Review of “We Need to Talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

There were more than 80 school shootings in America in the 1990s. It was the decade when  school shooting became a fixed term in our vocabulary and the category of violence it betokened became a normal part of public life. Why did it happen then, not earlier, not later? Maybe for the same reason terrorism would soon put its indelible mark on us–because round-the-clock media coverage insured that each new killing produced a celebrity, and celebrity is the coin of our realm. Anyone could become famous instantly, which must have held a special appeal for beaten-down nobodies. Most of their grievances were commonplace–rivalries, bullying, girl trouble.

In the most heinous school shooting of the 1990s, the Columbine Massacre, the perpetrators, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were simply angry that normal people existed. Life was shit, they thought, and people were dumb for pretending otherwise. Ordinary human attachments–to friends, families, hobbies, sports, other enthusiasms–were mere poses, delusions so hypocritical, the people who held them were mere sheep, worthy of slaughter in Dylan and Klebold’s apocalypse.

There is clearly an obligation to search for “systemic” or “structural” causes of the rise in school shootings. Before this hand-wringing duty, though, Lionel Shriver, in her 2005 novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, gives us a moment to sneer at the paltry nihilism of the likes of Harris and Klebold:

I did feel a concentrated dislike for those boys, who couldn’t submit to the odd faithless girlfriend, needling classmate, or doses of working-single-parent distraction–who couldn’t serve their miserable time in their miserable public schools the way the rest of us did–without carving their dime-a-dozen problems ineluctably into the lives of other families. It was the same petty vanity that drove these boys’ marginally saner contemporaries to scrape their dreary little names into national monuments. And the self-pity! That nearsighted Woodham creature [the Pearl High School shooter, who killed his mother and girlfriend] apparently passed a note to one of his friends before staging a tantrum with his father’s deer rifle: “Throughout my life I was ridiculed. Always beaten, always hated. Can you, society, blame me for what I do?” And I thought, Yes, you little shit! In a heartbeat!

In much the same way that Martin Amis’s Money: A Suicide Note was the English novel of the 1980s, Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin may just be the American novel of the 1990s.

The connection between the two books is more than literary. Novels portray societies. The America that produced Columbine and then stood by helplessly as school shootings multiplied to become one of our defining national characteristics was the same America that had so recently adopted money as its god. Under Reagan and his cipher, George H. W. Bush, the USA had just regained its self confidence and won the Cold War. The country’s cultural predominance, unprecedented wealth, and unchallenged military power made it the world’s hegemon. It was our rightful status, we thought.

The thing about that meteoric rise, in case you weren’t around to experience it, was how easy it felt. We did it all without really trying, or so it seemed at the time.

Greed was good in the 80s, right? The gospel went like this: Float enough money around, and people will become so sated with well-being, they won’t need anything as abstract as ideas or as imperious as institutions to tell them what’s right and what’s wrong. And who cared where the money came from? All that mattered is that it was there. rising tide of cash was lifting all boats, large and small. America had discovered a moral theory that floated on air. All you have to do was look out for number one, and everything else that mattered in life would take care of itself.

This was easier to believe at the time than it sounds. Free markets, as we could see right in front of our noses, led to free people–big, joyous masses of free people. The same force that was making you rich was deposing dictators, right in front of the world’s news cameras. Between 1989 and 1991, the Iron Curtain disappeared from the map, just stopped existing. What was it Vaclav Havel, a man of deep political acumen, said his countrymen wanted out of this epoch-making miracle?–more cafes and a candy shop on every corner. Better shopping, basically. Maybe he was right. Have you seen the lines outside McDonalds when it came to the former Warsaw Pact countries?

mcdonalds russia
First McDonalds opens in Moscow, 1990 (Image: Imgur)

Or look at the picture shown round the world of the Unknown Protester facing down the tank column in Tiananmen Square, China. He just wasn’t going to take the Party telling him one more day which shitty little apartment he had to live in in or what job he had to go to. If they needed tanks to make their case while all he had was a shopping bag, who was in the right here? Anyone who had eyes could see.

tank man
Unknown Protester, Tiananmen Square, June 1989 (Image: Jeff Widener, AP)

Wise men of every stripe were buzzily interpreting the global drama for us. They went on record telling us that American-style free-market democracy was driving these momentous changes. Greed was good. It could save the whole world if we let it. American power, we thought, had escaped the gravitational pull of history, just as American commerce had escaped that piffling thing, the business cycle. We had no real challengers left standing. Everyone wanted to be like us.

