Book | We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

I read this novel as a recommendation from a friend who was just dying to have somebody to talk about it with. I had been warned by other sources that this book is too grim and depressing to read, which didn’t exactly put me off, but it set up its own expectation. There is also a film that I have not seen, but I was assured that it was not a scratch on the creepiness and unsettling aura of the book.

Kevin

I really liked this novel.

The narrative is given to us by Eva Khatchadourian, Kevin’s mother. She reflects on her life in the epistolary form to her former husband, Franklin, in a tone that oscillates between sad and despondent to sprawling, confessional and vitriolic, localising the story around Kevin’s life from toddler to teenager. The jokey title alone, and the eerie front cover too, both suggest that the eponymous Kevin has done something very naughty indeed, to put it lightly. The specifics are given much later but we know that Kevin woke up one day and went on a killing spree, murdering seven of his classmates, a teacher and a cafeteria worker. Yikes.

The root of Eva’s narrative seems to ask the whole time, “Why, Kevin, whyyy?” as well as “Why me?” as she divulges the past. At thirty-seven, Eva yearns to fill the void in her life by persuading her husband that they should have a child, and so Franklin gives up his laid-back life and Eva gives up her passion for travelling. Kevin is born, but not everything is how she expected it.

I was absolutely terrified of having a child. Before I got pregnant, my visions of child rearing – reading stories about cabooses with smiley faces at bedtime, feeding glop into slack mouths – all seemed like pictures of someone else. I dreaded confrontation with what could prove a closed, stony nature, my own selfishness and lack of generosity, the thick tarry powers of my own resentment. However intrigued by a “turn of the page”, I was mortified by the prospect of becoming hopelessly trapped in someone else’s story. And I believe that this terror is precisely what must have snagged me, the way a ledge will tempt one to jump off. The very surmountability of the task, its very unattractiveness, was in the end what attracted me to it.

One thing this book did is it put me off having a kid, at least in the early stages. From the get-go, Kevin is a difficult child. He is a Grade A destructive little shit that hates everyone and everything. There is one rageworthy scene where he fills a water-pistol with ink and damages everything in Eva’s room. Urrrr! Kevin is depicted as incapable of showing empathy, love or concern for other people. Kevin rejects his parents’ affections with either outright hate or patronising sarcasm. He is “a shell game in which all three cups were empty”.

Tractor

Not a scratch on Kevin’s behaviour

So why is Kevin such a mess? Throughout this novel there is the underlying nature versus nurture debate. Was Kevin born evil or did his environment make him this way? One could argue that Eva’s post-natal depression and absence for a year to go travelling when Kevin was three years old could contribute to Kevin’s demeanour, depriving him of maternal love at an important stage in his life…? Or is there something more foreboding within American society that made Kevin the way he is?

In a country that doesn’t discriminate between fame and infamy, the latter presents itself as plainly more achievable.

As Eva remarked earlier, she fears being trapped in “someone else’s story”. She fears the monotony and predictability of everyday life, its vicariousness. Kevin, like her mother, fears this ordinariness and makes a Trainspotting-esque justification for his massacre as countering this vacuum that society creates:

“Okay, it’s like this. You wake up, you watch TV, and you get in the car and you listen to the radio. You go to your little job or your little school, but you’re not going to hear about that on the 6:00 news, since guess what. Nothing is really happening. You read the paper, or if you’re into that sort of thing you read a book, which is just the same as watching only even more boring. You watch TV all night, or maybe you go out so you can watch a movie, and maybe you’ll get a phone call so you can tell your friends what you’ve been watching. And you know, it’s got so bad that I’ve started to notice, the people on TV? Inside the TV? Half the time they’re watching TV. Or if you’ve got some romance in a movie? What to they do but go to a movie? All those people, Marlin,” he invited the interviewer in with a nod. “What are they watching?”

After an awkward silence, Marlin filled in, “You tell us, Kevin.”

“People like me.”

Throughout the novel, Kevin is disinterested in everything. He stares blankly at a wall for hours on end as a child; he refuses to play simple games or read books; his only hobby is collecting computer viruses. Kevin seems fatally bored with everything, and as such, does not see the point in filling his room with the things that reflect his personality, because he sees no value in anything. Nor does he share the same ambitions and desires as his family, peers and members of his country. It seems that by killing nine people, he can make something of himself, achieve a sense of purpose and interest at the flick of a switch:

“My story is about all I got to my name right now, and that’s why I feel robbed. But a story’s a whole lot more than most people got. All you people watching out there, you’re listening to what I say because I have something you don’t: I got plot. Bought and paid for. That’s what all you people want, and why you’re sucking off me. You want my plot. I know how you feel too, since hey, I used to feel the same way. TV and video games and movies and computer screens… On April 8th, 1999, I jumped into the screen, I switched to watchee. Ever since, I’ve known what my life is about. I give good story. It may have been kinda gory, but admit it, you all loved it. You ate it up. Nuts, I ought to be on some government payroll. Without people like me, the whole country would jump off a bridge, ’cause the only thing on TV is some housewife on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? winning $64,000 for remembering the name of the president’s dog.”

Kevin’s attitude picks holes at America’s anaesthetised, fame-obsessed culture – an uncomfortable position, as one can’t help but agree with Kevin, but what about at the cost of human life? Kevin is keen to expose life for what it really is, even pointing out how his mother’s elitist reservations about American society’s narcissism and glorification of her Armenian roots are symptomatic of her own hypocrisy.

I am vain, or once was, and one of my vanities was to feign that I was not.

In short, read this book, because it is very good. It is interesting to read a book in the wake of the horror of school shootings that approaches such sensitive material from a candid stance. I have been nice and not spoiled parts of the ending and not revealed some crucial characters… you’re welcome!

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2 responses to “Book | We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

  1. Pingback: The Outsider – Albert Camus | The Word in Edgeways

  2. Pingback: Book Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (5/5) One of the darkest and scariest books I’ve ever read. | Taking on a World of Words

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