Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin

I was finally prompted to pick up Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel We Need To Talk About Kevin by the murder, earlier this month, of 17 school children and teachers in Parkland, Florida, by a troubled young graduate of the school. Though she had previously published seven novels, Shriver was unknown to the wider literary community before We Need To Talk About Kevin surprised everyone – not least its author – by topping international bestseller lists, and earning successful film and radio adaptations. No doubt the novel’s shocking subject matter – a school shooting, told from the perspective of the mother of the killer – contributed to its popularity, for the question now frequently forced before a baffled public is why: what prompts a young man to murder innocent people? The litany of answers provided by journalists and pundits – from video games and pornography to the music of Marilyn Manson – seem laughable by comparison to the insights offered by Shriver, which transform her novel into a kind of extended philosophical meditation on the nature of evil.

Shriver’s novel takes the form of a series of letters from Eva Khatchadourian, the successful founder of a travel guide company before she became the mother of a mass murderer, to her former husband, Franklin. Through these letters, she recreates their relationship for us, from their early courtship through marriage, into the gruesome present, when she has been forced to sell her company and live in a kind of self-imposed exile, dodging prying reporters and judgmental neighbours. As she tells us, “it’s far less important to me to be liked these days than to be understood,” and so we are prepared for the radical honesty of the letters, an honesty that was impossible during their marriage. This, it should be said, is a large part of this novel’s appeal: even absent the gruesome murder plot, We Need To Talk About Kevin is a stunningly faithful portrait of motherhood and marriage, and ample testament to Shriver’s creative powers. Consider everything she accomplishes in this short paragraph, a retrospective on their relationship and an admission that the impetus to have a child in the first place came from Franklin:

I never, ever took you for granted. We met too late for that; I was nearly thirty-three by then, and my past without you was too stark and insistent for me to find the miracle of companionship ordinary. But after I’d survived for so long on the scraps from my own emotional table, you spoiled me with a daily banquet of complicitous what-an-asshole looks at parties, surprise bouquets for no occasion, and fridge-magnet notes that always signed off “XXXX, Franklin.” You made me greedy. Like any addict worth his salt, I wanted more. And I was curious. I wondered how it felt when it was a piping voice calling, “Momm-MEEE?” from around that same corner. You started it – like someone who gives you a gift of a single carved ebony elephant, and suddenly you get this idea that it might be fun to start a collection.

It isn’t the narrator’s intention, here or at any other place in the novel, to bully sympathy from us, but Shriver is a master not only of what is said but what is left unsaid, and we find ourselves sympathizing all the same. What were the first thirty-three years of Eva Khatchadourian’s life like, if companionship is a miracle, if love is a novelty? We instinctively forgive her, then, when she confesses that motherhood terrified her.

[…] I wasn’t only afraid of becoming my mother, but mother. I was afraid of being the steadfast, stationary anchor who provides a jumping off place for another young adventurer whose travels I might envy and whose future is still unmoored and unmapped. I was afraid of being that archetypal figure in the doorway – frowzy, a little plump – who waves good-bye and blows kisses as a backpack is stashed in the trunk; who dabs her eyes with an apron ruffle in the fumes of departing exhaust; who turns forlornly to twist the latch and wash the too-few dishes by the sink as the silence in the room presses down like a dropped ceiling. More than leaving, I had developed a horror of being left.

Shriver has been justifiably praised for giving voice to the less-talked-about travails of motherhood, ranging from changing diapers to spending your days amusing an infant child with block toys and peek-a-boo. For an intelligent woman, let alone a successful entrepreneur like Eva Khatchadourian, even the love of your child might not shelter you from the boredom of your new role as caregiver to a toddler.

Which brings us to Kevin, Eva’s child, who from his first appearance seems eager to make life difficult for his mother. He’s a trying child, resistant to being fed, extremely slow to potty train, and while his father and extended family begin to suspect that he’s slow-witted, Eva suspects quite the opposite: that he is in fact precocious, and using his intelligence to test the boundaries of what he can get away with. He exhibits a kind of split personality: meek and mild around his father, and hell-raising with his mother. “I have sometimes entertained the retroactive delusion that even in his crib Kevin was learning to divide and conquer, scheming to present such contrasting temperaments that we were bound to be set at odds.” To the average person, hearing a mother ascribe actual malice to an infant child is shocking, and our early perceptions of Ana are filtered through this indignation. This, too, is part of Shriver’s genius, her subtle manipulation of the reader: is Eva a terrible mother, projecting her fears, insecurities and disappointments onto her child, and thereby transforming young Kevin into a callous monster, or is he in fact a maleficent force from birth, a curse upon his mother? As he ages into autonomy, our image of him becomes less ambivalent: babysitters refuse to see him twice, his classmates are afraid of him, and he takes a perverse interest in dangerous hobbies, from archery to computer hacking. With his growing strength and intelligence, his capacity for mayhem increases, and he seems to devise ever more subtle ways of terrorizing his mother. More disturbing, still, is his utter lack of interest in any of the normal pursuits of adolescents. Even as a child, he had no love of toys, no beloved stuffed animals, no favourite bedtime stories – but as a teenager he’s something of a mystery: no real friendships, no girlfriends, nothing like a larger goal toward which he might orient his life. In his unguarded moments, away from his fragile father’s ears, he speaks with contempt of the life his parents live: of jobs and mortgages and marriages. In one letter to her husband, who was always oblivious to Kevin’s true nature, Eva attempts to explain their son’s nature in terms his father might understand:

For your parents, of course, the prospect of being unoccupied is frightening. They don’t have the character, like Kevin, to face the void. Your father was forever puttering, greasing the machinery of daily life, although the additional convenience, once he was finished, burdened him with only more odious leisure time. What’s more, by installing a water softener or a garden irrigation system he had no idea whatsoever that it was he was trying to improve. Hard water had offered the happy prospect of regular, industrious de-lime-scaling of the drain  board by the kitchen sink, and he rather liked sprinkling the garden by hand. The difference is that your father would wittingly install the water softener for no good reason and Kevin would not. Pointlessness has never bothered your father. Life is a collection of cells and electrical pulses to him, it is material, which is why materials are everything. And this prosaic vision contents him – or it did. So herein lies the contrast: Kevin, too, suspects that materials are everything. He just doesn’t happen to care about materials.

What she is describing here is a profound nihilism, built on the conviction that a human being and a garden hose are more or less interchangeable. How does someone enter a school and indiscriminately massacre innocent people? What kind of person keeps a tally of the most fatalities inflicted by a student, and aspires to best that number? Someone who doesn’t view human beings as human at all, in the conventional sense of the word; someone whose entire outlook on life has been so infected by nihilism, by the bone-deep conviction that there is no transcendent good, no meaningful action, no redemptive path through the void.

If that’s the case, if such people really exist, you wouldn’t want to meet them. You might not even want to acknowledge their existence. You wouldn’t want to talk about Kevin, either.