Friday, January 14, 2011
In this epistolary novel, Eva Katchadourian is writing a series of letters to her husband Franklin after the horror of her teenage son's violent massacre of several high school classmates. Reaching into the past, Eva chronicles, in a series of lucid and disturbing flashbacks, the evolution of a wealthy yuppie couple who are deciding if they want to have a child. Eva is a jet-setter, constantly traveling the world in order to research accommodations for a series of travel books she publishes, while Franklin is a scenic location scout working in marketing. Though they both do want a child, it's for very different reasons, and though Franklin is enthused with the idea, Eva harbors reservations about what having a child will do to her marriage and her sense of independence. When Kevin is born, it's clear to Eva, if not Franklin, that something is very wrong with him. Able to scream furiously and ferociously for hours, Kevin proves to be a difficult infant who grows up to be a secretive, cold and calculating child. Though Eva readily admits that she may not be an award-winning mother and is often distant and emotionally unavailable with Kevin, as he grows older, he becomes what can only be described as a psychopath. Though Eva sees this, Franklin is unable to realize the type of maliciousness that Kevin harbors deep inside, and Eva's constant recrimination of the boy sets the couple on a very rocky path. The two are constantly at each other's throats over the boy and are destroying each other's lives, much to young Kevin's amusement. When Eva gets pregnant with a second child in order to prove to herself that she can be a good mother and to have another ally against Franklin and Kevin, the boy's wicked and brutal behavior begins to escalate to a frightening degree. All this culminates with the bloody rampage that Kevin meticulously plans at the high school gym, and to the reader's shock and horror, we discover the magnitude of what Eva lost that day. In this frightening and disconcerting novel, the reader witnesses the birth and adolescence of a killer who expertly manipulates the emotions of the family that surrounded him and tried so hard to nurture him.
This is a book I've been hearing very good things about for quite a long time, though I had thought it wouldn't be all that interesting to me for a lot of reasons. But as time went on and I heard more and more about it, I realized that perhaps I was missing something by letting this one go unread. Though I know this type of violence in schools is not only prevalent but important, I couldn't imagine wanting to read a book that centered around this topic. What I discovered is not only is Shriver a penetrating and arresting author, but that this story has more to do with the frightening daily evolution of a very damaged person than the violence he perpetrates. It was not only disquieting, but ultimately terrifying and chilling as well.
One of the most interesting things about the book was the fact that all of the characters were somewhat repellent to me for various reasons. Eva was cold and distant, not only to Kevin but in certain ways to her husband as well. She seemed very arrogant at times and was definitely elitist. At times I wondered how Kevin couldn't help but turn out as he did with a mother like Eva, but at the heart of it all, there was something very human about her that drew me to her. Although I didn't like her, I could understand her perfectly. Kevin was repugnant for obvious reasons. A brutal personality, a penchant for human discomfort and destruction even at the earliest stages, I not only hated him but he scared me. The ambivalence he showed towards human suffering, and indeed his creation of it in others, made my heart and stomach shrivel inside me, and as he grew he only became more and more malevolent. Franklin too was rather unlikable. He repeatedly stuck to the belief that Kevin was a normal boy, even when facts to the contrary were laid right out in front of them. The one thing I hated most about Franklin is he never gave his wife's worries about Kevin any credence, and indeed, even fought with her over her "mistaken feelings" about the boy. He did this in front of Kevin and even joined the boy in making fun of her at times, in a fruitless attempt to bond with the boy. The funny thing is, even though I hated all the characters, it didn't impede me from being connected to them or their stories, which speaks to Shriver's skill at spinning such an incredible yarn.
One thing that I would be very remiss if I didn't mention was the incredible fluid writing. Shriver's skill with words and ideas is striking and beautiful. At times I had to put the book down and marvel over her ability to tease out so much meaning from one simple sentence, and there were many passages that I read over and over again in a state of awe. The writing borders on the poetic, but not in a florid or showy way. Rather, there's an intrinsic power and force to her words, a building up of thoughts and ideas into a crescendo of unbearable tension and wicked loveliness that not only impressed me, but drew me further and further into the story she tells. It was odd to have such a inspired response to the writing when the story being told was one of violence, hatred and ambivalence. As I read on and became more and more invested in the world that Shriver was creating, I felt almost as if I was being pulled down a rabbit hole of deviance and defiance. The beauty and fluidity of the writing and the terror and horror of the subject matter certainly presented me with a dichotomy, but by melding these two elements so seamlessly, the tale almost takes on a life of its own.
It was hard to read about Kevin's growing obsession with other notorious teens who went on bloody rampages in their own schools. Kevin touted opinions and details on them all, and throughout the book, his behavior towards them took on some frightening aspects. It was clear he was attempting to emulate them, only Kevin, in his meticulous way, wanted to be better, to make it more of a challenge and to have a higher body count. I can only describe all this as chilling, and although Franklin and Eva both seemed to want to ignore Kevin's growing fascination with this alien subset of people, it stood out to me in alarming and potentially dangerous ways. Throughout the book, which is told in a series of flashbacks, Shriver embeds these stories within the story of the Katchadourian family, sharing the details of school massacres far and wide, the tally of bodies they yielded and what the eventual punitive outcome would be. I honestly had no idea this type of thing happened so frequently, and it almost put me in a stupor of fear. I mean, I have kids who are at this stage in life, and to think that one of their classmates might be capable of doing something like made me a bit panic stricken. Shriver most movingly explains, through her exposé on Kevin, how these types of things happen and just how the ones left behind react when the violence rains down.
This was my first read of the new year, and while I found it lyrically impressive and tautly suspenseful, I also found it made me quite nervous and upset. While I was reading it, I had some very confusing sensations of doom and I was altogether a little jumpy. It was a brilliant book, made more powerful and poignant by its skillful rendering and also by its relevance, but it was also very disturbing and could at times strongly graphic. It was a fantastic read, and one that I'll never forget, but I warn you that it's not for the faint of heart and those who are easily disconcerted may want to avoid this one. A very realistic depiction of a subject that needs to be addressed, but in that realism also comes unexpected terror.
Posted by Zibilee at 8:00 AM