We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver (Paragraph One)

This is the first paragraph of We Need To Talk About Kevin:

November 8, 2000

Dear Franklin

I’m unsure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to write to you. But since we’ve been separated, I may most miss coming home to deliver the narrative curiosities of my day, the way a cat might lay mice at your feet: the small, humble offerings that couples proffer after foraging in separate backyards. Were you still installed in my kitchen, slathering crunchy peanut butter on Branola though it was almost time for dinner, I’d no sooner have put down the bags, one leaking a clear viscous drool, than this little story would come tumbling out, even before I chided that we’re having pasta tonight so would you please not eat that whole sandwich.

So, an individual is writing a letter to another individual (male).

The first sentence: OK, fair enough, sounds fine.

The second sentence … why is part of it in the present subjunctive when the rest is in the past (and imperfective subjunctive, and present)? Straight away the strange syntax trips up Obooki. The use of “may” seems to imply some kind of possibility based on the outcome of a future event (“If it clears up, I may go out”), and yet the stated event happened in the past. Is this just incredibly bad writing on the part of our author (Obooki’s view), or is the author in fact playing a very clever game in which her narrator’s sense of time has become so dislocated by the horrors she has had to live through that she is unable any longer to conceive of tenses in the correct sequence (an unlikely alternative)? Is she perhaps unable to accept that they are separated? Maybe it has not sunk in yet, and she is flipping back and forth between temporal realities?

And the cat/mouse analogy, and the whole foraging bit? What kind of person starts using such bizarrely literary, extended analogies in a letter to her husband, who – one presumes – doesn’t need to be told these things in the first place?

And why all these irrelevant details: “slathering crunchy peanut butter on Branola”, “one leaking a clear viscous drool”? Who on earth would put these in a letter?

And what’s with the bizarre usage of the word “chided”; usually it takes an object (as in, “I chided Kevin for his sociopathic tendencies, and he admitted he was wrong and told me he wouldn’t now kill any of his school-mates”)? (But perhaps that’s an Americanism).

Well, no need to read the rest of the novel. Based on that first sentence, I get why Kevin did it.

Obooki re-writes the passage:

November 8, 2000

Dear Franklin

I’m not sure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to write to you, but what I’ve missed most I think since we’ve been separated is to be able to come home and tell you these kinds of things.

OK, I did read a bit more.

More weird sentences:

In the early days, of course, my tales were exotic imports, from Lisbon, from Katmandu.

Surely this is further information your husband doesn’t need to be told.

Like those baubles the Japanese exchange – in a box in a bag, in a box in a bag – the sheen on my offerings from far afield was all packaging.

Who on earth repeats themselves like that when writing a letter?

“I’m the only Khatchadourian in New York state,” I flouted, and snatched my card back.

Now surely that, at least, must be a bit of authorial commentary on the narrator’s nature.

When I shower, I use all the hot water and no cold; it’s just warm enough that I don’t shiver, but awareness that there is no reserve permeates my ablutions with disquiet.

Yes, I’m sure it does.

I like it here, in a way. It’s unserious, toy. I live in a dollhouse. The furniture is out of scale. The dining table strikes chest-high.

The noun as adjective, eh? A favourite of literary fictionalists (though not necessarily angst-ridden mothers). The particular usage of “strikes” I take charitably as another Americanism (it’s strange, I never seem to encounter so many Americanisms in other American novels).

Maybe this askew, juvenile atmosphere helps to explain why yesterday, in a presidential election, I didn’t vote.

Not another presidential election! Americans must get tired voting in them all the time.

When I was still living in our nouveau riche ranch house (that’s what it was, Franklin, whether or not you like the sound of it – a ranch house [Shriver’s italics])

A classic comedy moment.

Obooki’s free writing advice: If you’re going to write a novel from the point of view of someone writing a letter, why not write it also in the manner of someone writing a letter.


19 thoughts on “We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver (Paragraph One)

  1. Why etc.? Because this letter is not a letter that is meant to be sent to anyone real, but rather an assignment that a psychiatrist has suggested to a patient. The author of the “letter” is in a mental hospital.

    Did I get it right?

    As for the Americanisms:

    chided – no, no way, no way.
    strikes – I so not think so, but am less dogmatically certain.
    getting tired of voting – oh no, not us, we cannot get enough voting.

    All of the above is explained by the mental hospital / complete loon interpretation.

