Retribution

 

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.

25 thoughts on “Retribution

  1. Bravo! This is by far the best analysis of this book I have ever seen.

    I read We Need to Talk About Kevin in 2006 and was so profoundly shocked by it that I could not bring myself to review it. As someone in their late 30s who has battled with the whole “should I have children or not?” dilemma, this book spoke to me on so many different levels I felt as if it was written specifically for me. Does that make sense?

    I like the idea that Shriver was frightened of her own ambivilence about whether to become a mother or not, because that’s how I felt for many years and I thought I was the only one who felt like that. I quite like the woman, although she comes across as being rather intimidating.

  2. What an excellent, excellent review! I had trouble getting into this novel and almost gave up, but then, boom, I was hooked! I never liked Eva, but I grew to understand her and empathize with her.

    I love what you had to say about the “madness that has entered the parenting arena.” I think now, more than ever before, we expect mothers to be perfect and enroll their little darlings in violin lessons when they’re two and fight to get them in the most exclusive preschools and make sure they aren’t exposed to the unwashed hordes too often.

    In Eva’s case, her son was a sociopath. There was nothing she could do, and that’s what made the novel so horrifying. Any parent could be unfortunate enough to have a Kevin.

  3. Superb review of one of my favourite books: favourite because it tackles difficult material, because it faces the uncomfortable and the unlovable head-on and because it uncovers the madness of modern parenting. You do a wonderful job of unpicking all of that.

  4. Kimbofo – thank you so much – that means a lot to me because I had a real struggle with this one. I know what you mean about the dilemma of children; my son just happened out of optimism early in my marriage. After that I never found myself able to make a choice about pregnancy, to say ‘this is the moment’. And I was only in my twenties then and had lots of possibilities and little experience. I also agree that Shriver sounds intimidating in interview – fierce, even, although in a way that’s tempered with good humour and intellectual rigor. Chartroose – oh thank you so much! I can remember taking a couple of deep breaths early on in this novel and having to declare my committment to it. Knowing what you are heading into makes it harder to keep reading in some ways. I do think we idealise parenting nowadays and insist that there are right ways to do it, and right opportunities to force upon our children, and this can’t really be so. I think you have it in a nutshell – any one could end up with a Kevin on their hands, and it really would not necessarily be their fault. Charlotte – I’m so glad you liked it! I knew this was one of your favourite books and when I was writing the post I was thinking about what we might talk about, if we were sitting around talking books over tea!

  5. Oh what a frightening book this must be! It really does make deciding to have a child seem like such a reckless thing to do. What can be more uncertain than bringing another human being into the world, one over whom you’ll have all too much control in some ways and all too little in others?

  6. This novel haunted me. Just when I would believe that Kevin was born evil, I would think that it was just Eva’s read on him and that her behavior made him what he was. And then just as I believed that she was causing the problem, I would think that Kevin was born evil. As a parent, I was most struck by the quote at the beginning and how it played out — that it is when our children deserve our love the least that they need it the most.

  7. I bought this a year ago, and haven’t mustered courage to read it yet… your review may have made me pick it off the shelf!

    That Pennsylvania thing is awful. Goodness.

  8. I began listening to a serialisation of this on Radio 4, which was compelling, but then I found myself missing it. Then I didn’t bother to catch up via listen again. It just happened, but it was weird – not how I usually behave! I think it was the sense of claustrphobia the reading gave off. That intensity no doubt matches the situation and form of the novel, my lit crit self says, but not my desires it seems. Like the book you know is wonderful in how it works, but is still a chore to read. On the nurture-nature I’m not sure where I am with this. I did wonder about the conflicting parental attiudes which surround Kevin, but he seems so set so early on. Could it be that we are in a floating sway of influence and some, like Kevin, are at the extreme edge? Having read your excellent review I still can’t decide if I want to read it!

  9. I agree with everything you said about this book. I don’t know if it’s possible to wrap your head around it, because it leaves too much to the reader’s interpretation. If I saw anyone speaking definitively about this book, I would have to assume that person was so opinionated as to have ignored part of the book that didn’t match up to his or her own viewpoints.

