Thursday, May 24, 2007

the last book I read

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

I have, in a very general sense, a bit of an aversion to doing what I'm told. In the literary arena this translates to a disinclination to read what Oprah's Book Club, Richard and Judy's Book Club, Mrs. O'Goebbels down the doctor's surgery, etc. tell me I should be reading, just because simply everyone's reading it, my dear. And another thing: book groups. I know a lot of people find them to be a useful spur to read regularly, as well as a handy social lubricant, but I can't imagine something I've less interest in than other people's opinions of a book. If I wanted to know what you thought of it, why would I bother reading it?

Anyway, the point is, this is, thanks to its slow-building word-of-mouth success and winning of the Orange Prize for fiction in 2005, a classic Book Group Book, which prejudices me, totally unreasonably, against reading it; basically the same impulse that prevented me reading Captain Corelli's Mandolin, though I stand by that decision unreservedly.

But, well, eventually it seemed intriguing enough for me to pick up; it being part of a 3 for 2 offer in Waterstone's and my receiving a £10 book token for my birthday were contributing factors as well. And, well, I have to say I was quite impressed.

Briefly (and I should point out that a few plot spoilers follow if you haven't read it, though it's a less plot-driven book than you might imagine), Eva Khatchadourian reflects on the life of her teenage son Kevin in a series of letters to her estranged husband Franklin; the reason for her reflection being that a few days before his sixteenth birthday Kevin killed seven of his fellow high-school students and two members of staff with a crossbow. Eva's visits to Kevin in prison punctuate the narrative flashbacks.

The crux of the plot is this: Eva never liked Kevin, and became convinced the feeling was mutual at the earliest possible stage when Kevin refused to latch on in the designated manner when she first attempted to breast-feed him. His father, Franklin, on the other hand, doted on him constantly. Eva became more and more convinced that Kevin's mediocre achievements at school despite his obvious high intelligence, the contrasting personalities he presented to her and his father, the petty humiliations he visited upon her (his refusal to accept potty-training until the age of six, his habit of masturbating within earshot, and indeed sight, of her in his teens) were evidence of an innately malignant and evil personality. Thus, in a way, the climactic massacre was pre-ordained at birth by Kevin's sociopathic personality.

The trouble is, of course, that Eva is the archetypal unreliable narrator, so we're invited to speculate how much to doubt her account of things, and therefore to consider the nature vs. nurture argument, i.e. is Kevin the way he is, and does the things he did, because of an innate evil, or did he start out as a blank slate and become poisoned by Eva's coldness and lack of love towards him? The narrative provides no firm answers.

There are a couple of late plot twists, the first of which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's been paying attention, the second offering just the hint of some possibility of redemption for both Eva and Kevin.

The continuing relevance of these considerations is emphasised by the fact of my reading this book a scant few weeks after the Virginia Tech massacre - there's much talk in the book of spree killers like Kevin having a bit of an internal copycat rivalry (Kevin scoffs at the amateurish antics of the Columbine killers, despite their trumping his overall death toll). Needless to say any analysis of the reasons for these regular murderous rampages has to touch on American gun laws (or the relative lack thereof), and sure enough they are insane. The question is, is criminalisation of gun possession (leave aside the undoubted fact that no US government would dare try it, despite the whole "right to bear arms" thing being based on a slightly squinty one-hand-over-the-eye reading of the Second Amendment anyway) likely to help? My view is, probably not: the cat's out of the bag now, and it's grown too big (not to mention heavily armed) to fit back in the bag. It's not just the guns anyway - Canada has a gun policy of broadly similar liberalism, but nothing like the gun-related death toll that the USA has. It's something to do with what Hunter S. Thompson called "that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character"; he was talking specifically about Richard Nixon, but there's a sense in which it's relevant to the whole country, particularly under the current administration.

Comparisons with gun law in the UK are interesting to some extent, but there's a limit, and there are certain practical reasons for this: one of the joys of the outdoor life in Britain, even in the wildest bits (the Scottish Highlands, Dartmoor, etc.) is that however harsh the terrain, you're not at any point going to get devoured by carnivorous animals, unless the frankly implausible Exmoor Beast stories turn out to be unexpectedly true. In America, well, certain parts of it at least, this (bears, cougars, wolves, etc.) is a very real possibility, if not for you personally then for your livestock. In these circumstances owning a great big gun starts to seem like a more necessary and practical proposition. None of which makes it sensible for suburb-dwellers to be sleeping with a semi-automatic under their pillow, just that there's slightly less distance to travel from reasonable possession to unreasonable possession than there is in this country.

