In 2003, American author Lionel Shriver published her fiction novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. It is a story comprised of unsent letters from a grieving mother to her estranged husband, recounting the rearing of their son who, at 16, becomes the perpetrator of a school shooting. He calmly kills nine students, a cafeteria worker, and a well-loved teacher. Eva Khatchadourian writes impassioned but confused letters to her absent husband, Franklin, musing over her reluctance to enter motherhood and the degree in which her attitude towards parenting Kevin may have contributed to his horrific actions.
With its initial small-scale distribution, it wasn’t until 2005 that Shriver received the Orange Prize for her book, a UK-based award oriented toward female authors. Now, in 2010, filming has commenced for a cinematic adaptation of the book. Confirmed actors include the Academy honored Tilda Swinton, and jovial funnyman John C. Reilly. Still, most notoriety for the novel has come from word-of-mouth. While the story will make for a great movie, there are many intangible layers and embedded truths within the novel that will never translate to the big screen. It is because of this that dedicated readers ought to get their hands on a copy prior to its theatrical release.
Set in the year 2000, the bulk of the novel and its climax recall 1998, a time in America that was historically rampant with school massacres – notably the Columbine shootings. We may recall that pundits from all ranges of professional fields flailed to pinpoint who or what was to blame for the fatalities – parenting? Video games? Music? Shriver uses actual events like Columbine and other school shootings, along with political controversy of the time, to firmly place the reader in the era. Through her efficiency, the same troubling uncertainties associated with the time reemerge.
Shriver’s language is poignant and beautiful, using rich and textured vocabulary that captures the complexity of the subject she is tackling. The only stylistic discrepancy that could be remarked upon is that her dialogue sometimes seems unnatural. It is almost too uniformly designed for each character and the demographic they represent. Still, while the depicted relationships between the characters are hyperbolic, her exaggerated characterizations ultimately heighten the novel’s sinister ambiguity. We are at unrest with what happens because we feel a deep understanding of Franklin, Eva, their daughter Celia… everyone but Kevin himself. Shriver allows enough textual evidence so that we may attempt to make sense of Kevin, but it is largely disturbing and like Eva, we feel compelled to consider his character from a distance.
Shriver’s characters are big and imposing: they hold firm to their convictions on life. Franklin Plaskett is depicted as an all-American businessman, proud of his from-the-ground-up advertising company. He loves his country, sports, and the idea of having a son – as well as Kevin himself. He loves his wife. Eva, the novel’s protagonist, is a fiercely independent and well-traveled Armenian American who loves her husband’s idealizations of their country but longs for the fast-paced diversity that her travel brochure company has afforded her. She loves her husband, their second child Celia, and she ardently tries to love, or at least comprehend her son.
The couple has married late in their thirties, and the topic of having children is constantly breached without resolution. When Eva finally complies with motherhood, she senses from the get-go that the urge to procreate does not come naturally. She also senses something is not right with her son. From pregnancy to his doomed adolescence, Eva feels as though she is waged in constant war with Kevin.
The novel raises the question of how we become who we become: the age-old nature versus nurture debate. Is Kevin’s eventual violence and impudence towards society a result of Eva’s maternal ambivalence, or has it been embedded in his personality since birth? Eva’s angle--she admits being prone to bias--doesn’t provide an answer to that. She blames many factors, especially her insufficient mothering. Even as Eva implicates herself, the stories she relays carry countless hints towards a boy who was never going to end up as an upstanding American citizen. His impish follies are often versed in violence, like when he is arrested for chucking pieces of brick off an overpass to the busy highway below, an incident that Kevin insists was a series of ignorant mistakes. Eva is not the only one who finds fault with her: a parallel storyline in the narrative is her recounting the tribulations of her own court trial following Kevin’s murders. One of the victim’s mothers files a lawsuit against her. Interspersed in her retelling of life with Kevin, Eva elaborates on how she purposely sabotaged herself in her testimonies.
What Eva strives to reconcile in her son and emphasize to Franklin in these letters is a frightening sort of apathy and resentment she claims to have recognized even in Kevin’s early childhood years: she is convinced, for example, that his not becoming toilet trained until six years old was a direct act of smirking rebellion towards her, and not some sort of psychological incompetency he was suffering. Still, she ends up inflicting physical harm on him because of his adamant devotion to diapers and it are these moments of disparity that could lead a reader to conclude that Eva is not wholly innocent, or is even maybe entirely guilty.
As we reach Kevin’s adolescent years, Eva informs Franklin that she never considered her son to be bullied, but rather feared by both his spare friends and his entire class. None of the altercations associated with Kevin can ever be directly traced back to him, but Eva believes the frequency of her son’s involvement in strange and upsetting events were suspicious and strong indicators that something is wrong with him. She never thinks that he is a sad or misunderstood boy; rather, she fears that even at his youngest, Kevin realized something about the world that he could not align himself with. Eva suggests that Kevin has been dissatisfied with the notion of everyday life since infancy, and that is what drives his dangerous anger at the world.
Through the novel’s progression, for instance, Eva tells Franklin that she saw an interview with Kevin from juvenile prison. In it, documentarian Jack Marlin tries to delve into the deeper, more prolific question of why? Why did Kevin commit such a crime? An excerpt of his eerie response forms a good idea of the type of child Eva has been raising, and what she sees as so deeply disconcerting about his character:
I could tell Kevin had been preparing for this. He inserted a dramatic pause, then slammed the front legs of his plastic chair onto the floor….
“Okay, it’s like this. You wake up, you watch TV, and you get into 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 do they do but go to a movie. All of these 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.” He sat back and folded his arms.
It isn’t so much that Eva outright declares that her son was born and lived under the umbrella of evil, but simply that he isn’t another case of a misled, picked on teenager whose pent-up aggression finally loosed itself in fatal violence. Rather, she is suggesting that her son was so premeditated in his actions that he welcomed the attention. The apathy she hopes to convey to Franklin throughout her letters isn’t of a dumb boy who was misdirected towards violence, but a bright child who realized early on that he is unaffected by everyday affection and happenings.
She herself isn’t sure, but Eva knows that why Kevin has done what he did cannot be answered by bullying or loud music, but something implicit within himself. At the same time, both Eva and the reader can question whether her lackadaisical efforts to be a good mother could have provided the avenue of thinking that lead Kevin to his final plan. It is a plan, too; the novel goes into acute, disorienting details as to how intricately Kevin prepped himself for the day, which Eva chillingly refers to simply as Thursday.
The idea of nature vs. nurture, genetic inheritance vs. environment is a debate that will always be happening. We Need to Talk About Kevin does not answer the question but rather complicates it even more. As she looks within herself and the memories of her life raising Kevin, Eva develops deeply astute analyses of herself, her husband, her son, and the attitudes that propel their actions. She offers interesting passages about the value of America when commenting on Franklin’s devout patriotism, and intriguing insight on why people choose to have children.
With its disturbing content, the novel serves as a profound commentary on a sad and recent era in American history. However, it also behaves as a thriller – even though you know how it will end. Because of the length of time since its publication, many copies of the book feature accompanying essays by the author herself, using collective criticism and discussion of her novel by others to try and make statements about her motivations and feelings behind authoring it. The book does not seek to soften the blow of its plot, and will probably leave many feeling very unsettled at its conclusion. Perhaps that is the mark of important literature. While the mastery of the actors who will reenact the book’s events is unquestioned, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a novel whose strength will likely stand ultimately in the written version. Those who value insightful modern literature will find this a compelling and meaningful read.