Funny how you dig yourself into a hole by the teaspoon - the smallest of compromises, the little roundings off or slight recastings of one emotion as another that is a tad nicer or more flattering. I did not care so much about being deprived of a glass of wine per se. But like that legendary journey that begins with a single step, I had already embarked upon my first resentment.
Arguably, there's no further need to talk about Lionel Shriver's Orange Prize-winning We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003); the release of Lynne Ramsey's well-received film adaptation means it's been difficult to move around the internet, lately, without bumping into discussion of it.
But that sort of things has never stopped me before, right?
How I feel about Kevin is, in fact, rather conflicted. I enjoyed it immensely, but in essence, it's an extremely well-executed pot boiler: tense, compelling, densely involved with its characters, garlanded with dread and narrative drive, but also baggy, too long, overly literal, and ultimately histrionic in a way that undoes much of its cleverness and subtlety.
[Spoilers abound hereafter, although since this is a tale told largely in retrospect, many of the climactic moments are partially revealed early on; the suspense comes not from what-will-happen, but rather how-will-it-happen. Still, beware, if you're that rare beast who hasn't already read the book.]
I mean histrionic in terms of the events Shriver chooses to round out her plot with, though, rather than tone: our narrator, Eva, doesn't really do histrionics. Her son Kevin may have turned out to be a brutal mass murderer, one of those storied sociopathic teens who one day shoots up his classmates for no readily apparent reason - but Eva has very particular ideas about who she is, and she will retain her self-possession, even if she has to cling to it by her fingernails. So while the little house she has moved to, since the fateful day her son made her notorious, is a precarious "dollhouse", all creaks and cracks and under-sized furniture, with a "quality of barely hanging on that I cherish" - if nothing else, Eva likes to remind herself that she is suffering - in public she maintains as much normality as she can:
It might seem, in the circumstances, a little embarrassing for me to continue to need a sweater or a muff, or to object to being cheated of a dollar and fifty cents. But since that Thursday my whole life has been smothered in such a blanket of embarrassment that I have chosen to find these passing pinpricks solace instead, emblems of a surviving propriety. Being inadequately dressed for the season, or chafing that in a Wal-Mart the size of a cattle market I cannot locate a single box of kitchen matches, I glory in the emotionally commonplace.
Despite everything, there is a pride - an arrogance - that forces her to keep her head up: her situation is an "embarrassment", she values "propriety", but only in a suitably condescending way. She labels ordinary social concerns "the emotionally commonplace", making it clear that she still thinks all this is rather beneath her. She is not above taking snarky swipes at the families of her son's victims; when one woman sees her at the supermarket, and breaks all the eggs she has in her shopping trolley, she patronisingly describes this little act of vengeful grief - in retrospect, in her letter - as "in an inchoate sort of way, rather elegant", and notes that the woman concerned is no longer as "neurotically svelte" as she once was:
Though it may be more romantic to picture the bereaved as gaunt, I imagine you can grieve as efficiently with chocolates as with tap water. Besides, there are women who keep themselves sleek and smartly turned out less to please a spouse than to keep up with a daughter, and, thanks to us, she lacks that incentive these days.
"[I]t's far less important to me to be liked these days than to be understood", she explains; and good job, really, because she's certainly not a likeable protagonist. She finds much ordinary social interaction a tedious chore; during one "perfectly pleasant lunch with perfectly pleasant people", she recalls longing for some sort of blow-up, some scandalous drama, and having to restrain herself from saying something calculated to hurt and anger in order to "detonate" the convivial dullness of it all. She is a driven, successful and highly intelligent woman, but not one who suffers fools; and she sees the overwhelming majority of humanity as fools.
Perhaps inevitably, there are signs that this rubs off on her son, as can be seen in this conversation she reports with him, from not long before Thursday, the day he shot up his school:
"Whenever I see fat people, they're eating," I ruminated safely out of the diner's earshot. "Don't give me this it's glands or genes or a slow metabolism rubbish. It's food. They're fat because they eat the wrong food, too much of it, and all the time."
The usual lack of pickup, not even mm-hmm, or true.
Finally, a block later: "You know, you can be kind of harsh."
I was taken aback and stopped walking. "You're one to talk."
"Yeah. I am. Wonder where I got it."
Eva is not likeable, then. What she is, though, is a deeply interesting protagonist: a complex and intimidating centre of gravity, whose precisely measured frustration and icily articulate disdain manages to overshadow almost everyone and everything else in the novel.
Which may, of course, be the point. One possible reading of the novel - one Kevin himself offers, late on, when he explains to Eva that he didn't kill her because "'When you're putting on a show, you don't shoot the audience'" - is that Kevin's violence is an attempt to even some sort of score with his mother. He wanted to punish her for her self-centredness, gain her attention, or perhaps even take her own misanthropy to it logical (?) outcome. (Is Kevin just Eva with no impulse control? A version of Eva who doesn't care whether he's out of earshot before passing cruel judgement?) Eva's narrative is her attempt to understand how things came to that: to understand her son, or rather to understand what she did to make him that way.