    Eva is completely unlikeable, isn’t she?

    And yes, I also agree that the book at least partially is about our futile attempts to protect our kids against everything, including, sometimes, themselves.

    I’ve read this novel twice now, and there are layers I missed in the first read. I suspect that it needs a third (or more) reading, and that I’ll find new things to think about then, too. After reading two Shriver novels, I’m not sure if she deliberately creates unlikeable characters, or whether she herself is so unlikeable and incapable, therefore, of creating likable characters. But either way, I find her work brilliant, especially in the way, as one of your readers said, her books haunt you. I have the rest of her work on my wishlist and hope to get to it all.

    How funny, Firefox spellcheck insists that likable needs only one E but that unlikeable may have either one or two Es. I prefer two Es in both.

  10. Dorothy – I have to say I was very glad I read this after I’d had a child!! Shriver makes it seem like the possibility of having a demon child is very likely, but the vast majority turn out sweet, loving and useful to their societies. Thank goodness. But its testimony to the power of the narrative that she makes it all seem so credible. Emily – I couldn’t agree with you more and I was particularly struck by that quote too, and the truth of it. Simon – I’d be so interested to know what a male perspective made of it, particularly in relation to the husband, who I felt myself judging harshly. And you should read the rest of that paragraph I quoted – the examples only get worse! Bookboxed – I know how it feels to be reading a book that’s admirable but that doesn’t really grip your attention. I’d still be interested to know what you made of the husband (as far as you heard). I think that’s exactly the question Shriver wants to leave in the minds of her readers: was there an opportunity that was missed to bring Kevin over to the good side? Was there an element that was missing in his upbringing that would have prevented his actions? It’s unanswerable, I think, but terribly tantalising. Dew – yes, I think that’s actually a good way to look at it, to see how concluding absolutely about the book would reveal only the prejudices of the reader. I’m glad to hear you say you found Eva unlikeable (I vote for the two ‘e’s!); about three-quarters of the way through I wondered if I could stand her voice, but then the events of the book took over. I also think Shriver is brilliant although I’ve only read this and Double Fault. I’ve just bought The Post-Birthday World, though, and I’m looking forward to that.

  11. What a wonderful review! I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, but at the same time shrink from it because, frankly, it scares me! Thank you for your clear-eyed assessment–lovely, as usual🙂

  12. Both you and Charlotte have convinced me this is a book worth reading, not that with my fascination over Nature v. Nurture, I haven’t been intrigued with it for some time. But now that I’ve heard takes on it from the two of you and Charlotte, I can clearly see long discussions between Bob and me as I finish it and thrust it at him telling him he HAS to read it! Unfortunately, I’m afraid I’m going to be disappointed with the psychology. What’s fascinating me most right now is how many people have commented that they didn’t like Eva. Perhaps her son just didn’t like her either, if she’s so unlikeable? Not that that would have anything to do with his being born a sociopath (because we DO know there’s a genetic component to that), but it might have added to the problem.

  13. I really must read this book, because this topic fascinates and horrifies me at the same time.

    Having a child is such a great leap of faith, and there is just so much completely out of our control as parents. Yet it never stops us trying, does it?

    Another wonderful and thoughtful review ~thank you.

  14. But was Kevin really born evil? We’re reading the whole thing through Eva’s filter. I read it years ago, but I remember being completely unsure at the end about whose version, hers or the father’s, was really the closest to reality.

    Also, I remember feeling acutely the frustration that no experts would listen to her. I was having similar struggles myself with my own child (not that I thought she was evil or capable of hurting anyone) and was being pooh-pooh-ed in just the same manner. Makes you feel really impotent, when you’re insisting that you see certain behaviors in your child that other people don’t see.

    Very gripping book.

  15. You’ve given me here, with this wonderful review, some toeholds with which I might attempt to scale this book. I’ve wanted to read it for a very long time but haven’t dared.

  16. What a great review! As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve decided not to read this book for a few years’ time, but surely one day I’ll get round to it. I like what you say about the pressure put on parents to do the perfect thing and be responsible for just about anything… I’m just starting to feel this and I have to remind myself that we can’t just control everything.