Maybe Chris Rock is right and the answer is to give out guns willy-nilly (as happens at the moment, pretty much), but just to make bullets really, really expensive.


The Black Rabbit said...

"I can't imagine something I've less interest in, than other people's opinion of a book. If I wanted to know your opinion of a book, why would I read it?" (to quote you)

What makes you think that that attitude doesn't apply to visitors to your blog bate?

Or are your book reviews for your own personal records only - (like my BLUEGREY blog effectively)?

electrichalibut said...

I do enjoy these little sparring bouts. The cut and thrust of reasoned debate, the occasional judicious use of the word "wanker"; it's great.

Firstly, you make an very good and valid point.

Secondly....well, the existence of all these book groups shows fairly conclusively that the majority of people don't share my opinion. So I may be providing a valuable public service here. And to be fair I do read book reviews in the paper, but of course the difference is these are people who have an incentive and a responsibility (because they're being paid to do it, essentially) to be well-informed about their subject. Same as I'm interested in reading newspaper columns about, say, the Iraq war, but not particularly interested in canvassing the opinion of the bloke sitting next to me on the bus about it. Basically his chances of telling me something interesting correlate broadly to his chances of being cleverer than me, and my jaundiced assessment of that is that those odds aren't worth opening my mouth for.

To put it another way: do as I say, not as I do. Not to get all ubermensch-y about it, but: I know best, so do as you're told.

And I absolutely do write this blog for my own entertainment and no-one else's. It's the only way to maintain my artistic integrity, darling. And it's a licence to say "cock" whenever I like.

electrichalibut said...

And to be fair only half of that post was a book review. Get past that and you're into some splendidly pointless and inconclusive ramblings about guns.

The Black Rabbit said...

just fruggin give me the list of independent clues and I'll gerroff your case.
Capiche muchacho?

Anonymous said...

Can I just say quite sheepishly, that I like reading all book reviews (and even yours Mr Electric Halibut). Maybe that's because I'm stupid and I like Owen Meany.

The Black Rabbit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Black Rabbit said...

I remember us debating this point face to face before, re: people one doesn't know, saying something interesting to you.
You don't honestly think people with 'less intellectual ability' than your good self cannot possibly tell you anything remotely interesting about anything do you?! You can't, surely?! I'm sure you don't?!

Hmmm. I should consider myself quite chastised in that case (for obvious reasons) but I don't, because of course,
a) I don't believe you actually think that, and
b)if you do acually subscribe to that opinion, it goes without saying, (but I'll say it anyway), you are quite blindingly, catergorically wrong. But you know that deep down, don't you, schnooky-lumps?!

I certainly don't talk to everyone I meet, far from it, I'm hardly the most gregarious extrovert in the world now am I? I also share your opinion about most people's lack of intellect. However, I've had some incredibly interesting, (opinion changing (in one case at least*)) conversations about pretty well anything, with people I've met anywhere - on the street, in pubs, with taxi drivers,... anywhere really, and I dare say a lot of those people may have scored lower than me on an IQ test?!

Oh yeah, cock and wanker by the way.

* With an Afghan refugee in Euston once, who impressed me immensely with his generosity of spirit, fight, humour in spite of the most tragic of personal circumstances, selflessness and optimism if nothing else.

electrichalibut said...

I met an Afghan once. Lovely glossy coat, and a nice moist nose. He kept licking me, though.

Seriously (and my tongue was just edging gently yet insistently into my cheek in that previous comment, and indeed the post itself, but you already know that, of course) the one subject anyone is the acknowledged expert on is of course their own life. Unless they're a nutter, of course, and imagine they're Napoleon or something.

And maybe I'm just rationalising my semi-autistic inability to do small talk with strangers, which makes any occasion where you're expected to, like weddings, a bit of a trial, unless it's an occasion where it's socially acceptable to get pished, in which case that usually loosens me up a bit, oh yes.

I maintain that people are mostly idiots, though.