  2. I think you might have discovered the twist in the tale there (who’d have thought there was so much packed into that first paragraph). No doubt it turns out that she never did have a son: he was merely a projection of the evil the narrator perceived in the world after the lack of commercial success of some novels she had written; the psychiatrist suggesting, to tackle this, she write a novel on such an obviously commercial subject that people would overlook the flaws in her earlier work.

    After all, no doubt if these events happened to Lionel Shriver, this is exactly how she would write a letter about them.

  3. I’ve read the book and once you’ve finish it you will see it’s a clever game. You actually caught right away that something is fishy.
    I could tell you why she writes like this but it would spoil the novel. If you’d like I’ll do it, let me know.
    I thought it was a really creepy book and these first sentences show that but she’s not in a mental institution.

  4. While writing this post I did go onto Amazon to read the worst reviews, just so I could learn what happened in the end and see if it shined any light on the peculiar writing style. The answer seemed somewhere between inconclusive and no, depending on which particular issue with the writing I was considering.

    That Franklin might not know which presidential election our narrator is referring to, even though it only happened yesterday, can thus be explained, I’ll grant that. Whether it is clever, I’m not so sure. Surely the game involved in a twist in the tale, is to make the reader unaware of anything that might hint at it. Whereas with Shriver, every sentence makes me feel suspicious – though of what, maybe I’m not so certain.

    That the narrator often cannot construct English sentences coherently, or that she seems to have pretensions to being a literary novelist but seems to lack the talent to achieve it, is this explained? (Shriver hints in interviews at the similarities between her and the narrator).

    I don’t mind the novel being spoiled, since I shan’t be reading it. I’d quite like, though, if someone could write a comparison between this and Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child – another evil child book. In fact, I think I’ll go on google now and look for one.

  5. “I’m the only Khatchadourian in New York state,” I flouted, and snatched my card back.

    What a weird use of the verb to flout. What did she flout?

    Maybe this askew, juvenile atmosphere…

    A picture can be askew; not an atmosphere, surely.

    I’ve not read The Fifth Child, but I doubt it can be as poorly written as Shriver’s book seems to be. The only Lessing book I’ve read is Memoirs of a Survivor, which is excellent.

  6. I imagine in America there’s a law against giving out sufficient information that you can be identified.

    I read The Fifth Child years ago, but for so apparently troubling a book, I don’t remember anything about it. I remember other Lessing books a lot more (e.g. Love Again, the Children of Violence, her autobiography).

  7. So you want the end, then?
    She’s writing to her dead husband. You can easily imagine who killed him.
    I thought it worked but seeing how you pick the language apart I suppose not being a native English speaker helped. Maybe if this had been a German novel I would have found it heavy handed. I’ve not read the Lessing.

  8. Ah, I knew the first part of that, but not the second. It makes sense I suppose.

    Yes, the language seems as issue, but what I guess really puts me off reading on is that it’s just another novel detailing the dull lives of people living in suburbia, and seems only tangentially to be about a high-school killing spree.

  9. The preposterous language you’ve highlighted here reminds me never to trust a woman named Lionel. “George” might still be OK, though.

  10. The strange thing is, it wasn’t that her parents called her Lionel and that’s why she turned into the sociopath – sorry, writer – that she did; but she changed her own name to Lionel.

  11. The passage you quote certainly seems to me very badly written indeed. Quite apart from the dubious grammar that you point out (the present subjuctive and the past tense in the same sentence), she seems, on the basis of this excerpt (admittedly read out of context), to have a tin ear for thre rhythms of English prose. Maybe this is deliberate, and serves some wider purpose that only becomes obvious once you read the whole novel. But on its own, out of context, it does not indicate to me that the author has a mastery over prose.

    But then again, not many do. Recently, the Guardian asked several celebrated contemporary writers (including Lionel Shriver) to showcase their talents, and write a few paragraphs on the subject of failure. With one or two exceptions (I’ll let you figure out the ones I mean), the quality of writing is generally abysmal. (Anne Enright can’t even distinguish sigular from plural: “…success and failure are both an illusion…”)

    Lionel Shriver doesn’t distinguish herself much either, I fear, though she does tell us: “I’ve not been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and may never be.” I find that “may” quite endearing.

    Sorry to be so dyspeptic.

  12. Possibly the style picks up after a time; other bits later on don’t seem as bad. I fear the “may” is just another example of her obsession with the subjunctive (perhaps she might consider writing an entire novel in the subjunctive, in the manner of Damon Runyon; – or I will).

