I finished Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin a couple of weeks ago but it’s taken me a long time to get my head around the book – which implies I have now, and in fact I am by no means certain. I’m not even sure why it’s been proving such a conundrum to me, unless it is simply that it’s an irresolvable story crying out for resolution. The narrative is a series of letters written by Eva Khatchadourian to her absent husband, Franklin, in which she details the events that lead up to a high school massacre carried out by her problem son, Kevin. Eva’s experience of motherhood has been fraught with negativity: she chose to become pregnant in order to surmount her fear of motherhood, Kevin was a difficult child, rejecting her (or so she felt) from the earliest days of infancy, and his behaviour since has been punctuated with warning signs, incidents that with the benefit of hindsight, seem to be harbingers for the atrocity he commits at the age of 16. Across the space of this lengthy narrative, Eva explores her parenting experience and poses the question of her personal responsibility. Is she to blame for Kevin?
At basis, then, we have a story that tries to settle the old debate on nature vs nurture, although to some extent the dice are loaded by Eva’s oppressive sense of guilt that seeps through her every anecdote. Furthermore she is hampered by the acknowledgment of not having loved her son (and Shriver is very brave, I think, to tackle such culturally taboo material here), and of having been innately suspicious of his intentions since birth. But there are also wider issues involved, concerning the capacity for official childcare and education to deal sensibly with antisocial behaviour, and beyond that, an implicit critique of contemporary America in which high school shootings have become almost commonplace. In interview, Shriver claimed that the novel had no general implications for society, but this seems to belie the very specific attention paid to what it means to be American, and what notoriety is on offer to those who commit horrific deeds. This is a deeply psychological book in which every thought, every motivation is magnified by Eva’s searching mind, and yet, and yet….. each character in the narrative embodies a central principle from which they do not deviate. Eva, whose extensive travels and Armenian roots put her in opposition to America, is the spirit of negativity. I found her account hard to read because she is an intolerably harsh critic; everything is wrong, ugly, bad, dissatisfactory, shameful. Her husband, Franklin, by contrast, is the sprit of America (as she tells us many times); ruthlessly optimistic, determinedly cheerful, dangerously superficial. Kevin can be seen as a genetic combination of the two; a boy who is unable to appreciate anything good, indeed can only desire its destruction, and he will do so in a quintessentially American way.
The polarization that takes place between Eva and Franklin is repeated again and again in the book, between Kevin and his sister Celia, for instance. If Kevin is the agent of aggression, Celia is born a victim. But all the issues that are raised in the narrative are subject to the same kind of black or white consideration, the same impossible attempt to decide between innocence and guilt, good and evil, love and hate, and only at the very end of the book do these rigid oppositions begin to crumble. I felt that such a fascination for oppositions was perhaps necessary in a book that wanted to evoke the mindset of a vicious killer, because to plan and execute (in every sense) such a crime requires its perpetrator to have decided well in advance that a number of people deserve to die, that their lives are so worthless and unimportant as to be expendable, and a mentality has to become pretty polarized to reach that extreme point. But I also felt it troubled the fundamental opposition between nature and nurture which the book tries to maintain in an active tension. I felt (and indeed this is only an opinion) that for all Eva might try to point out every single instance in which she had been guilty of less than perfect mothering, Kevin nevertheless had been born evil. I felt the birth of Celia reinforced this, because all the reasons Eva has to reproach herself for Kevin’s behaviour disappear in relation to her daughter, and yet Eva cannot protect Celia from Kevin, nor teach her to protect herself. She cannot alter her child’s trusting, loving, fearful manner, just as she could not intervene in Kevin’s sinister, malevolent one. It was also interesting that the book I began after reading this one was Dicken’s Great Expectations, in which the main protagonist is treated far more harshly and cruelly than Kevin ever was, and yet there is no sense whatsoever that Pip will turn out aggressive because of it. It seemed to me that Kevin’s upbringing simply could not be to blame for his nature because not enough bad stuff actually happened to him, and if we are forced to consider that he became a mass killer because his parent’s weren’t singing from the same parental song sheet, and he didn’t get quite enough genuinely loving attention, or effective discipline, well, that way madness lies.
And so I wondered instead whether this book wasn’t surreptitiously about the very madness that has entered into the parenting arena with the excessive responsibility we place on the shoulders of mothers and fathers to get everything just right for their child. It is undoubtedly the case that Eva does not get the mothering experience she hoped for, but that is not to say that Kevin did not get the parental care he needed. Eva’s reproaches to herself are very sophisticated, for there can be no doubt that she fed him and clothed him and educated him and even loved him as best she could. Ultimately she is reproaching herself most of all for being reproachable, for not having been perfect.
More irresponsible in this context is Franklin’s incessant ‘rounding up’ of his son’s behaviour, his refusal to believe that Kevin could be in any way demonic. Given that we know from the start that Kevin will commit his crime, the failure of both parents to agree to get Kevin properly assessed, to tackle those warning signals, seems to be the one incontrovertible mistake they make. And yet the portrait Shriver paints of educational authorities is far from reassuring. Having a judicious, sensible response to the threats others pose to our safety and peace of mind is something that they simply cannot do. I was very intrigued indeed by the information Shriver gives us, obviously an excursion here into the real and garnered from newspaper reports, about the risible response by schools to the menace of high school massacres:
‘In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a fourteen-year-old girl was strip searched – strip searched, Franklin – and suspended when, in a class discussion about School Shootings, she said she could see how kids who’d been teased might eventually snap. In Ponchatoula, Louisiana, a twelve-year-old boy was locked up in juvenile detention for an entire two weeks because his warning to his fellow fifth-graders in the cafeteria line that he’d “get them” if they didn’t leave enough potatoes was construed as a terrorist threat.’
The list in the book goes on and on. America here is clearly culpable, both of glorifying violence and offering disaffected youth a chance of eternal notoriety, and of being incapable of distinguishing what is truly dangerous from what is not. The issue is once again that of black and white, an inability to judge other than by policies of zero tolerance against a backdrop of surface complacency. Because the massacres keep happening, Shriver continually reminds us, so someone somewhere is still not identifying the real menace, the authentic threat. In the interviews I read with Shriver, she admitted that she was a very definite person, and that when she herself was trying to decide whether to have children, it was her own ambivalence that frightened her most of all. I couldn’t help but transpose that mentality into the arena of the child killer as she portrays it in this novel. It may well be that children are a hopelessly grey area, not black and white at all, whether it’s having them, loving them or releasing them into the world, and maybe it is impossible to tell how they’re going to turn out or to predict what they’ll do. But it seems imperative that we should be able to, that we ought to figure out a way to decide, and in the meanwhile an intolerable burden of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of those who are foolhardy, or recklessly optimistic enough, to take their chances with human nature.