Thursday, March 27, 2008

We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

My book club picked this book to discuss in April, and someone described it as "haunting." I have just finished it, and can only echo that description. It is "haunting," our very own Modern American Turn of the Screw.

The outline of the plot is a bit misleading. The book is a series of letters written by a woman in her fifties, Eva Katchadourian, to her husband Franklin. Their son Kevin is in prison for killing eight students, a teacher and a cafeteria worker in a Columbine like school shooting. This horrible act is revealed early in the book, and Eva continues to write while visiting her son twice a month in prison--all she is allowed to see him.

What the book is really about, though, is an examination of motherhood. Eva was a successful businesswoman, who had started a series of travel books on how to travel for the least amount of money. It had become very successful with the backpacking crowd, and she was satisfied with her life. She also was married to a wonderful man who she loved absolutely, although he was her opposite in almost every way. They had a wonderful marriage, from Eva's perspective, but the question of children kept arising as Eva entered her late thirties.

Eva is, at best, unsettled about whether she wants to have children. Franklin, her husband, is not. He is thoroughly happy about the prospect, and Eva allows herself to be persuaded: she describes the situation:

You wanted a child. I, on balance, did not. Between the two, we were ambivalent.

(N.B.--all quotes are paraphrases in this review. I can't seem to find the right pages to give actual quotes. I will flag any actual quotes from the novel, but you'd almost certainly pick them out, and Lionel Shriver is a very different writer than I am.)

She also confesses her fear of having a child. Despite making lists of the pros and cons, despite looking to her friends who already had children, despite arguing both sides of the question with Franklin, Eva is not fully convinced that she wants a child. But, she sees that Franklin has a hole in his soul that she does not fill. In the end, isn't this how those decisions get made--at least some of the time? He wanted a child, and she could give him one. All her reservations aside, she did it for him.

And it was bad--she hated being pregnant, she hated labor, she hated childbirth, and even after Kevin was born she could not find the magical bonding emotions she had heard about. She did not "fall in love" with her son, not at the hospital, not back at home. It was no easier that Kevin was a difficult baby--he screamed for hours without end, he refused to nurse, or eat. Eva ended up with mastitis on both sides, which hurts. Furthermore, she found herself falling--or more accurately pushed--into leaving her job to stay home with him.

I found this last part truly enraging: both Eva and Franklin were employed, although Eva's job with her travel publishing company was more lucrative and well-established. Franklin had a free-lance job where he scouted out locations for commercial shoots. His logic was that she could take time away from her job and it would still be there for her to go back to. She suspects, however, that if their positions were reversed, he's argue that he should keep working as the better earner and she would have still ended up staying at home.

Yet, it's not clear that she hates that result. She doesn't love it, that's for certain, but she doesn't seem to blame Franklin for seeing the world the way he does--that may be why she loves him. But she does not love being at home with Kevin. She sees malevolence in his beady eyes, opposition in his posture. To Eva it seems that even as an infant, Kevin is disappointed in the world and has no desire to be born at all.

This is a hard time to live through, the transition from being an adult to being a parent. An infant requires so much attention, so much care. Physical recovery from childbirth is slowed by sleep deprivation, and the entire experience is further disorienting by the loss of your former identity. Eva used to be a traveller, a writer, a businesswoman, a wife. Now she is a diaper changer, a prisoner in a screaming baby, a social recluse without adult interaction until her husband comes home. Yet, when he comes home, he is absorbed by the baby and mostly ignores Eva.

And we see the poison seep into the picture. Eva has her experiences of Kevin, which are irreconcilably the opposite of Franklin's. Kevin does not scream when Franklin is home, to start with, and as Kevin gets older the pattern continues. Franklin sees a normal, if testy, child, where Eva sees an opponent. And the wedge starts to separate the adults from one another. Franklin cannot accept Eva's experiences as real, and before long, the family has devolved into Franklin and Kevin against Eva.

These scenes are written with an aching understanding of the sadness of such a divide. Parents are famously cliched for announcing that they will not let their children come between them, but that they will stand united for the child's own good. And yet--imagine the scene through Franklin's eyes. He comes home to a quiet child and a hysterical wife. The baby is asleep in the crib, and the wife is wild-eyed with pent-up grievances which she blames on the obviously helpless infant. The consequence of taking Eva's word for what has happened is to abandon a defenseless creature to the rage and hate of an angry woman. Who could leave their child unprotected in those circumstances? So Franklin tries to soothe Eva, to give her some perspective, to downplay her drama.

But isn't this one of reasons having children is so hard on a marriage? Sure, as two educated adults, you and your spouse may have different opinions on any number of topics: you can agree to disagree on politics, music, religion, any number of things. But a child is so important: you simply cannot have two different ways of raising a child--it's just wrong. And so the baby drives a wedge between the two parents, and that wedge never closes for Eva and Franklin. It just gets larger and deeper.

Things deteriorate further when Franklin buys a new house. Eva, of course, loved living in New York, and had no desire to move to the suburbs. Franklin overruled her; she saw the logic in such a move, although she still didn't want to move. Then he bought a house while she was out of the country, and she hated it on sight. It was the opposite of everything she wanted in a house. What she wanted was an old, rambly Victorian, with a large porch, and cozy and slightly overcrowded rooms. What Franklin bought was a stark, modern, open plan house--Eva was horrified that there seemed to be no doors. None of the rooms was square, but all were canted, or slightly raised or lowered from the ones around them. She wanted a home in which she could be cocooned with her family--impossible with the enormous windows that seemed to bring the whole world inside. Again, Eva's reality is dismissed, unacknowledged, unaccepted. Yet, she still claims that she loves Franklin, even as her letters again and again document how he silenced her in so many ways throughout their lives together.

When Kevin is eight, Eva realizes that she wants another child. Franklin is adamantly opposed: she already has complained and hated everything about having Kevin. Why in God's name would she want to do it again? But Eva needs to answer a question about herself, about her own soul. She believes that she is capable of loving a child, just not the specific child she has: just not Kevin.

So Celia is born, the opposite of her brother--she is small, timid, desperate to please. She clings to her mother, is self-effacing to the point of being vulnerable to any number of injuries. And she adores her brother, who is growing into a sociopath, if his mother is to be believed. Either Celia is perfectly made to be her brother's prey, or she is a whiny and clingy phobic child who is irritating beyond belief to her brother. But Eva is happy with her daughter, and the family is now "even"--the two males against the two females. Which is no way to be a family, really.

Then came Celia's "accident." Eva bought her an elephant shrew for Christmas, and one evening after dinner it mysteriously escaped when the door to the cage was left open. Celia blamed herself because Kevin told her it was her fault. Eva had her doubts. Two days later, a mysterious clog in the bathroom drain--which Eva treated with Liquid Plumbr. Two days after that, while Kevin was being taught responsibility by babysitting his sister, she ended up in the emergency room with acid burns on her face. The doctors could not save her eye. Kevin had flushed her eye and face with water and then called for an ambulance before calling his parents.

Celia had to stay in the hospital for several days. Franklin couldn't keep silent. "Eva," (I'm paraphrasing again) "how could you leave that drain cleaner out where Celia could reach it?" Eva is certain she didn't--she distinctly remembers returning the bottle to the highest shelf on the locked cupboard. Celia couldn't reach it herself; Celia couldn't open the childproof lock; Celia was scared of the bathroom and would never have gone in by herself to play.

Franklin is appalled; Eva is supposed to be an adult, a parent, for God's sake, and she can't take responsibility for her actions? She blames Kevin? He's the one who flushed out the acid, who called for help and got her to the hospital. He was a hero--remaining calm in a crisis and behaving admirably. Eva has got to take responsibility here! Plus, she needs to reassure Kevin that the accident was not his fault.

Again, Shriver crafts a scene of almost unbearable marital discomfort. How can Eva still believe in her marriage when Franklin treats her like a misbehaving nine year old? "There was something you wanted to say to Kevin, right Eva? The thing you told me in the car?" "There was something more--that Kevin shouldn't feel. . .?" But Eva certainly does feel that Kevin is at fault, and that he should feel guilty because he is guilty.

Things come to a head when one of Kevin's teachers is accused of an unspecified "impropriety." Franklin asks Kevin about it, and Kevin maneuvers to talk to his father outside Eva's earshot. In the end, the teacher loses her position, but cannot be fired because nothing was substantiated. Eva confronts Franklin with her conviction that Kevin lied about the entire thing, and Franklin suddenly collapses. Even he can see the marriage is over. They no longer inhabit the same reality, and there is no longer any way to bridge the gap. They will try to survive until the end of the school year, and then make arrangements over the summer. They both know there will be no difficulty about custody--Franklin will get Kevin, and Eva will get Celia.

Things don't end up that way, because Kevin starts the shooting on April 8, three days before his 16th birthday. We are not surprised by this--the leitmotif of school shootings has shot through the last third of the book, and we know that Kevin has killed the students. There is never any question of the fact that he had done it--Eva doesn't once deny his guilt. We have seen bits of the criminal trial, of Eva's visits to Kevin in prison, of the civil suit against Eva for parental neglect, brought by the parents of one of the murdered students. We learn that she has had to sell her business and now works as a travel agent, most often taking phone calls in the back room, disguising her notoriety.

It is only in the last fifty pages or so that we learn the true facts. STOP READING RIGHT NOW IF YOU HAVE NOT FINISHED THIS BOOK!!

Are you still here? Have you finished the book? No?


Okay, now that only us book-finishers are left, let's talk about the ending. Kevin didn't just kill 10 people at school; he didn't just show up one day and start shooting haphazardly. He systematically assembled the people who most annoyed him, as well as the one teacher who had some insight into him and hope for his future. He had forged letters on school letterhead, inviting these particular people to a meeting the gym to plan for an assembly presentation for the new "Bright and Shining" award to be presented to these "very special" students, and Ms. Rocco was to be their advisor. The meeting was set for inside the school gym, a stand alone building at the school, a three minute walk from the main building. Once his victims were inside, he systematically locked all the doors with Kryptonite bicycle locks, then opened fire with a crossbow his father had given him for Christmas. Only two of the victims were killed by the arrows; the rest bled to death. It took almost three hours for anyone to discover the scene and then to break through the Kryptonite locks. Kevin just waited.

Eva learns about the shooting at work--her employees had seen the early news on the internet, and knew Kevin went to that school. She arrived to see an endless parade of gurneys being rolled out to ambulances, and her son being lead, handcuffed, to the police car.

The story got worse. She returned to a dark and empty house, with Franklin's truck in the garage. When she turned on the floodlights to the backyard, she found poor little Celia pinned to the archery target--dead with five arrows stuck into her. Franklin was also dead, an arrow through his neck, never having made it all the way to the ridge where Celia stood.

In the entirety of the book--in all her writing to him--Eva never let on that Franklin was dead. I certainly assumed that he had left after the shooting, taking Celia with him, leaving Eva to wear her hair shirt and visit Kevin alone. In the snippets of trial we see throughout the book, and even in the hatred directed at her by the parents of the victims, Eva never stoops to curry sympathy by reminding anyone that she is also one of Kevin's victims. He killed her daughter too, and her husband. That fact sometimes "got lost in the shuffle," as Eva says.

There is something that rings true to her, though, when people blame the child's violence on the mother. Perhaps, she fears, she had something to do with creating the horror that was Kevin. She went through the motions of being a devoted mother--she made the cookies, as she says--but she never really wanted to, and perhaps it was that coldness, that falseness, that made Kevin what he was. Why did Kevin kill Franklin and not her? Perhaps he admired her as an adversary after all, and despised Franklin for being duped into believing Kevin was as normal as he pretended to be.

In the end, there is a small movement out of the horror. On Kevin's 18th birthday, Eva is allowed to see him. He knows he will be transferred out of the juvenile facility, and he seems somehow more childlike than ever before, even when he was a child. He seems unsure of himself, and perhaps a little frightened. Eva steels herself to finally ask him "Why?" Why did he do it? Was it her fault? In the past, he has mocked her sense of guilt: "Why should you get all the credit." This time, he is different. He is tired. He says "I used to think I knew why, but now I am not so sure."

There is no way to know what the next 5 years of adult prison will do to him; no way to know who will come out at the end of that sentence. There is a small ray of hope that he will become somebody different than who he has been. Perhaps there is a future for Kevin Katchadourian. Perhaps there is a future for Eva, who realizes that after everything, she is just to tired to keep fighting--that she will love her son because she no longer has the strength not to. This ending gave me the chills.

One has to wonder, however, how much we can trust Eva as a narrator of the facts. I called this an American Turn of the Screw and I meant it. Eva does make mistakes--there was an incident where Kevin was brought home by the cops for throwing rocks at cars off an overpass. He admitted it to the police, but "explained" to his father that it was really his creepy friend who threw the rocks. Kevin just admitted to it because his friend had already been busted for something else and would have been arrested, but Kevin's record was clear so he took the blame. Eva refused to believe Kevin wasn't guilty, until subsequent events made it clear that in this case he had told the truth.

There is a strong hint of displaced anger as well. Time after time, Eva is subsumed--overridden, really--by Franklin. He gets her to stop travelling, to leave her job, to move to the suburbs, to live in a house she hates, to have the child she is unwilling to have. Yet Eva never blames Franklin--in fact, several times she goes out of her way to be understanding. I am certain a Freudian would have a field day dissecting how her legitimate anger at her husband might be twisted into resentment against her son. How trustworthy a narrator is she, after all? How many of the "facts" she relates are her own twisted understanding--informed by her resentment at having a child at all? Who can ever know?

