We Need to Talk About Kevin

The Stuff of Legends

Yesterday Jeb Bush followed the family tradition of crass and fatuous oratory that made his surname legendary. If that was the former governor’s goal: “Mission Accomplished.” I wouldn’t have thought it possible to out-do Shakespearean eloquence such as “Trees cause more pollution than cars do” and “Smoke evildoers out of their holes”; Bush fils part deux set a new standard. When asked for his thoughts on the rampage at Roseburg our prospective forty-fifth president replied, “Stuff happens.” As insensitive and tactless as the latest heir to the Bush legacy spoke, the ultimate tragedy lay in his veracity: at least in reference to mass murder in America.

Josef Stalin, himself no stranger to the concept, once observed, “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” It saddens me such unmotivated acts of violence occur with such frequency in our society. While the Umpqua Community College shooter’s father may express “shock” at this latest massacre, in the last day I’ve read tweets from PBS and the Associated Press stating that our country averages one mass shooting per day. I fear our society is becoming desensitized to it.

But why would we? After all, the media will saturate us with “coverage” of this latest “tragedy”. They’ll present myriad “special reports” on the killer. They’ll probe his friends and family with, “How could this happen?” They’ll ask “Why? Why? Why?” We’ll get incisive analysis of how he “was a quiet boy; a good boy; a troubled boy.” This will go on until he becomes as much a household name as John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald.

This “coverage” will, no doubt, feed the salacious appetites of “tragedy porn” addicts. We’ll receive up-to-the-minute body counts presented as enthusiastically as the score of a Baseball Playoff game. As appalling as that may be, I fear something much more horrible. I worry this unwarranted attention will only encourage the next “quiet, good, troubled boy” seeking his fifteen minutes of infamy.

This latest massacre brought to mind Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin. It’s an epistolary novel about a woman’s quest to understand why her son executed several of his classmates. The author thoroughly researched the subject. She cited numerous names in reference to school massacres. Some I recognized; others I didn’t. As a work of fiction, I presumed them the product of the author’s imagination. Due to the volume of appellations at the halfway point in the book, I wondered and investigated on-line. It astonished me to discover that this sort of tragedy had been occurring regularly in the US since the 1970s.

Every culture has its share of violence. We Americans have a legendary brand of it. The late former FBI Agent Robert Ressler pioneered the study of serial killers. He observed that most reside in the United States. When asked why, he answered, “We live in a society that encourages and glorifies violence.”

The media sensationalizing of this crime will further ignite the passions in the gun control debate. Based on Mr. Ressler’s view, I’m wondering if limiting access to firearms would have any effect on violent crime. While fictitious, the killer in Shriver’s novel didn’t use a gun.

While I disagree with the way the former Florida governor expressed himself, I’m disturbed more by how I agree with his underlying premise. This is a national disgrace and an embarrassment to our great country.

My thoughts and condolences go out to the friends and family of those affected by this latest act of senseless carnage. I’ve lost friends and family over the years. I can’t imagine the pain of losing someone I love to such a meaningless violent act. All of those affected have my deepest sympathy.

The rest of us can take solace. We’ll forget all about this tragedy with the advent of the next one. Based on the numbers, we won’t have long to wait. The media will scamper from the Pacific Northwest and descend upon the next campus asking the ubiquitous “Why? Why? Why?” After the standard, “He was a quiet boy; a good boy; a troubled boy”, we’ll be treated to a new stock response: “Stuff happens.”

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Book Review: Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin

I keep telling my writing friends, “We need to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin.” In spite of the tragic subject matter I’d declare this 2005 Orange Prize winner one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Shriver delivered an unforgettable account of Eva Khatchadourian’s effort to understand her son’s horrific metamorphosis into a mass murderer. At the same time Eva coped with her own guilt that her parenting may have led Kevin to execute several of his classmates. It shows just how well Ms. Shriver crafted this story that a book of this nature could be so terrifying and gratifying.

            Shriver structured her narrative very creatively.  Eva related her story through a series of letters to her husband Franklin from whom she was separated. The emotional impact began there and continued until Kevin told Eva “why” he resorted to mass murder at the end. Shriver chose to commence the epistolary narrative several years following Kevin’s rampage. The novel began as Eva had been fighting a civil suit brought by the mother of one of Kevin’s victims. Through her letters she related the story from when she and Franklin decided to have children through Kevin’s life and culminating in her visiting him in prison. The emotional intensity built up throughout the story, but without drifting into melodrama. It took a very gifted author to accomplish that feat.   

I’m not going to give away any major story sparks, but I encountered two major plot twists at the end of this book that I’m still trying to wrap my mind around. After re-reading these passages several times I realized that Shriver foreshadowed these events earlier in the book. Due to my reaction, I’d have to call Shriver’s subtlety in doing so genius.

 A common criticism of fiction writers is that they present readers with more factual data and information than they would find in non-fiction works. Shriver avoided this trap. She presented her details sparingly in a way that enhanced my understanding of the novel. As I read on my e-reader I looked up a number of “school shooters” she mentioned. I had no idea that many adolescents committed such acts of violence. Having that information made the story’s impact much greater and the story more relevant.

 I also enjoyed the way Shriver mentioned various aspects of pop culture (i.e. television programs) to show when events took place. Once again, she did so prudently in a way that enriched the novel. It helped me to put events in perspective.

I wrote that Shriver did an outstanding job writing We Need to Talk About Kevin. The novel did have its share of shortcomings, however. I thought she portrayed many of the characters as one dimensional. Kevin’s father, Franklin, always took Kevin’s side over Eva’s. I started to think this may have been the result of a pathological obsession for agreeing with his son. And then there was Kevin. I couldn’t relate to him at all.  Shriver didn’t present him as a round character with complexities. I found his personality to be a banal version of Damian from The Omen. Shriver depicted him as a beast or the embodiment of evil. I thought Shriver could have done a better job of “humanizing” Kevin. If I’d been able to empathize with him in any way I would’ve enjoyed the book more.

In terms of the characters, I found Eva’s portrayal the hardest to understand. Granted, she ran her own business, but she was in essence a travel agent from Racine, Wisconsin. She possessed the vocabulary and syntax of an Ivy League Level English Professor. Here’s an example of her writing from page 24, “Worse, the deadly accuracy of filial faultfinding is facilitated by access, by trust, by willing disclosure, and so constitutes a double betrayal.” Do travel agents really express themselves in this high-minded way?

We Need to Talk About Kevin addressed a scourge that affects our society all too often. In one of her letters Eva wrote, “In a country that doesn’t discriminate between fame and infamy, the latter presents itself as plainly more achievable.” The presentation of the subject through a fictional insight from the mother of a killer engrossed me. This story truly held my attention the entire way through. Shriver kept coming back to Eva’s search for the answer to her question, “Why?” At the very end of the book Kevin answered. The conclusion affected me in a strange way. I didn’t think the answer surprising, yet I struggled to find a deeper meaning in it. I know I’m repeating myself, but we need to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin.