Archive for June 19, 2007

We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

The Bookgroupers are a very loud bunch. WE always seem to need to talk about something and this time we needed to talk about…..

…religion – well not really, we do that all the time.

…..politics? nope, we do that to.

…cant be sex, we did that last bookgroup

no none of those things, what we really needed to talk about was KEVIN.

what can we say about kevin? hmmm. seems he might be a little bit difficult. on the other hand he might be completely normal if you believe his dad, or he might be the antichrist if you believe his mother, in whose voice the book is written. its a little unclear. like his sister’s eyesight. its a little unclear, after kevin may or may not have poked her eye out.

so as we cant establish whether he is or is not normal, or possibly evil even, maybe it would be better if we talked about whose fault it is.

excellent, because clearly whatever is or is not wrong with kevin, its the parents fault, because it always is. so lets talk about where they went wrong….

well actually, this is a little unclear also. unlike his aim with a bow and arrow, which seems uncannily sharp and accurate, its not entirely clear that the parents are really responsible for the ‘incident’.

so what can we say at the end of the day?. well we can say that every bookgrouper that got thru the book used the word ‘rewarding’ a lot. it seems it was definitely worth reading for those that got through it, and that was the majority.

and we can also say that it stimulates a lot of interesting thoughts and talk on issues of nature v nuture, parental responsibility v individual responsibility and whether love, care, morality, altruism are learnt as children through the rewards and consequences that flow from behaviours, or whether they are learnt as ‘values’, or whether they are somehow innate, in most of us at least?

hmmm. maybe we should go back to talking about kevin. yes lets. do you think he really was evil?

i’ve got a better idea – read the following account of the book by don, its much more coherent.

I enjoyed the read immensely. For the most part I found the author’s quality and depth of reflective observation very engaging and often found myself stopping reading and just thinking for a while about what she had said. She had the capacity to treat a subject with a sense of nakedness; happy to trot out thoughts or confessions that would normally be considered taboo – that made me rethink ideas of self and selfishness. The last hundred pages moved at a rolling pace and I whizzed through them at speed as the denouement approached. I never saw the twist at the end coming particularly because early on Celia is referred to as being ‘with you’ meaning ‘with Franklin’. I didn’t realise this also meant ‘with the good lord’.

Major themes: Selfishness v honesty. Politeness v pretence. Optimism v Ugly realities.
I become aware at times of how much I focus upon what I want people to see in me rather than who I actually am. In fact I can sometimes spend as much time, if not more, hiding myself from people rather than revealing myself. The quality of hate is a good example here. Most people find hate an anti-social and undesirable element in our, or in fact in anyone’s, personality. But hate is most likely present in everyone’s nature – some of us are better at hiding it or repressing it. Being social requires limiting or even suppressing entirely our feelings of hate toward others. But if you actually do hate someone, or some function of society, what is the trade off between expression and repression? I think Kevin abhorred pretence. He had never seen any merit in it. He never developed a capacity to exhibit pretence except in cold clinical and deeply cynical ways – never optimistically as a means by which one could ‘jolly along’ a situation that might have otherwise appeared more dark or desperate. The reason Eva was spared the same fate as Franklin and Celia was because Kevin knew that she at least saw through him and would limit her pretending that he was anything other than who he was. Kevin knew how to hate – he hated everyone who pretended to be something they were not – which as it turns out was nearly everybody. We didn’t really appreciate it during most of the book but it seemed he hated his father more than anyone else. He even had hate for Celia, who exhibited her pretence more naively than consciously. When he looked at Eva he saw her thinly veiled hate for him, and I think he respected it because it was truthful.

Fundamentally though Kevin never recognised anything that he might value in life, and thereby assumed that there was actually nothing to value, so anyone who appeared to value something was ‘faking it’ and deserved to be despised…or actually annihilated because they were propagating the great lie of life and the myth that life could be meaningful. In the absence of meaning and value life or death could be interchanged. He kept talking about the killings as ‘doing people (both those killed and those left alive) a favour’ by which I think he meant that in his opinion the living had to wake up from their lives of delusion and the best way he knew to do this was to shock them into asking the biggest ‘why’ question of their lives. As for the dead – they were chosen to take the brunt of the punishment that he would rather have meted out to the entire planet. In his mind they were good choices because they represented the greatest living examples of this offensive lie.

After Thursday life could no longer be experienced in a shallow manner. True enough, but nor could it ever be properly celebrated or even truly enjoyed again either, not for those whose lives were directly affected by his rampage. Kevin was convinced that in life there was fundamentally no such thing as actual value. And there was ample support for this position in the American media which celebrated something solely because it thought it could convince people it was worth celebrating. The value of what was being celebrated was actually irrelevant. McDonald’s does not want you to eat well and cheaply and to enjoy yourself at their outlets at all, despite their constant insistence that this is exactly what they want. They don’t actually give a shit about you. They just want you to part with your hard-earned cash. If you also end up enjoying yourself and saving a few bucks then that is merely coincidental. And most of the thrust of the modern advertising movement is the same. I remember that the first time I went to America I felt like notions of sincerity were more difficult to recognize, and therefore richer veins of cynicism were evident than I was used to in Australian culture. When the news was read on TV it was important that the reader gave the impression of being dismayed at the latest school shooting. Whether they actually were dismayed or not was entirely irrelevant. The impression was what was important because impression is a marketable quantity. Now of course things are much more similar in Oz, in many respects. At least we still have our ABC (touchwood).

Remember also that while Eva hated America, Kevin stood up for the country, particularly the country’s capacity to be belligerent. His reaction to Vietnam and Iraq showed that he saw some nihilistic comradeship in a conservative political agenda – something honest in a self-serving foreign agenda. He despised any acts of political conciliation. His rare praise was always reserved for those who exhibited great acts of selfishness and his strongest abuse was hurled at those (Eva included) who pretended that they were doing something for someone else’s best interest. He did not believe in the existence of genuine altruism.

Some things that I didn’t like so much:
I still find it strange that Kevin’s character was painted with such a black brush. Was this Lionel Shriver’s intention or Eva’s? Never did we see the briefest glimpse of compassion or empathy in his nature – even as a baby. He seemed demonic or evil from birth. The question is asked about which came first – the chicken or the egg – Kevin’s hatred for the world or Eva’s fear that she could not love him. I’m sure many mothers feel an enormous range of emotions when a baby is thrust onto their breast for the first time. I can’t believe that if the mother doesn’t fall in love with the child immediately she sets it on the path to psychopathology. Portrayed in this way, his personality became de-humanised and in my view this made it more difficult to see him as a real human character. Normally with the Hannibal Lector characters of fiction there is usually some reference to a confused childhood. Nothing confused about Kevin’s. Absolutely focused.

Also Franklin’s character. How could he fail to see any malevolence in Kevin when there was never really anything else present? Sure, Kevin saved his best acting performances for his ‘Gee Dad that’s swell!’ moments but could Franklin really have been that stupid or deluded. If so why was Eva so attracted to him? And why didn’t she challenge him more and more directly as the evidence mounted? It seemed to take far too long for their relationship to reach that point of contradiction.

Eva’s tendency to pontificate in a detached intellectual way bugged me at first until I began to realise that this was part of her personality and formed something of the central issue of her relationship with Kevin. She had lots of opinions about things but how often might they have been posturing? Kevin used to think all the time. We have the luxury of her reflections with the benefit of her hindsight and I think that we see some very heart-felt and agonizing self-truth alongside a little of this intellectual posturing.

Overall though I thought it was a great read, recommendable,


June 19, 2007 at 12:27 pm Leave a comment


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