This book was beautifully written, and carefully and precisely observed. Eva Katchadourian is not an entirely likable character, but she is certainly human, and did not "deserve" what happened to her. As such, she is a compelling character, illustrating how we are all vulnerable to things that we never expected to happen.

I highly recommend this book--it is an excellent read, although a dark one that should probably be avoided by anyone not willing to face human failings. This is easily one of the best books I have read in the last year, and would certainly be on my own Top Ten Reads for 2008.

ON EDIT: After posting this, I have been unable to shake a comment my daughters (formidable middle school neuropsychologists that they are) have repeated--that brain development continues past puberty, up to an average age of 21 for females, and 25 for males. Given Kevin's confusion as he turns 18 about why he did what he did, perhaps the book again fools us into asking the wrong question. It is not "How did he become a person who could do that?" because that requires us to assume that is personality had formed. Instead, we are offered a tantalizing glimpse into what happens when a brain develops erratically--too slowly in some areas, and too quickly in others. Perhaps a better question should be "can we try someone as an adult whose brain has not fully developed?"

If Kevin still has the same brain he had as an infant--angry, uncontrolled, incapable of empathy--then maybe his talents outran his emotional maturity, and he is only now--after 2 years in juvenile detention and turning 18--beginning to develop new parts of his brain. Sadly, this maturation will happen in a far from nurturing setting. It is not a case of nature vs. nurture alone, but nature + nuture + brain development delay.

Writ large, and melodramatically, this is the same problem as "Doogie Howser, M.D." The intellect outstrips the emotional and social development, leading to anomalous outcomes. It makes the book yet more intriguing for me to contemplate.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

How Starbucks Saved My Life, by Michael Gates Gill

Two word review: Don't bother.

Ostensibly the story of a high-flying advertising exec who lost his job and his family at 50, but found redemption in work and service, this is actually the most cynical and saccharine of "self help" books.

The author is the son of a quasi-famous editor of the New Yorker, and as such lived a live of insulated privilege with access to other famous people. Sent to Yale, upon graduation he is tipped to the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency by a school chum, and then hired by a Yale alum. Fired by the company once in his fifties, he forgoes an age discrimination suit in return for favorable references and job feeds for his own consulting company. Ten years later, the work has dried up, and he finds himself at 64 working at Starbucks.

To say this guy is arrogant and a gasbag is only the start. He is a hopelessly gauche name dropper, wedging in anecdotes of his encounters with famous people wherever he can, despite their being utterly disconnected with the story. Sure, you met Jackie Onassis, and Ernest Hemingway, etc. etc. You are still a bore. A boor, as well.

Next, the "lessons" he learns are at least 50 years behind the zeitgeist. Black people can be articulate! Walmart is a retail store! Some people graduate from college, but don't get cushy jobs through the Old Boys' Network! Did you know that your salary at Starbucks doesn't really mean you can charge all your dinners at the Oyster Bar? Who knew?

The aura of privilege is never convincingly eliminated either. One of the first questions Gill addresses is whether he could work for a African-American woman manager. Of course he can! Didn't he love his Old Black Mammy who was the family cook back in the day? Just like those old days back at the plantation--he was all but raised by Hattie McDaniel, until his parents fired her for being too old to get up the stairs of the four story townhouse. So, he's no racist!

He offers a number of war stories about his days as a Creative Director for J. Walter Thompson (oh, did he mention that he worked at J. Walter Thompson? Only about a million times), and frankly one leaves with the impression that he was fired because he wasn't very good or creative. When introducing a meeting with a client over changing the name of a company, he brings along a bat and a ball. While mouthing some pablum along the lines of "This new name will be a home run!" (I know--cliched at best), he tosses up the ball and swings. And the elderly owner of the company has to throw himself out of his chair to avoid being brained.

And this is presented as a GOOD idea.

The book is subtitled "A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everybody Else." We are treated to a lot about being born to privilege, and having lived most of his live in privilege, and at the end of the book, we discover that he remains privileged. In the acknowledgements at the end, he thanks someone for getting him a literary agent on the title of the book alone. School ties, anyone? It looks like he got the book deal before writing the book, and then sold the movie rights to Tom Hanks, while being represented by CAA. Sure--"everybody else" gets a CAA brokered movie deal before writing their book, don't they?

Oh, you mean they don't?

I guess Gill is just to privileged to know about that.

This is not a man made more human through suffering--this is a man still riding on the crest of the wave of privilege, proving once again, it's not what you know, it's who you know, and the "whos" that Michael Gates Gill knows are powerful enough for him to coast back into prosperity while other, better writers don't.