    The Jacobson piece was bearable, I suppose. The Anthill, too. As Enright says, “The writer’s great and sustaining love is for the language they work with every day;” which makes you think, if that’s all they do year in year out, they might manage to perfect it a little more.

    I see Self goes on about failure being the natural state of the novelist. Cool. I also read this piece by Andrew Gallix today, which you can save yourself reading by just remembering any of the other pieces he’s written.

  13. I thought the barnes section was OK. Nothing to get too excited about – indeed, a bit bland and colourless – but nothing much to object to either. Jacobson does have an ability to construct his sentences well, and to string them together in an engaging manner, even when, as here, he has nothing much to say. But as for the rest…

    I don’t want to be too critical of Diana Athill: she is in her 90s after all, and if I get to that age I’d be lucky to be able to put together any sentence at all. Nonetheless, i wouldn’t expect a sentence such as this from a professional author:

    “Having fallen in love when I was 15, and become engaged to marry the man I loved three years later, I had known exactly what my future was to be.”

    Was she engaged to marry this man in three years’ time (“…engaged to marry the man … three years later”)? Or did she love this man three years later (“…the man I loved three years later”)?

    As for Margaret Atwood:

    “Failure is just another name for much of real life: much of what we set out to accomplish ends in failure, at least in our own eyes. Who set the bar so high that most of our attempts to sail gracefully over it on the viewless wings of Poesy end in an undignified scramble or a nasty fall into the mud?”

    I am having trouble coming to terms with the fact that a professional writer could write that last sentence. How can someone with such a tin ear for the rhythms of prose even think of choosing writing as a career? And what purpose is served by that clumsily inserted reference to Keats?

    Enright, as I said, can’t even tell the difference between singular and plural. And as for Shriver …

    ” In fact, one underside of success is that it’s nearly always penultimate, and so every accomplishment merely raises the bar.”

    As I understand it, “penultimate” means “the one before last”, and I can’t see how that word makes sense in this context. What she means (I am guessing) is that even if one’s previous work has been deemed a success, one will nonetheless be judged not on that previous work, but on one’s latest work; and hence, any success enjoyed by one’s previous work raises the standards by which one’s latest work will be judged. But she doesn’t express this simple and commonplace thought very well.


    “I’m fascinated by failure, a far more difficult experience to ride out with grace than victory, which tends to bring out the best in all but gloating arseholes: magnanimity, generosity, ease, confidence, joy, relaxation, energy, festivity, and a positive outlook. In contrast, failure…”

    There’s something not quite right about that sentence. I had to read twice to ascertain that “victory” is intended as a contrast to “failure” rather than to “grace”: I’d have added “is” before “victory” to clarify that point. And I’d have ended the sentence at “victory”, and continued “Victory brings out …” in a new sentence. As it is, the sentence is far too meandering, and lacks a centre. And I don’t like “…in all but gloating arseholes…” either in its phrasing (which seems to me clumsy), or as a sentiment. Perhaps something like this may have been preferrable:

    “I’m fascinated by failure, a far more difficult experience to ride out with grace than is victory. Give or take a bit of gloating, victory tends to bring out the best in us: magnanimity, generosity, ease, confidence, joy, relaxation, energy, festivity, and a positive outlook. Failure, in contrast…”

    I had to keep reminding myself that these are not just professional writers, but successful and celebrated writers, here given an opportunity to showcase their writing skills.

  14. And as for Will Self, words fail me. Well, that’s one thing I have in common with him.

  15. What about simply, “I’m fascinated by failure; it’s a far more difficult experience than victory to ride out with grace”.

    Are you sure they were showcasing their skills, and not just writing for a small pay-cheque whatever first came into their heads?

  16. We Need to Talk About Kevin strikes me as a high concept book to quickly read and immediately forget whilst on a long-haul flight. You can see why it was an attractive option for a publisher. It’s a massive disappointment of course as it trades hurriedly-written short-term sensation for something more substantial.

    She’s an intriguing character who’s got totally lost I think.

  17. Yes, that is, of course, Orange-prize winning “hurriedly-written short-term sensation”-alism. I agree about the quick-readiness of it, I could even feel the narrative pull myself (I was going to write another post about this, but don’t suppose I’ll ever get round to it). But why pad it out with such trivial detail?

  18. Yes, your rewrite is better. I was trying not to diverge too far from Shriver’s phrasing, and that’s obviously a mistake.

    I’m sure they were all getting paid, but if they didn’t see this as an opportunity to showcase their writing skills, they must really be dumber than I’d thought.

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