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  • Eliza Chan

Unreliable narrators

I’m reading the bookWe Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver for a book club I recently joined. It’s not something I would pick up myself and whilst I was expecting an emotionally traumatising account of a high school massacre, I am instead being faced with a tedious unreliable narrator.

The book tells the story of Kevin and his upbringing, eventually leading to a high school shooting, all through the perspective of his mother writing in hindsight through letters to her ex-husband. In many ways it reminds me of Doris Lessing’sThe Fifth Child.

I can’t say I’m enjoying the book. I find all of the characters rather shallow and not very nice. This isn’t to say characters should be heroic and blameless in novels, I have a great deal of respect for The Slap which portrays an array of deeply unsympathetic characters. What I did like about those ones however, is that their motivations were entirely believable and well-rounded. Shriver’s book on the other hand bothers me. The mother recounts memories in inordinate, almost mind-numbing detail at times. She also portrays herself as quite a cold person who is ambitious and well-travelled but uninterested in starting a family other than for debatable reasons of having a new challenge and a mini-me of her husband should anything happen to him. Now of course there are people with these sentiments in the world, but they never describe themselves in such callous terms. They have their own belief systems and justifications that make their attitudes all the more plausible. People generally, in my opinion, think they are doing the right thing. Even if that thing does end up being cheating, lying and stealing, we always rationalise it beforehand.

I found unreliable narrators fascinating during university. Nabokov’s Pale Fire was a fantastically mad idea and one I have strive to emulate in many of my own stories including Subtext. Comparing the two, however I think We Need to Talk About Kevin immediately bothers me because of the subject matter. Pale Fire is in many ways absolutely bonkers with the editor/narrator believing he is the exiled king of Zembla. The outrageousness both of this and the style in which it is written, means that you can read it as pure fiction. Kevin on the other hand deals with the very serious subject matter of high school shootings in the USA. Perhaps it’s wrong of me to assume it therefore has a responsibility but I do not believe I am alone in seeing this. The fictionalisation of what is all so real and painful can only be dealt with through the same revered respect of 9/11. There is an argument that says we shouldn’t pussy-foot around these subjects anymore but that is for another blog entry. So what I’m saying is- yes, it’s fiction, but it’s also attempting to provide a plausible explanation for why certain teenagers decide to pick up a gun and shoot their classmates. Is it upbringing or inherit evilness? Having not finished the novel I will refrain from commenting further other than to say I dislike predeterminism. We are affected by our parents but we make our own choices. And I don’t believe in people being born evil. Some people may have twisted minds due to psychological conditions but I am sure, in their minds, they are still doing what is right.

Or perhaps I’m just too optimistic about human nature.

Addendum: *Spoiler*

Having now finished Kevin, I would say it grew on me. You can see the twist ending coming a mile off and I found Kevin’s prison softening unbelievable. It is certainly a novel that disturbs and stays with you and that is, I think, ultimately what Shriver is hoping for more than realistic characterisation. After all the novel is simply a study of stereotypes to demonstrate nature versus nurture.

#thefifthchild #highschoolmassacre #parents #palefire #unreliablenarrator #nabokov #weneedtotalkaboutkevin #lionelshriver #dorislessing

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