From the right, Samuel Huntington announced that, yes, there was a clash of civilizations taking shape, but it was a symptom of our demonstrably superior way of life, not a challenge to it. Show the world’s masses that they needed democracy to get rich, and no authoritarian would ever sleep easy again. From the left, Francis Fukuyama went even further. Humanity, he proclaimed, had reached the End of History, from which it would be impossible to turn back. No self-respecting human being, he rhapsodized, would choose to return to the swamp of ignorance and authoritarianism once they’d breathed the free air of enlightened democracy, as that idea was parsed by the think tanks in Washington. And if you wanted this already over-simplified gospel packaged in primary colors, there was Thomas Friedman’s airport tome about the magic of globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, a remarkably stupid book even at the time. It basically said, America is coming to make you rich: rejoice.

All the self-flattery was true. Until it was false.

A caveat of history is that no one knows what happened to the Unknown Protester in Tiananmen Square. The smart money, of course, is that he’s dead, and he’s been dead for a long time, killed by the Chinese Communist Party as soon as he stood up to them in 1989. What we would want to believe is that his disappearance was an exception to history, a small martyrdom made negligible by the great waves of liberation that crashed in on former authoritarians everywhere else. But what if his disappearance was the real story and that, gloomily, Orwell was right, at least in China? The picture that won the day was not of the Protester and the tanks; it was the picture we didn’t see, of a boot stamping on the face of the protester–and, as Orwell would have it–all of humanity, forever.

This review contends that the most important information is often contained in the caveats, the secret histories, and the pictures we don’t see. It is certainly appropriate to debate the big, headline issues of America’s preeminence in the 1990s. Why did it happen? In what did it consist? Martin Amis’s Money: A Suicide Note is, in its way, a direct consideration of the headline issue of greed in the 1980s. (Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities tells the same story–jokier, but still training both eyes on the main argument.) We Need to Talk about Kevin, by contrast, tells a story that goes around the headlines to explicate the caveats of 1990s America. It renders a secret history of what America was becoming at home while, city on the hill that it was, it shined its beacon for the rest of the world.

One way to understand school shootings in America is as the tiny statistical anomaly that they are. Horrible things happen everywhere, but going to school is still a safe, fulfilling experience for millions of American children each day.  It’s easy to turn mountains into molehills if your country’s Human Development Index is high enough: America, with an HDI of .920, is clearly a better place to live than Yemen, which scores .463. (The gap between us and Yemen narrows dramatically on gun ownership. We outrank them only by one place on that score.)

But the statistics can be turned on their head. Something like 100 percent of American students are aware that a shooting could happen at their school; most schools are “resourced” to address this prospect, with corporations reaping the profits of these service provisions (greed still serves its purposes). And of course every parent in America either experiences some level of dread about school shootings or fashions an effective defense against thinking about them. Those stats hold true nowhere else in the world.

We Need to Talk about Kevin is no mere sociology tract, though. It doesn’t just make a “terrible indictment” of something deeply wrong with our nation. Even when novels make a political point, they must tell their stories from the private realm of the individual’s inner life. They must be credible. They must reveal secrets. Shriver succeeds brilliantly in doing all this. And once she has divulged all the facts she has to tell, the reader all too easily draws discomfiting conclusions.

Eva Katchadourian is a successful travel guide writer sharing a Tribeca loft with her Springsteen-loving husband, Franklin. After three years of footloose urban bliss, the Big Question knocks on their door: if life is beautiful, doesn’t it deserve passing on? Franklin wants kids, naively and greedily. Eva, though, hesitates at a paradox–if life is great, isn’t it intrinsically great? Must an individual’s life be made to serve the continuity of the species to be complete? Later, she reflects more prosaically, “What possessed us? We were so happy! Why, then, did we take the stake of all we had and place it on this outrageous gamble of having a child?”

The skill with which Shriver describes the many ways in which parenthood fails to fulfill Eva is surpassed only by her moral courage in doing so with such honesty. After all, what’s true of Eva could be true of lots of the rest of us. Shriver describes full-bore, high-definition horrors that all parents have felt in some suggestive, inchoate way. Eva and her infant son Kevin fail to bond; Eva has postpartum depression. Kevin is listless and shuns intimacy or stimulation. He seems disaffected by life itself, “incensed that no one had ever consulted him about turning up in a crib with time going on and on, when nothing whatsoever interested him in that crib.” Instead of falling asleep, he screams himself to exhaustion, day after day.

