Sunday, June 12, 2005

We need to be told: on an extract from Lionel Shriver's award-winning novel

Ellis Sharp draws our attention to an extract from Lionel Shriver’s award-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. A sentence describing Kevin as a baby is singled out for punishment: If fear of abandonment contributed to a decibel level that rivalled an industrial buzz saw, his loneliness displayed an awesome existential purity.

"That is very bad writing" says Mr Sharp. "This ... is journalism, not literature", he says. I'm inclined to agree. "Ms. Shriver" he adds "turns out mundane, unchallenging, third-rate prose". Well, it is award-winning.

In the rest of the coverage given to the prize, the quality of such prose has not been an issue (although it is criticised in the one review I've read, from 2003). Instead, attention has focussed on the novel’s apparently taboo subject matter - a mother's fear of bringing monster into the world (so why did she call him Kevin?) and the fact that the author felt the need to use a male pseudonym. This is the familiar territory of literary coverage in the mass media. That is, it has nothing to do with literature.

Yet if we were to read the extract in literary terms, we would have to take into account that the sentence is the expression of the mother, a character who also appears to be the narrator. In this way, it is fair to discuss the content rather than the form. The latter usually becomes invisible anyway once we happily descend into the story. But where does that descent take us? In the novel in question, the mother’s prose style suggests not very far. But why is that? Well, take this line in which Kevin’s mother recalls his babyhood:

I discerned no plaintive cry of appeal, no keen of despair, no nameless gurgle of dread.

The profound legacy of Nabokov’s lyricism is easily detectable here, just as it is through so much of modern literary fiction: the repetition (no, no, no), the resourceful and elegant variations (cry, keen, gurgle) and the medley of unspecific, objectively-labelled human emotions (appeal, despair, dread). However, as Humbert Humbert famously observed, you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. In Lolita, the style of narration is tied intimately to the subject matter: the contrast and connections between Humbert’s lyric sensibility (his sweet love for Lolita) and its manifestation in the real world (his criminal lust for her). In the review above, we're told that the "mother is absolved of all blame", which suggests, by contrast with Lolita, the prose is just for show. As we've seen recently with the Lit Blog Co-Op's first Read This! recommendation, such showiness is assumed to be an uncritical end in itself.

Whether We Need to Talk About Kevin shares more than taboo with Nabokov’s greatest novel remains to be seen. In the coverage of the award, one can get hints of the novel's ultimate level ("[It]has two Hitchcockian twists which make it easy to sell to bookshops, but also a touch of sentimentality at the end") but generally the coverage avoids such awkward (literary) matters; such is the real function of awards.


  1. Like me, perhaps you haven't read it? I can't be bothered after a negative review I found in the weekend paper here by Mary Rose Liverani (Australia), remarking among other things that an older professional woman turned mother would never let a baby take charge and get away from its parent the way Kevin seems to. (She goes as far as to suggest that Shriver could not be a mother herself.)

  2. You're all right. This book is complete drek.She goes on... and on... and on.....and on.....
    And on.....She is running at the mouth and curiously she writes in that the very new age yuppy
    over analytical talk talk talk style that she ridicules through out the story. God knows what she's doing here but I'll tell you - it ain't writing.It's blathering and it's pretentious and
    most odf all- it's boring. Judy Mann



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