  17. I read this book because so many people had said how good it was. I took months to get into it and it was sheer determination rather than anything else that got me to the end. I actually think that once the first hundred or so pages have been overcome it is a moderately good book. For me it would have been vastly improved by rigorous editing. It has provoked debate and that has to be a good thing but I do not rate it highly as a work of literature.

  18. Great review. So many things about this book messed me up – the sheer, unadulturated horror, the fear that this may one day be me, the way Franklin wouldn’t listen to her – and I NEEDED someone to talk to about it, but I couldn’t recommend the book to anyone because A. I couldn’t wait that long, B. I didn’t want anyone else to be terrified like I was, and C. I actually thought the writing was crap. But the story itself, and the way it was presented, were so deliberate, so methodical, so (I’m going to say it) brilliant. Thank goodness for the blogosphere, or I might still be running around in my own mind, screaming.

  19. Gentle reader – I’d love to know what you make of it if you do read it – and I quite agree: it is one scary novel! Emily – I think Eva is very blind to her own lack of likeability – she’s more interested in being right, and I think that transfers to Kevin, whether genetically or through the environment, who knows? Kevin’s sense of his own superiority, his right to take critique to the absolute limit seems to me a legacy from his mother. I would of course love to know what you think, but it’s a hefty book to take on. I know you are up to it, however! Stefanie – if it’s any consolation, mine is now double its original size thanks to your recommendations!! Ravenous – having read your recent reviews of books about mothering I would be most intrigued indeed to know what you make of this one! Diana – Yes, it is hugely frustrating to have so-called authorities denying you know your own child (it must happen to every mother at the doctor’s on the lowest end of the scale!) The nature vs nurture thing is undecidable, ultimately, but I don’t know what else to make of the fact of Kevin’s crime and the absence of real traumatic event in his life. But the jury’s out, and that’s only my opinion. The cleverness of the book is to elude any possible answers. Verbivore – thank you! I’d love to know what you make of it, although it’s possibly best read several years after having children! Smithereens, yes, I’d leave it on the shelf for a while if I were you! Trust me – you will be just fine following your instincts and letting your baby teach you what to do. They are very good at that. I have every faith you will be a lovely mummy. Watermaid – I’ve never yet found a book that everyone liked or responded to in the same way – thank goodness! I think Shriver has an unfortunate tendency to overwrite the start of all of her books. She calms down after 100 pages or so, but that might well be 100 pages too much for a lot of readers! Raych – I can quite understand the need to talk to someone after reading this book and I felt exactly the same thanks for the blogosphere and the chance of batting this about a bit with others! I agree it is a very frightening book and that Shriver knows exactly where women’s insecurities lie and sticks the knife right into them. But I also felt there were many, many places in the narrative where events look inexorable, but are not. Shriver is clever to make us feel that way (entirely down to the plotting as you rightly point out), but the dogged negativity give it away – no life is that one note. So glad, though, that you dropped by to share your thoughts!

  20. Litlove, an excellent review, I agree. I read it some time ago, but it’s not a book one would ever forget. Horrific but very good indeed, I thought. When I wasn’t feeling too scared to read on, I wanted to slap the husband for his ghastly blind optimism – until the end.

    I went to a literary festival last year and heard Lionel Shriver talk. As you might expect, she was impressive, cerebral but a little scary.

  21. Susie – how nice to have you visit. Oh yes, I felt exactly the same way about the husband – how reassuring! And how very interesting to listen to Lionel Shriver talk. There is a podcast, I do believe, of her on Radio 4 discussing motherhood with a select audience. I keep meaning to listen to it and then forgetting.

  22. Yes, it was interesting. Lionel Shriver was one of three authors interviewed by the organiser of the Althorp Literary Festival last year – I guess she was publicising her new book which I haven’t yet read. She was tiny, casually dressed (given the august surroundings) and rather wary. Like many clever people, she thought before she spoke. I had the impression she didn’t much like sitting on a stage and would have preferred to be somewhere else.

  23. Pingback: Review - We Need to Talk About Kevin « Book Addiction

  24. Pingback: Best Book Club Books 2 « Tales from the Reading Room

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