Almost as if by choice, though, Kevin allows himself to be calmed by Franklin waltzing in at the end of the day. Franklin’s instinctive performance chides Eva: See how easy that was? Kevin seems to have a diabolical sense that he can use this rift between the mother who understand  him but can never gain his love and the father who believes successful parenting is effortless, not to be overthought.

In addition to not feeling the fairy tale with her new son, Eva is embittered at her loss of agency at the hands of motherhood: “Lo, everything that made me pretty was intrinsic to motherhood, and my very desire that men find me attractive was the contrivance of a body designed to expel its own replacement.”

Kevin knows preternaturally how to push Eva’s buttons; he is on to her sense of loss and knows how to exploit it. But to what end? As he grows, he sneaks his meals in private, denying Eva the pleasure of having provided him nourishment, and he learns childhood facts in secret, denying her the pleasure of having taught him anything. By the time Kevin is five, he knows the meaning of the word “trite,” but is still in diapers. This, Eva feels, can only be a conscious choice. Shriver builds up to the novel’s first really harrowing scene so expertly that, when Eva breaks down at having to change that last deliberately fouled diaper and hurls Kevin across the nursery, fracturing his arm, the reader knows why she did it.

Kevin
(Image: Amazon)

It is at a later point in the story–after 16-year old Kevin has executed an expert plan of mass killing at his high school–that Shriver reflects on the standard journalistic blather about school shootings: the gruesome details are so often called “unimaginable,” but in fact they are all too imaginable. And this imaginability is the dark, secret heart of We Need to Talk about Kevin. The myriad ways of failing as a parent (or as a child) are all too imaginable. Almost all parents have been tested up to a breaking point, which they can picture with horrifying vividness. The raising of children is an exercise in the responsible use of power, which wobbles in preposterous disbalance. In most cases, the parent’s surrender of power to the helpless child is repaid in intimacy and an enduring bond we call love. Shriver makes us ask, what would it look like if a child as selfish and informed as an adult were to use the leverage of our sacrifice against us?

In America, we have the power to give children almost everything. Kevin, though, is bored by the idea of getting things. He is disaffected by the condition of having parents, people intent on pursuing this fostering, providing relationship. Again, with great skill and courage, Shriver helps us imagine how deeply Kevin hates this whole setup. His only abiding goal is to frustrate Eva’s and Franklin’s power to raise him. When Kevin turns murderous, it is with the same pointless languor that impels Mersault to kill an Arab in Camus’s The Stranger. Neither character knows what life is for, and acts on that bewilderment.

It is possibly a nod to this connection when Eva soliloquizes to a dead-and-gone Franklin (Kevin killed him), “I seem finally to be learning what you were always trying to teach me, that my own country is as exotic and even as perilous as Algeria.” But unlike Camus’s stultified Algeria, the setting of The Stranger, America gives immense scope to murder-as-spectacle. We are replete with the necessary means.

This is the dark, secret rot at the core of our national character, this surplus of the raw materials of school shootings. The guns are there. Most school shooters get them from home. The ease of suicide is there. Two-thirds of gun deaths in America are suicides. The reality-TV pursuit of fame at any cost in dignity is there. With leering greed, we watch people in all states of humiliation, perfectly willing to stage their own pathologies for money and “fame.” And now, after Columbine, we have the most dangerous thing–the highly specific ideation of school shootings. The formula works as if by magic, and therefore it keeps happening. There is no bigger fuck you to society than the planned and staged murder of children by children in institutions set up with care to foster their growth as human beings. And those things we had with us in the 1990s. Add to them the capacity of social media to enable bullying and normalize feelings of envy, rage, contempt, and helplessness.

I was going to close by saying this review is not an attempt to read We Need to Talk about Kevin as a sociological tract, but I guess there’s no use in denying it. I have done Shriver the disservice of diverting attention from the artistry of her novel, which is outstanding. But, as I mentioned before, it is her moral courage, to say the unsayable, that captivates me. At the height of our political power Americans gave in to greed, a desperately cheapened version of life. School shootings are as much a result of that choice as are the various other things presently falling apart because we believed we could ignore them as long as the rich were getting richer–roads, schools, hospitals, libraries, railways, sidewalks, parks, and so forth.

There is no clear path out of this wilderness, where we pretend that individual preference is sovereign and there’s no such thing as public interest. But it is impossible to read a book like We Need to Talk about Kevin and not think we should look for one.

As usual, I avoided reading other reviews before I wrote my own. If you’d like to read some professional reviews of We Need to Talk about Kevin, which are shorter and more to the point, here they are:

The Guardian

Kirkus

Slate (film review)

Interview with Lionel Shriver in The Atlantic Monthly

 

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