I have never been much of a kid person. What was at one point a general disgust has tempered over the years into more of a dull annoyance, but for the most part, I wouldn’t consider myself a huge fan. Being around other people’s children is like watching an episode of Planet Earth: I can enjoy a lion for 45 minutes without wanting one as a pet.
I have, like all 20-something women who openly espouse the anti-kid viewpoint, been tutted at by my slightly older peers (and mother), who assure me that I will at some point in life—a point most likely decided upon by my uterus—execute an about-face and forget the part of myself that shudders when a boisterous youngster boards my subway car. And in the interest of realism, I suppose that may very well be true. Despite having never been the type to coo over newborns or feel any particular affinity toward onesies, I can still understand that—objectively speaking—my indifference when it comes to the young is nothing to be self-righteous about, and could very well be impermanent.
But even if I allow that my now 26-year-old emotional geography will change over the next decade, I still wonder why it is that I’m averse to the idea of creating another person. Some of the reasons are obvious: By measures of current-me happiness—financial comfort, peace and quiet, lack of obligation to touch human feces—having a child is clearly bullshit. But these are things that people get past, by which I don’t simply mean that new parents are willing to make such sacrifices for their progeny, but rather that the very state of being a parent somehow dulls those needs. Touching poop isn’t something you can resent when the poop comes out of the wholly helpless human being that you made exist.
When I started We Need to Talk About Kevin, I wondered if my own lack of offspring would put me at a disadvantage, (though it’s worth noting that author Lionel Shriver is comfortably and consciously childless.) The novel is written in the form of letters—from wife Eva to her estranged husband Franklin—in which Eva reflects back on the birth and life of their teenage son, Kevin, who two years earlier murdered seven students and two adults at his high school. Kevin is, at the time of Eva’s writing, in a juvenile detention center, where she dutifully visits him each week. When we as readers are given the opportunity to see Kevin, he comes across as utterly remorseless and somewhat stoically unhinged.
Before I get into how this book made me feel, and what it made me think, I want to say that I was blown away by its elegance, and the almost indescribable quality of Lionel Shriver’s writing. Every sentence is amazing, and what might for another author have become a struggle—400 pages of one voice in one format—works so perfectly here that I found myself wanting to slow down so that I might savor each letter individually, not only for its language but also its poignancy and insight. Shriver is so in tune with Eva, has created such a real character, that there were times when only the caliber of the writing reminded me that the concept itself wasn’t real, that Eva wasn’t actually the mother of a teenager responsible for shooting up his school in the late 1990s. Indeed, while Shriver’s treatment of Thursday—(how Eva refers to the day of the shooting)—is powerful, perhaps even more powerful is Eva herself, and her desperate need to look back over her life with Kevin for an understanding of how such a complete shitshow came to pass.
Eva, you see, is not a great mother. She is reluctant to have a child, acquiescing to the idea primarily in deference to her husband. She feels let down almost immediately after Kevin is born, unable to experience the kind of maternal revelation that she feels she has been promised. She struggles to connect with her son, suspects his malice early on, and feels guilty for ascribing such awful qualities to someone so objectively incapable of having them yet. She is simultaneously apologetic for and defensive of her mothering tactics, and experiences in the wake of Kevin’s crimes a complex series of emotional defeats that, collectively, leave her hollow. It is in that particular state, with a mere 24 months of coping under her belt, that Eva begins writing to Franklin.
It’s not that I never thought about school shooting kids as kids—as Eva points out, their youth is only highlighted by the media’s need to seek meaning in their tastes: musical, sartorial or otherwise. I just don’t know that I ever really thought of school shooting kids as kids with parents, or of their parents as the mothers and fathers of murderers. Did they feel they should have known? Do they feel responsible? Had their children lived (and some did), would they still love them? Could they?
It’s these questions—more than the knowledge of the dozens of people whose lives have been ruined by Kevin’s crimes—that make We Need To Talk About Kevin so tragic, and so heart-wrenching to read. While movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Orphan have made light (or facetious horror) of the prospect of having an evil child, We Need To Talk About Kevin examines that possibility soberly and fearlessly. Eva says the things you know mothers aren’t supposed to say, asks the questions mothers aren’t supposed to ask, and is sickly validated in her doubts by her son’s ultimate actions, which beg not only correlation but causation. Did she rightly suspect that Kevin was a monster, or did her suspicions—and their effect on her ability to mother him—help create one? That question isn’t answered in this novel; rather, the fact that it can never be answered is what Shriver succeeds so well in exploring.
Now, I’m not saying that I’m reluctant to have children for fear they’ll grow up and be murderers. That notion—even being aware that kids like Kevin do exist—seems an irrational thing to dread. But it is less irrational, and perhaps almost reasonable, to fear one’s potential reaction to motherhood. What if, as Eva describes, one is the exception to the rule: the woman who is handed an impossibly tiny newborn and instead of elation feels a uniquely horrible brand of apathy? And what if that apathy is unshakable? What if one doesn’t love being a mother? What if one doesn’t like one’s child?
This isn’t meant to be an examination of my own potential as a parent; obviously I would be totally awesome at it and my kid would destroy all of your kids (figuratively.) My point, I suppose, is that Shriver took a topic like school shootings, which could have connected with readers through sheer shock value, and turned it into a novel so unexpectedly thought-provoking and nuanced that I’m still sad to have finished it. (Thank God for Tilda Swinton.)
I am reminded, in closing, of two things: 1) Ayalet Waldman, author Michael Chabon’s wife, who was famously pilloried by mothers for saying that she loved her husband more than her children, and 2) Go the Fuck to Sleep, a parody children’s book that spawned a follow-up question on the Internets: Would such a book have still been acceptable if it were written by a mother? If you were to take these two rather minute controversies, combine their respective levels of outrage, and multiply it by a billion—you would get to We Need To Talk About Kevin. It’s a novel that reminds you why novels (authors, rather) are so adept at handling the intricacies of a topic like motherhood, why no Twitter war or Jezebel post will ever command the same caliber of discourse that really great books do. If you haven’t read this book, you should. And if you have and you recommended it to me, I will give you my firstborn.
TITLE: We Need to Talk About Kevin
AUTHOR: Lionel Shriver
PAGES: 400 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: A Perfectly Good Family, The Post-Birthday World
SORTA LIKE: Zadie Smith writes a Jodi Picoult novel
FIRST LINE: “Dear Franklin, I’m unsure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to write to you.”