Sunday, April 01, 2007

Reading notes: We Need to Talk About Kevin

The other day I bought a copy of something that everybody else read two or three years ago but that had passed me by. I hadn't realised it was a novel -- I thought it was some kind of dreary earnest American soul-searching self-help kind of thingy -- or I would have read it sooner.

I'm talking about Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Now I have been putting in marathon efforts to get up to date with the piled-up Magic-Puddingesque workload (I cut, it comes again) of other work apart from the weekly fiction reviewing, and have actually been making tiny inroads here and there -- ensuring in the meantime that I do not actually forget what my friends and family look like, run out of clean knickers, or die of botulism or bubonic plague.

But all such efforts have been blown out of the water over the last 48 hours. Because when I haven't been asleep or out, I've been reading this appalling, brilliant book.

I gather there's some amazing twist at the end. DO NOT I REPEAT DO NOT TELL ME WHAT IT IS and if anybody does I will stalk you down the Interwebs for all eternity. (Has it got something to do with her very very wonky 'handwriting' in the signatures? Are the husband and the daughter, in fact, both dead?)

In the meantime, here's how to win the Orange Prize: write a passage as good as this, and then keep it up for 468 pages.

'But I have a theory about Dream Homes ... Regardless of how much money you lavish on oak baseboards, an unhistoried house is invariably cheap in another dimension. Otherwise, the trouble seems rooted in the nature of beauty itself, a surprisingly elusive quality and one you can rarely buy outright. It flees in the face of too much effort. It rewards casualness, and most of all it deigns to arrive by whim, by accident. On my travels, I became a devotee of found art: a shaft of light on a dilapidated 1914 gun factory, an abadoned billboard whose layers have worn into a beguiling pentimento collage of Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, and Burma Shave, cut-rate pensions whose faded cushions perfectly match, in that unplanned way, the fluttering sun-blanched curtains.'




Well, there's an almost Shakespearean breadth and transcendence at the very end, that looking-family-matters-in-the-eye-no-matter-what business that you get at the end of the four last plays, and quite a few of the others as well. 'This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.'

Cross-posted at A Fugitive Phenomenon


genevieve said...

A terrific recommendation, PC, I feel like sending the link to Ms Shriver.

I have put off reading it for a very silly reason, a family member who goes by the name of the eponymous anti-hero. Shan't delay any further.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Well, tread carefully. You will be feeling a bit sick by the time you've finished. And if it makes me feel like that, then I can't imagine what it will do to a woman with kids.

Meredith said...

I loved that book too, and like all my loved books I've lent it to someone in a fit of enthusiasm so it's never to be seen again. What Kevin says at the end - about her having been his audience - that was the truest bit for me.

Ariel said...

As a woman with kids (okay, one), the book was profoundly unsettling and provoked lots of thinking about the nature of parenting and the fine line we tread as parents between overindulgence and emotional negligence (both equally damaging) - as personified by each of the parents in the books at opposite extremes, I thought. A friend of mine who doesn't want kids, both for career reasons and reasons of independence, found it oddly reassuring though. (It confirmed her decision for her.) Great book - LOTS in it.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Ariel, that was certainly part of my reaction: the predictable 'Oh thank God I didn't have any, they might have turned out like that', but also 'I am quite enough like that narrator/mother to make some of the same ordinary mistakes in terms of the way I would talk in front of my kids.'

I'm not sure I'd characterise the parents as overindulgent vs emotionally negligent, though. Without wanting to give too much away, the mother is not emotionally negligent of the other child, and what you're calling the father's overindulgence looks more to me like hysterical denial. The fact that it's hysterical doesn't make it any less common, either, unfortunately.

Ariel said...

Interesting. I went to a talk when Shriver was in Melbourne and the audience views of the parents differed wildly - a testament to the skill of the writer, I think, and the success of the 'unreliable narrator'.

Yes, I did oversimplify hugely there, though. The mother's strength and failing is that she is able to view her son as a person separate from herself and her as a mother, so she sees his behaviour clearly and unobjectively. She is, however, scarily detached to an extent that doesn't help the situation - whether this is a reaction to her son's personality or her son's personality is a reaction against her ambivalence towards being a mother (or a combination of both) is unclear. Her relationship with the other child is a reaction against (and comparison to) her difficult relationship with Kevin. Franklin is not really overindulgent, I suppose, though his behaviour is. He reacts to his son almost entirely AS his son (a kind of mini me), not as an individual with his own personality, and his son reacts against this too. He's not interested enough in Kevin as a person to see past the act. And he is as narcissistic in his own way as the mother - his wife and son are extensions of himself and his successful life. Yes, hysterical denial is probably at the root of his behaviour - you're right.

Sorry for being so longwinded there.

Pavlov's Cat said...

"the audience views of the parents differed wildly - a testament to the skill of the writer, I think, and the success of the 'unreliable narrator'."

Exactly. It's one of the main reasons why it is such a good book, just at the level of technique.

And at the level of technique-being-put-to-the-service-of-meaning, what's being silently "said" by her unreliability is that no-one (in the real world of readers and author, I mean) can ever know what the 'correct' view of the family situation is, or what the 'right' thing is to do: that there is no one correct view and no one right thing.

CelloBella said...

I wanted her to leave him oh how I wanted her to just leave. But. She's his mother. And therein lies the blessing and curse of motherhood.

Ariel said...

Absolutely agreed.

Mikhela said...

I too thought the book was completely engrossing (some time ago so not so clear to me now) - except Kevin's change of heart at the end didn't ring true for me. Interesting ponderings about nature/nurture - was Kevin just born that way or was he made? I saw Shriver speak also - she struck me as a prickly character.

lucy tartan said...

Bought a copy on the way home. Think I'll go read it now.

genevieve said...

First unreliable narrator I ever encountered was Nick Carraway. They're a useful lot, but hard to use well.
Most of the response to this book worldwide has split pretty much down the middle, as here. Me to read also.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, Pav, but the record for always being behind everyone else belongs to me.
I mean, look how long it took me to get a comment onto this thread.
I've been meaning to read it since it came out, too. Your review has further tickled my curiosity bone.

Having a child you don't like must be hell. I know several people who have no relationship with, and dislike, their parents. I think that's incredibly sad. I would hate that to happen to me - but i'm sure nobody plans it.

Cast Iron Balcony

susoz said...

I read it not long ago and wrote about it here (click on my name):
I read it in my reading group and we all agreed it was a tour de force but we also all agreed that through reading it we disliked Shriver and I know that can be a dodgy thing to say but I'm sticking by it. I also think that, literarily-speaking, she could have produced a stronger book if she hadn't opted for schlock-horror at the end.

GoAwayPlease said...

The reviews I scanned from a Google-ing, said it was 'harrowing' so I will pass on Talking About Kevin (excellent name for an anti-hero though - are there any nice Kevins?).

My mother and myself enjoyed our mutual dissatisfaction with each other.
I am ambivalent about my 33 year-old daughter
(whose upbringing was the opposite of my own in every way) ,
and she cannot speak civilly to me.
Without being a mother herself, Lionel Shriver has nailed the Mother's natural "it must be MY fault" approach.
Whenever I have read of horrific crimes,
(Cobby killers, and this week - the teens who recorded their gang rape on their mobiles) my first thought is of The Mother Of The Perpetrator, not always with empathy, but more the "let's see the bloody parents who brought up this creep"