There is a strong streak of solipsism to Eva's narration: a whole bunch of people may be dead, but in some sense for Eva it's All About Her. It's hardly an inexplicable feeling, of course, and one the novel is intensely interested in: we think of our children, after all, as smaller versions of us, or at the very least as products of our upbringing of them. If your child grows up a killer, what does that say about you, as a person and as a parent? The question eats away at Eva, who sense of self and of self-worth is so bound up in her ability to control the meaning and shape of her personal and professional life:
Mother of the ignoble Kevin Khatchadourian is who I am now, an identity that amounts to one more of our son's little victories. AWAP [=her travel guide company] and our marriage have been demoted to footnotes, only interesting insofar as they illuminate my role as the mother of the kid everybody loves to hate. On the most private level, this filial mugging of who I once was to myself may be what I most resent. For the first half of my life, I was my own creation. From a dour, closeted childhood, I had molded a vibrant, expansive adult who commanded a smattering of a dozen languages and could pioneer through the unfamiliar streets of any foreign town. This notion that you are your own work of art is an American one, as you would hasten to point out. Now my perspective is European: I am a bundle of other people's histories, a creature of circumstance.
Central to Eva's fears that Kevin's crimes might be her fault is her frank admission that she was a bad mother ("And Franklin, I was", she tells her husband, "I was terrible at it. I wonder if you can ever forgive me"), and that this had much to do with the fact that she never wanted to be a mother in the first place. To understand what Kevin did, she says, it's necessary to understand her marriage, and their ultimately doom-laden decision to increase the size of their family:
Our son. Who is not a smattering of small tales but one long one. And though the natural impulse of yarn spinners is to begin at the beginning, I will resist it. I have to go further back. So many stories are determined before they start.
What possessed us? We were so happy! Why, then, did we take the stake of all we had and place it all on this outrageous gamble of having a child? Of course you consider the very putting of that question profane. Although the infertile are entitled to sour grapes, it's against the rules, isn't it, to actually have a baby and spend any time at all on that banished parallel life in which you didn't. But a Pandoran perversity draws me to prize open what is forbidden. I have an imagination, and I like to dare myself. I knew this about myself in advance, too: that I was just the sort of woman who had the capacity, however ghastly, to rue even so unretractable a matter as another person. But then, Kevin didn't regard other people's existence as unretractable - did he?
She convinced herself to have children, she says, for many reasons, none of them good ones: to please her starry-eyed, white-picket-fence-wanting husband; because she saw a child as another source of unconditional love and happiness, like Franklin; and, unspoken at the time but darkly lurking, because she felt sure that she ought to want a child. "For years", she says, looking back, "I'd been awaiting that overriding urge I'd always heard about, the narcotic pining that draws childless women ineluctably to strangers' strollers in parks." Her lack of that maternal 'instinct', she secretly feared, made her somehow inhuman; becoming pregnant seemed like a way to force the issue, to fit in.
Almost immediately, she realised that this was a terrible idea. Pregnancy was "an era of tyranny for me", she says, marked by repeated challenges to her bodily autonomy, like the one quoted at the head of this post, or a horrible exchange in which Eva is dancing in their apartment, and Franklin "marches" in and flatly orders her to stop ("'Are you trying to have a miscarriage? [...] There's no reason you can't listen to music [...] But like a normal pregnant woman, you can sit there and tap your foot!'". I've read that bit of dialogue three or four times now and every time it makes my skin crawl. It's not hard to see why this sort of dynamic had Eva climbing the walls in frustration; it kinda makes me want to schedule a hysterectomy, just in case, and it certainly made it hard for me to like Franklin very much thereafter, either.
Then again, this 'tyranny' is more or less what Eva went in expecting, and perhaps even what she was looking for:
Franklin, I was absolutely terrified of having a child. Before I got pregnant, my visions of child rearing - reading stories about cabooses with smiley faces at bedtime, feeding glop into slack mouths - all seemed like pictures of someone else. I dreaded confrontation with what could prove a closed, stony nature, my own selfishness and lack of generosity, the thick, tarry powers of my own resentment. However intrigued by a "turn of the page", I was mortified by the prospect of becoming hopelessly trapped in someone else's story. And I believe that this terror is precisely what must have snagged me, the way a ledge will tempt one to jump off.
Obviously, Eva is narrating all this after the fact; it's hard to be sure whether the misgivings she expresses here - and the ever larger crowd of misgivings and disquiet she describes once Kevin is born - are what she truly felt at the time, or are instead expressions of hindsight. She's an intelligent woman; I've no doubt that she would have been prone to overthinking pregnancy and motherhood just like she does everything else. But it is hard for her to remember this period through any other lens than the one Kevin has created for it: "I'm no longer sure", she admits, "whether I rued our first child before he was even born". Are her letters to Franklin the product of a woman trying to reclaim the control over her life that her son's act has snatched from her? Does she claim that she knew all along that Kevin was the spawn of Satan, only no-one (least of all Franklin) listened to her, because she can't bear the thought of not having seen it coming?
