We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver
I have difficulty imagining that anyone who has read this book would honestly say that he enjoyed it. Lionel Shriver didn’t write We Need to Talk About Kevin for anything as frivolous as readers’ enjoyment; her purpose was much greater. In fact, We Need to Talk About Kevin is painful, disturbing, and literally gut-wrenching: I could only read it in small gulps and continue to be affected by the emotional trauma of its final chapters.
But I cannot recall the last time I read a more important novel or one that expected so much of me at a human (and humane) level. If the reader is willing to allow the author inside to fiddle around with whatever concepts he or she may have of morality, justice, guilt, and parental responsibility in the face of the heinous acts of violence that have become as commonplace (and, in some ways, as remote) as typhoons in the western Pacific, be warned that Shriver leaves marks.
To say Shriver is articulate and eloquent is almost to damn her with faint praise; We Need to Talk About Kevin is a masterwork of language, at the level of word choice and sentence structure, certainly, but also in Shriver’s ability to sense when terse aphorism is appropriate and when nothing less than the lush, graphic, deliberate inducement of pain will do. Of certain books I’ve sometimes said, damningly, that they are more interesting to talk about than to read; this one is engrossing to read and demands to be talked about. I’d go so far as to recommend that you read it with a friend or as part of a book group: Afterwards, you will want to talk, if only for catharsis, if only to try to realign your certainties.
At a time in our cultural (de)evolution when complex moral questions are repeatedly reduced to stick-figure epigrams and when the intellectual capacity to contain paradox has very nearly become vestigial, Shriver asks the reader to reanimate his ability to sit still and contemplate the depths of human emotional entanglement, to tolerate appalling contradiction. I happened to read this book just a few weeks after the shooting tragedy in Aurora, Colorado and directly after the massacre at the Sikh temple in Oak Grove, WI. The media – and the curse/blessing of social media – are still falling all over their own feet to pose (and then to answer, in 30-second sound bites) the question: Why? If you’re satisfied with bromides like “violent video games,” “lowered moral standards,” “access to guns,” or “atheism,” do not read this book. It contains nothing that will make you feel better. To Shriver’s eternal credit, making us feel better was the last thing she had in mind.