Aug 19 2016

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

So much of this book is an exercise in narrative tension: you know something terrible is coming, and you know the general shape of it, but you’re waiting for the details to… I don’t know, ram it home? At one point — in what was, to me, one of the more compelling passages in the book — Lionel Shriver derides our culture of voyeurism in what was perhaps meant to be a disturbing cri de coeur from the young killer at the heart of this book. And yet I believe that because such terrible things keep happening, and not despite them, it’s incumbent upon the rest of us to care about the details, to deconstruct the easy myths built by society (and its mouthpiece the media, if you must) to make it so we don’t have to think about such things, to label these things as unknowable and senseless and, therefore, beyond our ability to understand. We need to try, because the people locked forever in the headlines of these awful murders are human, too.

Which isn’t to say that I believe that there are easy remedies. A lot of people, faced with tragedy like this, don’t want to look inward, don’t want to examine. It’s too hard, and it hurts too much. And that’s okay. That’s what we have good, thoughtful fiction for, to tease out the universal, painful truths and present them to us safely, so that we aren’t blinded too much by the personal in being able to acknowledge, and perhaps grasp, perhaps engage, that universal pain.

Anyway, Ms Shriver has written a terrific book that does an important job of trying to tease out the reasons behind the schoolhouse massacres endemic to recent American history. It’s not a perfect novel. Once Celia was introduced, there’s so much tension that I became almost numb to it, and the story felt like it dragged somewhat. And, frankly, I suspected the truth about Franklin about a third of the way into the book because that was the only possible explanation for Eva’s whiplash of emotions when it came to him. Let me tell you, I was getting really tired of her putting up with his years and years of bullshit: my ass would have bailed and let him deal with Kevin on his own years before, as she wryly brought up at one point. Did I think that Kevin’s weapon of choice was rather far-fetched? Yes and no, and who am I to complain about far-fetched when the very thought of young adolescents committing the reprehensible crimes that lard the book liberally in their dreary factualism is so far out of the realm of possibility for me?

And yet, as the mother of three little boys who will likely grow up to be relatively affluent half-white suburban schoolchildren, the prime pool from which these murderers statistically emerge, I worry. I know I shouldn’t use this novel as a handbook for signs to look out for, but how can I help from looking at my children askance sometimes, when some of their behavior seems less positive than I’m comfortable with? Heaven forfend I should adopt Franklin’s hearty refusal to face the truth, gaslighting his wife as his coping mechanism (and oh how I HATED him for that.)

Not that Eva is the perfect mother, but who, at any point in human history, is? Please don’t point to your own mother: just ask her yourself and she’ll laugh and laugh at you. I found Eva’s odd superiority as unearned as Kevin did, and it rankled how she just let Franklin treat her like that for so long (in a rather stunning commentary on how women of a certain class and age bend their own persons to please an undeserving spouse.) And the book doesn’t have easy answers, though there are plenty of what-not-to-dos. But it’s all that fallibility, all that human weakness, all that understanding that we as individuals are at the mercy of societal forces and mores that can be overwhelming to navigate, much less fight, that make this such an amazing, empathic book. It has quite worn me out, emotionally and intellectually, leaving me weak but satisfied, the best kind of book indeed.

And I’m secretly glad that my children aren’t like Kevin, even as I fear that that is not enough to keep them safe.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2016/08/19/we-need-to-talk-about-kevin-by-lionel-shriver/

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