Wednesday, 26 October 2011

We Need to talk About Kevin's Dirty Protests

We Need to talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is not a book that you would recommend to pregnant mothers and/or their partners. Despite its disturbing subject matter, it is not a difficult book to read. But at times its ambiguities make one ponder and reflect.

The book plays on anxieties that parents may have about their role and influence. It raises questions about their ability to shape their child's upbringing towards forming a happy and well-integrated child. Kevin moves from shitty protest to sociopath; his parents shift from aspiration to despair. The narrative of massacres in public places is now all too familiar, but still not well understood, if indeed it is comprehensible to understand massacre beyond the notion of  A Singularity of Evil and Celebrity Seeking Media Event.

I've not yet seen the film but the book is best described as grotesque, harrowing, and ambiguous. Recent British reviews have suggested that the film is presented in the horror genre. For me the book is more of a psychological thriller and possibly a political allegory.

Reviewing the book for The Guardian in 2003, Sarah A Smith noted a tendency to exaggeration that works against a more realistic approach and a more credible explanatory model.

Shriver isn't writing about ordinary motherhood or an ordinary boy, however, and this is where the novel begins to feel dishonest. Kevin is a monster, a gross caricature of childhood.[...] By linking motherhood's most ordinary fears to this cartoon horror, Shriver exploits parents' very worst thoughts - that somehow, despite their best efforts, their offspring will turn out to be sociopathic - while undermining them with the implication that really, raising a mass murderer is just one of those things, much like mastitis.

We Need to talk About Kevin was described by The Daily Mail as a novel that

Knocks you sideways and takes your breath away ... horrifying, original, witty, brave and deliberately provocative.

The Daily Telegraph suggested that

This superb, may layered novel intelligently weighs the culpability of parental nurture against the nightmarish possibilities of an innately evil child.

What intrigued me was the mother's more sympathetic moments of comprehension that shift the moral judgment into more questionable zones.

But underneath the fury, I was astonished to discover, lay a carpet of despair. He wasn't mad. he was sad. (280)

She is also honest about her role as domestic violator / victim / perpetrator

... the additional humiliation of living, for over six years now, up to my elbows in shit (228)

I threw him halfway across the nursery. (229)

I had committed a war-crime (237) 

In a world so dominated by evil and wickedness the only thing that surprizes are the 'unremembered acts of human kindness' that the Romantic poet William Wordsworth managed to summon up as the true pulse of poetry and life.

But the reality for our world is more bleak. Our minds are now accommodated to monstrous acts of torture, massacre and war; as Kevin's mother admits

Holocausts do not amaze me. [...] Kevin does not amaze me. (250)

The problems of toilet training and associated psychological damage have been well documented. But one also recalls the politics of the dirty protests, such as those that occurred during the Dirty Protests of the IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland.

Why Kevin is protesting we don't discover, but the political dimension is a nagging question that the novel hints at but never fully exposes

I gather that you can make bombs, for example, out of methanating manure. For his part, Kevin, too, ran a seat-of-the-pants operation, and Kevin too, had learned to form a weapon from shit. (223)

Perhaps most shocking then is the sense that the family is presented as a site of struggle and power. If we are to believe the mother's account, the evil family is a microsm of the larger wickendness that defines our political world:

The crude truth is that parents are like governments: We maintain our authority through the threat, overt or implicit, of physical force.  (239)

More shocking still is the sense that Kevin's nihilism is a critique of American education, society and politics. In a curious twist of irony he shifts in his friend Lenny's eyes from being the Resident Evil to Redeeming Messiah:

You took the heat like some superhero, like --- like you was Jesus. (314)

Kevin is less of a caricature and more of a contradiction. Massacre is grotesque territory in deed.


  1. We Need to Talk About Kevin scoops top prize at London film festival

    Lynne Ramsay's drama starring Tilda Swinton fights off opposition from a strong shortlist to win best film at ceremony

  2. Belinda Morrissey has written a paper published in a book called "The Monstrous Identity of Humanity" edited by Marlin C. Bates, IV called 'Killing “Just For Fun”: Amoral Monsters'

  3. Newtown Massacre: I'm really not convinced that the news causes such events, or glorifies their killers. But there is a 'documentary' and a film industry that memorialises and sensationlises violence in many ways.

    That said, society is actually far more horrific than our media representations of it. If we actually saw the full horrors of war we might not support the politicians who are so swift to wage violence. But most TV is in fact a poisoned flow of bland soporific nonsense; it's a lethe-drug of evasion, light entertainment and numb forgetfulness. That is the real crime against our potential for enlightenment and respectful progresion.

    But perhaps more controversial is the glorification of violent children's games that re-wire the brain? But even here I'm not sure.