proverbial post-game show from the perspective of the parents. And with all due respect to Shriver's characters it is Eva who shines in this novel. It is her honesty, her selfishness and her lack of empathy that make Eva one of the strongest, most fascinating characters in modern American literature.

While We Need to Talk About Kevin isn't going to answer all the questions, but of course, why should it? It is, however, taking its place alongside American Psycho as one of the great American novels of the past twenty years and is a novel worthy of great praise.

12 comments:

Kelly TheWellReadRedhead said...

This book has stuck with me for a long time. Your review makes me want to read American Psycho (even more than I already did)...books that delve into horrors like these in a more nuanced way are so morbidly captivating.

Ryan said...

Yeah. American Psycho is a must read. It will likely destroy a part of your soul, but, well, that's what it was intended to do.

Red said...

You've scared me with this review. I started to read this and then Sandy Hook happened and I thought perhaps I will put this back on the shelf for awhile. Now the comparison to American Psycho (which I think is a very well written book that I will NEVER read again) is making me want to leave the book on the shelf. But at the same time your review is really making me want to read it. I am conflicted.

Ryan said...

Actually, I think this book is quite therapeutic in dealing with school shootings. There is a humanizing quality to it.

Brian Joseph said...

This sounds powerful and deep. Telling a story from the point of view of the flawed mother of such a killer is imaginative idea.Sounds like Shriver really understands people.

Ryan said...

I'm really looking forward to reviewing Shriver's new novel. It just came in the mail today.

bookspersonally said...

Wow, this sounds very intense. I like the idea of looking at such a tragedy through the eyes of the parent- I agree with you that we always look first to the parents in such situations (and I think largely for good reason), but also suspect there must always be much more to the stories of all involved than we ever know.

Ryan said...

It is intense and a book worth reading if at all interested in the subject. Mercifully it leaves the issue of gun control alone.

Buried In Print said...

This one made my list of favourite reads that reading year, and it recently made my list of books that I most want to re-read, but perhaps for those very reasons, I've been studiously avoiding the film. Nonetheless, I finally watched it and was surprised to find that the "feel" of the novel is captured on screen as well...not in any of the ways that I had expected, but it, too, really, really got under my skin. So compelling!

Athira said...

Like you, I've been meaning to read this book for ages. I haven't got there yet but hope to soon. I just don't like reading about school shootings and that's the main reason I keep putting it off. But I've heard great things about this book so hopefully I'll pick it soon.

Christine said...

I've been meaning to get this book for awhile- glad to hear that it's worth the read!

taichungbookworm said...

My friend asked me to review this for her blog. Wasn't sure about it because I didn't know too much about it. Will advance it to nearer the top of the reading list now :)

Post a Comment