by lionel shriver
you might have heard of the movie adaptation, aptly given the same title, that has churned out some discussions from all kinds of people. you might wonder; okay, another psychotic demon kid kills his seven schoolmates, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker. big deal. isn't it an outdated premise already?
when i first read the book that's what was in my mind too. the book is narrated by kevin's mother, eva, in a series of letters to his husband—or ex-husband, for the sake of sticking with precision. but after flipping a few pages i felt like maybe there was something else. a few miles down the road, maybe that was all. not like it had offered me nothing, it was good enough a ride anyway. but it was right at that moment when shriver presented me with a final horror, a somehow very appropriate one, that couldn't make me appreciate the book more. it was that good. it got a little vexing in the middle; enticing some silent goddamit-eva-get-over-it shoutings from the readers, i believed, but. i was made understood a little by the time i reached the final page. that all the navel-gazings and blank stares hiding thoughts buried deep beneath, mean a lot of things.
eva is a kind of mother i might want to have (not that i try to express any dislike instead of delights toward my own mother here) or to be. maybe not really, because look what monster she's bred. she doesn't like kevin, and for sure i want to be liked by my own mother. even since all i do is shriek and feed on milk and shriek. but eva has some qualities that i like, also she frequently conjures up some ideas and thoughts that i also like. what drives people to have children in the first place? merely the temptation to inherit the mundane tradition? and these are my favorite thoughts of hers:
“You see,” I proceeded, “by the time he was eleven or twelve, this was all too late. The no-gun rules, the computer codes… Children live in the same world we do. To kid ourselves that we can shelter them from it isn’t just naive, it’s a vanity. We want to be able to tell ourselves what good parents we are, that we’re doing our best. If I had to do it all over again, I’d have let Kevin play with whatever he wanted; he liked little enough. And I’d have ditched the TV rules, the G-rated videos. They only made us look foolish. They underscored our powerlessness, and they provoked his contempt.”
What drew Kevin’s contempt was not, as I had seemed to imply, our patent incapacity to protect him from the Big Bad World. No, to Kevin it was the substance and not the ineffectuality of our taboos that was a joke. Sex? Oh, he used it, when he discovered that I was afraid of it, or afraid of it in him, but otherwise? It was a bore. Don’t take offense, for you and I did find great pleasure in one another, but sex is a bore. Like the Tool Box toys that Kevin spurned as a toddler, the round peg goes in the round hole. The secret is that there is no secret. In fact, plain fucking at his high school was so prevalent, and so quotidian, that I doubt it excited him much. Alternative round holes furnish a transient novelty whose illusoriness he would have seen right through.
As for violence, the secret is more of a cheap trick.
You remember, once we gave up on the rating system to see a few decent films, watching a video of Braveheart as, dare I say it, a. family? In the final torture scene, Mel Gibson is stretched on a rack, all four limbs tied to the corners of the compass. Each time his English captors pulled the ropes tauter, the sisal groaned, and so did I . W h e n the executioner thrust his barbed knife into Mel's bowel and ripped upward, I squeezed my palms to my temples and whinnied. But w h e n I peeked through the crook of my arm at Kevin, his glance at the screen was blase. T h e sour half cock of his m o u t h was his customary expression at rest. He wasn't precisely doing the Times crossword, but he was absently blacking in all the white squares with a felt-tip.
Cinematic carve-ups are only hard to handle if on some level you beheve that these tortures are being done to you. In fact, it's ironic that these spectacles have such a wicked reputation a m o n g Bible thumpers, since gruesome special effects rely for their impact on their audience's positively Christian compulsion to walk in their neighbors' shoes. But Kevin had discovered the secret: not merely that it wasn't real, but that it wasn't him. Over the years I observed Kevin watching decapitations, disembowelments, dismemberments, flayings, impalements, deoculations, and crucifixions, and I never saw him flinch. Because he'd mastered the trick. If you decline to identify, slice-and-dice is no more discomfiting than watching your mother prepare beef stroganoff.
So what had we tried to protect him from, exactly? T h e practicalities of violence are rudimentary geometry, its laws those of grammar; like the grade-school definition of a preposition, violence is anything an airplane can do to a cloud. Our son had a better than average mastery of geometry and grammar both. There was litde in Braveheart—or Reservoir Dogs, or Chucky II—that Kevin could not have invented for himself.
In the end, that's what Kevin has never forgiven us. He may not resent that we tried to impose a curtain between himself and the adult terrors lurking behind it. But he does powerfully resent that we led him down the garden path—that we enticed h i m with the prospect of the exotic.
(Hadn't I myself nourished the fantasy that I would eventually land in a country that was somewhere else?) When we shrouded our grown-up mysteries for which Kevin was too young, we implicitly promised him that when the time came, the curtain would pull back to reveal—what? Like the ambiguous emotional universe that I imagined awaited me on the other side of childbirth, it's doubtful that Kevin had formed a vivid picture of whatever we had withheld from him. But the one thing he could not have imagined is that we were withholding nothing. That there was nothing on the other side of our silly rules, nothing.
although both the history of love and we need to talk about kevin were nominated for the same award (except that shriver's we need to talk about kevin did actually win), they differ in a quite lofty height. perhaps the increased relevance in wnttak seems more winning, at least to me. although the history of love possess more attraction in the sentences—they alternate and fluctuate and hence are never static—eva's exactitude, which uniquely is achieved through roundabout ways that lead our characters back in full circle, cannot be dismissed easily. because there is truth in there. in each of family members' views of life, in eva's point of view: regarding marriage, parenthood, work, etc. does bearing a child answer The Big Question? definitely not, in eva's case. since kevin's birth her life starts to rattle with whys and what fors imposed by his child, but with no definite answers that kevin never tries to foist on his mother no matter how much she trembles and fumbles for them.
there are speculations. big ones on why kevin did it. everyone wonders, is it nature? is it nurture? but i like what kevin finally says in the end.
i feel blessed to have read so many good books in a row, like having a string of lucky beads uninterrupted by terrestrialities