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.