We Need to Talk About KevinWe Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

**-1/2, more likely.

I would never have heard of Lionel Shriver if this book of hers hadn't been made into a movie by filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (a markedly more sophisticated, observant, and adventurous artist than Shriver, as it turns out; the film avoids the muddledness of the book, and is much more an artistic whole); I was drawn to it exclusively by my appreciation of the film. Reading it was...an adventure, and not one I entirely regret.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, the book, reminded me of nothing so much as Nora Ephron's HEARTBURN, and I mean that as a compliment (post Beltway/Manhattan oligarch-class journalist phase, pre-sickly sentimentality, that compact, concentrated capsule of hilarious, unfettered post-divorce bile is possibly the only thing Ephron ever did that I think much of at all -- it's utterly unsentimental and anti-romantic, and laugh-out-loud funny). Like Ephron, Lionel Shriver is a commentator/pundit/insider-observer of (upper) social moods and manners who's chosen at times to ply that odd (if widespread) contemporary specialty in the even odder guise of fiction. And like Ephron, she is possessed of a thin, brittle "liberal" shell through which one can easily discern a roiling sea of paranoid-defensive, hyper-individualistic devil's-advocate libertarianism, along with intermittent, alarming signifiers of a flat-out reflexive reactionary.

Precisely as goes for HEARTBURN, the best thing about WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is, far and away, the frank, past-the-wringer bitchiness of its first-person narrator -- a would-be liberated career woman who married an opposite she was attracted to and bore his genetically nihilistic son, who'd go on to fame as a creative mass-murderer of high-school classmates. Shriver's clearly part-autobiographical Eva is, like Ephron's pure-autobiographical heroine, Bette Davis in ALL ABOUT EVE -- admirably worldly, inured by many hard bites, redeeming her cold bitterness by using it to extract truly funny, bull's-eye accurate, deadpan observations out of the kind of foibles, delusions, chaos and reversals that catch the lesser and the innocents unawares.

Where KEVIN is the lesser achievement to HEARTBURN is in its rollercoaster of focus and quality: Ephron's screed is brutally concise, short, to the point, no illusions. KEVIN meanders; its author has a lot to say, as a self-styled very informed and nuanced pundit, and it's far too much for the novel, which feels bloated, overlong, and forced. (The inner monologue is usually delicious, dark; but the dialogue is most often glaringly ludicrous. Not one conversation between Eva and her husband reads like anything but exactly a debate conducted by competing columnists on the NYT or WaPo op-ed pages. Why bother with the charade of making her a travel-book entrepreneur and him a location scout, Lionel, when it's dead obvious that they're pundits!) The shoddy, undigested, evidently un-self-conscious narrative construct and "character" artifice that's always accidentally showing through Shriver's loose seams; the soap-opera-like breathlessness and simpleminded on-off/black-white symmetries of plot and character, also -- and to much less impressive effect -- resemble Bette Davis and her exquisite bitchiness, in that when they get waylaid or must spin their wheels, when they have no focus or target, they become mere camp.

So, I grinned and nodded and laughed out loud through much of this novel. I rolled my eyes plenty, too, and even sighed in exasperation a few times. The ultimate question Shriver poses is not the one with which she believes she's confronting us with her prickly, erudite, ultimately shallow op-ed skills. No, KEVIN's question is more this: Even if it's at least partly an achievement to concoct such a novel -- a genuinely funny, jaundiced, effectively satirical glimpse at certain social conventions and all-too-human ambivalences -- using a highly timely and topical life-and-death "issue" as its launching pad, isn't the immediate creation of camp out of a current and ongoing ripped-from-the-headlines deadly crisis a glib kind of accomplishment, a dubious sort of distinction?

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