Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

We need to talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver in interview

While the book has been both a critical and commercial success in the United States, reaction, to date, has been even more positive in places like the UK and Canada. Perhaps there’s an element of anti-Americanism or Bush-bashing linked with this? Indeed, in interview discussing the Booker prize win of Vernon God Little, Shriver herself suggested there might have been more than a little political bias inherent in the decision. “The novel’s take on the US is quite critical – she admits, before adding the important caveat – it’s also critical of snooty ex-pats like Eva–and a certain someone?–who think they’re better than their countrymen just because they run the nation of their birth into the ground. That may make it easier going for non-Americans, who aren’t going to take the digs personally.”

The novel is written in an epistolary form, with Eva, the narrator, writing to her husband Franklin, trying to make sense of what her son has done, and what part she plays in it. The form is a common one, and its familiarity makes for an easy introduction into the novel. At the same time, though, while readers are familiar with the form, and accept its structure, often that structure itself can grate on one’s nerves. To sustain it, successfully, over the length of a substantial book it requires, I suggest, a considerable skill. “The epistolary format is misleading”, responds Shriver, deftly destroying the thread of my question. “That is, – she continues, – the ‘letters’ are thinly disguised bog-standard chapters. My first draft did use the second person, and the narrator addressed herself directly to her husband Franklin. In my subsequent draft, I decided to literalize these appeals (the decision suited my evil manipulative purposes), though making the chapters ‘letters’ entailed little more than adding ‘Dear Franklin’ at the beginning and ‘Love, Eva’ at the end. In other words, the epistolary conceit is decorative. Underneath it all, KEVIN is a traditionally structured narrative: a story told in chronological order, from the perspective of a point in the future. Thus the only thing that made the book ‘difficult to sustain’ was that I wanted to tell the story in some detail, and with fitting complexity, which meant (since I’m not a writer ever at a loss for words, to put it kindly) it would be long.”

While the epistolary format might be merely decorative, the novel exploits another venerable narrative tradition, that of the unreliable narrator. Whereas in novels like The Good Soldier [Ford Maddox Ford Novel (1915)], one of the finest examples of the technique, the narrator is someone who is gullible, optimistic and unable to believe the wrongdoing of characters around him, Shriver’s novel twists the concept around. Her narrator is far from stupid or gullible. She sees the faults of her own son clearly, or so it would seem. She presents a new form of unreliable narrator, replacing foolish optimism with hard-edged cynicism.”Eva is not reliable, – Lionel agrees, – though she is telling the truth as she understands it. She’s trying to be honest, but that is not the same thing as telling the ob
jective truth. She is inevitably self-justifying, and selects stories from Kevin’s upbringing that damn him. Moreover, if you look at the stories from his early childhood, they are very mild. E.g., can you really blame him for that kindergartner scratching open her eczema? But the way she tells the story, he seems like a wicked enticer. I mean her version of events to be suspect, but suspect in the way that everyone’s version of events is suspect.”

In an interview with Identity Theory magazine, Shriver mentioned that her next book will be one without a villain, after We need to talk about Kevin where everyone is tainted. It’s interesting that she would say that all the characters are tainted. I found myself rooting for Eva from very early on, though she is certainly tainted – but in the context of the story she seems to have the most reason (keeping in mind the notion of the unreliable narrator). When writing the book, did Shriver’s sympathy fall with her as a character, or was she conscious that to make an emotionally complex story that faults had to exist in her? “I was always sympathetic with Eva, – she confesses, – though I understand when some readers can’t stand her. I think that the book still works if you take a scunner to her, but that it’s more pleasurable to read if you can stay at least marginally on side with the narrator. OK, she’s not entirely a nice person. On the other hand, she’s up front about not being nice, and willing to put forward parts of herself that most people would keep secret, and I find that kind of candor redemptive.”

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