'We Need to Talk About Kevin': When Art Confronts Tragedy

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Harper Perennial

EDITOR'S NOTE: This post reveals important plot details about the book We Need to Talk About Kevin.

It's too soon after Jared Lee Loughner's massacre in Arizona to predict how our social and political climate will adapt to the horrifying fact of his attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' life. But as a barometer of how ready popular culture is to deal with another massacre, watchers might monitor the movie adaptation of Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin.

I hadn't read the novel until one of the commenters on my blog suggested the book as a test case for how our popular culture might adapt or shy away from the theme of assassination. And what a test case it is: I read the book in a single white-knuckled sitting. Told in a series of letters from a woman named Eva to her husband, Frederick, we know from the beginning that their son, Kevin, has murdered a number of his schoolmates, and that Eva has been sued by the mother of one of the victims and is living alone.

The book's brilliance—and its challenging nature—come from two key artistic decisions by Shriver. First, the novel exploits and forces us to acknowledge our greedy desire to see horrible things happen, as long as they don't happen to us. We know (or think we know) from the opening pages of the novel, that Kevin is a mass murderer. What makes the novel such propulsive reading is an impatience to get there, to actually see Kevin do the Bad Thing that we've been promised, against which all of his other ugly little misdeeds—from ruining his mother's newly wall-papered office, to cruelly mocking a girl at a school dance, and yes, to potentially causing his little sister to lose an eye—pale in comparison. Watching those murders happen seems for most of the book like it will merely be a dirty, vicarious thrill: after all, Eva is safe, she's writing to her estranged husband, who seems to have gotten custody of their daughter in the split.

But in the final pages of the novel, it turns out our assumption is wrong. Kevin killed his sister and his father, the members of his family who loved him best and knew him least, before leaving for school to butcher students and a teacher. Eva's letter-writing is an act of delusion, or therapy. Kevin is worse than we could have imagined. The moment is a shocking rebuke to our sense that we can watch and enjoy ugly things while staying at a careful remove from them.

The moment also dramatically rearranges our understanding of Eva. At the beginning of the novel, she is both personally and morally sympathetic, a bohemian travel guide writer deeply in love with her husband, and the person who sees her son for the sociopath that he is, the person who, if the warnings were heeded, would have saved lives, saved her daughter's eye. Perhaps she could have been a warmer mother to him—Shriver is unstinting in describing Eva's revulsion against a son who refused to breastfed, refused toilet training until he was six, who masturbates in semi-public simply to disturb her. Eva cannot conceal her hatred and fear of her son, even breaking six-year-old Kevin's arm in a fit of parental rage.

But the book also makes clear that Eva is able to see Kevin clearly because, ultimately, she is like him in her capacity for distrust and distaste. After he commits the murders, she finds herself unable to sympathize with the mother of one of Kevin's victims, who seems to believe that if she can find a way to punish Eva, her grief will ebb. There's an extent to which Eva comes to hate Franklin for his willful blindness, and her imagination of Franklin's surprise when he found that Kevin had murdered their daughter and was about to kill him is almost cruel in its superior understanding. Shortly after we learn that Kevin killed her husband and her daughter, we also learn that on his release from jail (he receives a seven-year sentence after successfully arguing that Prozac led him to commit the murders) Eva is planning to welcome him back home: his room even has a copy of the only book he liked as a child ready and waiting for him.

Eva is not an easy character to judge, and that's an appropriate difficulty in the kind of situation where we would be more comforted by easy explanations. It's easy to sympathize with and understand the agonized grief of parents who lose their children to cruel chance. But it's impossible to imagine the deranging grief and guilt that the parents of the killers must experience, though the statement from Seung-Hui Cho's family in the wake of his murders at Virginia Tech offers a hint of that vast ocean. Shriver, in the marvelous and terrible piece of clockwork that is her novel, has given us a character who is not guilty nor innocent of her son's atrocities, and forces us to linger in that uncomfortable ambiguity.

For all these reasons, it's a rich, powerful, original subject for a movie adaptation. And it has a potentially great cast. I'm not sure how I feel about John C. Reilly, often so great as an affable, blowsy clown, as the avatar of American masculinity Franklin is in the novel. But choosing the vanity-free master of female coldness (and, of course, many other emotions), Tilda Swinton as Eva is a stroke of brilliance, a suggestion that director Lynne Ramsay isn't seeking to soften the novel's conclusions by making Eva a more sympathetic character. It's unclear whether, in the wake of Jared Lee Loughner's killings, the movie will screen in American theaters: it's currently scheduled for a September 2 release in the UK.

We have precedent for the commercial timidity that might advent such a delay: the WB delayed airing "Earshot," an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer dealing with a school shooting that was initially set to air a week after the Columbine massacre for a full year, and initially preempted the season finale of the show because it showed students holding weapons. In neither case was the network's decision a good one. "Earshot" is ultimately a powerfully compassionate episode about teen suicide, and the finale, "Graduation Day," involves a fractured high school class taking up arms against an apocalyptic snake demon rather than each other. Delaying the episodes may have been sensitive, but the decisions also denied audiences nuanced portrayals of the shattering emotions surrounding school violence.

There is no good time, no moment when we are ready to share the parental grief and rage and horror at having raised sociopaths who kill other people. But if we're actually to embark on a wrenching national debate about mental health care and murder, we need art that can provide us with perspectives on the unimaginable.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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