At the same time, when Eva says, of the night of conception, "just about any stranger could have turned up nine months later. We might as well have left the door unlocked", she underlines a very real and understandable fear of those embarking on parenthood: who are we bringing into the world? What if we screw it up? What if we don't even like them? What if they grow up to be a vile, violent individual?
Eva's outline of Kevin's childhood takes up the bulk of the novel. It's an episode or three too long - the basic dynamic (Kevin does something evil; Eva is convinced it was deliberate; Franklin is convinced it was an accident, and that Eva is being mean to Kevin) is established early and doesn't really need to be reinforced quite as much as it is, for all that the ominous notes of what is to come keep pulling the reader onwards. Again, while Kevin does certainly appear to be a horrible and cunning child, before the school shooting itself there is little concrete evidence, little external confirmation, of Eva's (real or back-projected) fears: incidents can be explained away as accident or coincidence, or simply the natural bad behaviour of a child who has not yet learned that other people have feelings too. There is no such excuse for Eva, who oftentimes seems to be locked in an undignified battle of wills with this boy a fraction of her age:
Since a child's feelings are bruisable, his privileges few, his chattel paltry even when his parents are well-to-do, I'd been given to understand that punishing one's own child was terribly painful. Yet in truth, when I commandeered Kevin's squirt gun, I felt a gush of savage joy. As we followed the moving van to Gladstone in the pickup, the continuing possession of Kevin's beloved toy engorged me with such pleasure that I withdrew it from my purse, forefinger on the trigger, riding shotgun. Strapped between us in the front seat, Kevin lifted his gaze from my lap to the dashboard with theatrical unconcern. Kevin's bearing was taciturn, his body slack, but the mask gave him away: Inside he was raging. He hated me with all his being, and I was happy as a clam.
This is a striking passage: Eva's description of herself as "engorged" with pleasure has all sorts of disturbing overtones, and the whole thing encapsulates very sharply how easily parenthood can become about power, and how the day-to-day grind of dealing with difficult kids can reduce otherwise good and kind and clever people to petty acts of cruelty. And for the most part, the novel manages an impressive balancing act: whether Kevin is the devious little demonchild Eva sees him as, or whether she is driving him to act out in ever more extreme ways through her palpable dislike of him, or whether - my own preferred reading - the pair of them are locked in some awful, drawn-out single combat, in which each reinforces the other's worst qualities ... these questions remain in the eye of the beholder. It can therefore be a novel about how it feels to hate and fear your own child, to turn around one day and discover they are capable (like any human being) of great cruelty, and also a novel about someone who makes a dreadful, unforgiveable mess of parenting a troubled child, and also a novel about the fundamental imbalance in domestic life and how society makes women into vessels and scapegoats for everything their children do.
The film adaptation, lacking the potentially unreliable first-person narration, can offer less ambiguity, unfortunately: Kevin is framed as evil, and one way or another we must see how certain things happen, as they happen. The novel, too, stumbles a little towards the end; despite Eva's protestations that she does "not pretend any remarkable insight into Kevin's state of mind, the one foreign country into which I have been most reluctant to set foot", the conventions of storytelling - or of the sort of story Shriver ultimately chooses to tell - requires us to get a fly-on-the-wall view of Kevin's actions at school on the fateful Thursday. Arguably it would have been better to leave things to Kevin himself to explain - or refuse to explain - during one of the numerous narrative-present conversations with his mother at the juvenile detention centre that punctuate the letters' retellings of the past. Kevin's other violence, that day, is left as something Eva reacts to, rather than as something we see happening, and is all the more powerful for it, which leaves the uncomfortable but strong impression that the school shooting - inspired by horrific real events, let us not forget - is simply a gory, manipulative backdrop to Shriver's real concern.
It's a tough read in places; there are gut punches, and at various times I felt desperately sorry for Eva, and for Kevin, and for those characters (not nearly as vividly drawn) unfortunate enough to get caught in their crossfire. But the reality of what the eponymous Kevin has done - the reasons why Eva finds herself obsessively revisiting his childhood in a series of letters to her husband - is too big and too difficult to try to encompass in this sort of novel, and too ripped-from-the-headlines to not feel a little ghoulish. The novel is bristling with hooks for conversation, for the possibility of multiple interpretations, and Eva is such a fascinating protagonist that I did enjoy it, thoroughly; but it feels very of-its-time, a story whose more insightful points get swamped by an unnecessary grand-gesture climax that seems determined the underline everything said before, three times, with a great big marker pen.