I instinctively admire people who admit to hating their children, as it is too easy to loathe the little buggers in the abstract, yet make exceptions for one’s own. While a perfect world would feature hundreds of wee ones being sent careening head-first into mud-filled, rural lakes, or meeting the blunt end of a dense brick on a daily basis, we can take some small measure of triumph in the fact that there are adults of sound mind and body who reject the parenting instinct and do everything within their power to ignore the interests of their brood. While real-life examples can often be hard to find, or are only half-hearted efforts at best (such as when trashy sluts leave their three-year-olds to die in hot cars while they screw unemployed ex-convicts in cheap motels, and then throw their teary-eyed selves on the mercy of the court, begging forgiveness for the children they “love with all their hearts”), a shining example has finally emerged from the world of fiction: Eva Khatchadourian of Lionel Shriver’s daring We Need to Talk About Kevin. I imagine the majority of Americans — especially mothers who believe their children to be Christ-like, even when driving the rest of the world to distraction — would find this book a heinous crime, if not a tool of the devil to be banned at once. Eva not only expresses an immediate disdain for her son Kevin, she never apologizes for her belief that whatever good remained in her life was stripped away by this selfish, evil boy. Given that the little shit ends up killing nine people at his high school with a crossbow, her accusations do not seem far off.
The book itself consists of letters from Eva to her husband Franklin, a less enlightened chap (established by the fact that he is a Republican) who idolizes Kevin, and can’t understand the picture that Eva presents. From birth, Kevin has always been difficult — only in Eva’s estimation? — and the kid has served to crush her spirit, take her away from the job that she loves (she writes travel books called “A Wing and a Prayer,” for the tourist on a tight budget), and cause a permanent strain in the marriage. The letters are written after the murders (referred to as “Thursday” by Eva), and take us from the early relationship between Eva and Franklin, to Eva’s visits with Kevin in the juvenile detention facility years after that fateful day. While the perspective is limited and Eva may in fact be an unreliable source (although I doubt it, as she is quite self-abasing when it is required), I appreciated the narrow view as only Eva could admit to remaining alienated from the creature she is told (by biology and social custom) to unconditionally love. But what can one do with a child that is simply rotten? Or an annoying bore? One of the most wonderful qualities of the book is that while we might expect a “why” as to the killings, we are never given one. Our questions are Eva’s as well, and she remains as dumbfounded as the reader. And as I’ve always said regarding matters of unthinkable violence: what possible explanation could suffice? The truly disturbing nature of “evil,” if that is what one must call it, is that we can never really understand it.
And consider the following passage, as Eva relates her profound disgust to Kevin after the nanny quits in frustration:
“Mummy was happy before widdle Kevin came awong, you know that, don’t you? And now Mummy wakes up every day and wishes she were in France. Mummy’s life sucks now, doesn’t Mummy’s life suck? Do you know there are some days that Mummy would rather be dead? Rather than listen to you screech for one more minute. There are some days that Mummy would jump off the Brooklyn Bridge—-“
Some may chalk up such a statement to typical parental frustration, and in most cases I might agree. However, Eva’s letters are packed with such sorrow and rage, and from infancy to high school, Kevin is never really a part of Eva’s world. She doesn’t understand him, and he rejects what little effort she does put forth, as he comes across as quite intelligent and calculating (even at a young age); knowing, for example, that his father is a fraud and can be easily manipulated. Kevin is clearly disturbed, although I am tempted to put quotation marks around that word, as such a diagnosis would be too easy; a cop-out far beneath Shriver’s abilities. If this were simply the story of a bad seed that fulfilled his destiny as a brutal killer, then it would be instantly forgettable and not at all insightful. Instead, the author has given us a meditation on motherhood itself, and what it means to have a child when one has no real desire or talent in that area. Eva does have a daughter several years later, and easily bonds with her, although the young girl is far from normal, and in her own way is as unable to handle reality as Kevin.
At bottom, We Need to Talk About Kevin works so well because it asks a host of questions without providing anything resembling a definitive answer. Eva is selfish, vain, and may be too much in love with the idea of being a victim (she constantly brings up her Armenian heritage, much to her son’s dismay), and she genuinely believes that she is better than most people. That makes her pretty acceptable in my world, as it’s best to underestimate your competition, especially if you are an American. And the book simply refuses to flinch in the face of what I have always believed is the most axiomatic statement ever uttered — if the end of marital bliss is what you seek, bring forth a child, and all will be bleak. Where many fear to tread, Eva dares to reveal. A movie buff, are we? Find a new hobby that involves shit-filled diapers or mind-numbing games of peek-a-boo. Have that travel bug? Try in vain to convince yourself that the neighborhood park is London, or that your living room is a cafe on the Seine. Treasure the written word as a gateway to knowledge? Be content with the wisdom of talking dogs or puffy clouds, my friend. An art lover? A museum junkie? Consider the infinite possibilities of “Still Life in Crayon” or “Scribbled Mess on Kitchen Tile” as substitutes. Eva gives us the permission to say, “Kids are a fucking bore and I have nothing whatsoever to say to them.” Bravo, my brave lass.
At exactly 400 pages, the book is long, but I never felt the author padded the work to make it seem more important. And I was glad to receive all the bloody details of Kevin’s massacre, as well as references to other real-life school shootings, as I revel in the elimination of teenagers as one might pour over the sports pages. Shriver also demonstrates that a child is an obvious, but nonetheless effective way of papering over deep rifts in a marriage, which just might explain the apparent explosion of large families these days. And while I won’t expose every detail that transpires (some revelations should hit you like a hammer, I believe), it is enough to know that finally, an author has figured out something new to say about the state of the American family. It stops just shy of saying we’re all destined for the dumpster, but it doesn’t allow an out for those believing they are exempt from tragedy and disconnect. If a boy like Kevin can go off the rails, so can your Justin or Mary Sue. After all, we can’t really blame Eva, as Kevin was a little shit from the very beginning. Nature or nurture? It’s still up for debate.