‘When I brushed on the last rectangle by the window, a topographical map of Norway stitched with fjords, I climbed down the ladder and surveyed the results with a twirl. It was gorgeous! Dynamic, quirky, lavishly sentimental. Interstitial train ticket stubs, museum floor plans, and hotel receipts gave the collage an additionally personal touch. I had forced one patch of this blank, witless house to mean something. I put on Joe Jackson’s Big World, lidded the paste, furled the canvas covering my six-foot rolltop desk, rattled it open, and unpacked my last box, arranging my stand of antique cartridge pens and bottles of red and black ink, the Scotch tape, stapler, and tchotchkes for fidgeting – the miniature Swiss cowbell, the terra-cotta penitent from Spain.
Meanwhile, I was burbling to Kevin, something all very Virginia Woolf like, ‘Everyone needs a room of their own. You know how you have your room? Well, this is Mommer’s room. And everyone likes to make their room special. Mommer’s been lots of different places, and all these maps remind me of the trips I’ve taken. You’ll see, you may want to make your room special some day, and I’ll help you if you want– ’
‘What do you mean special,’ he said, hugging one elbow. In his drooping free hand drizzled his squirt gun, whose leakage had worsened. Although he was still slight for his age, I’d rarely met anyone who took up more metaphysical space. A sulking gravity never let you forget he was there, and if he said little, he was always watching.‘So it looks like your personality.’‘What personality.’I felt sure I’d explained the word before. I was continually feeding him vocabulary, or who was Shakespeare; educational chatter filled the void. I had a feeling he wished I’d shut up. There seemed no end to the information that he did not want.
‘Like your squirt gun, that’s part of your personality.’ I refrained from adding, like the way you ruined my favourite caftan, that’s part of your personality. Or the way you’re still shitting in diapers coming on five years old, that’s part of your personality, too. ‘Anyway, Kevin, you’re being stubborn. I think you know what I mean.’
‘I have to put junk on the walls.’ He sounded put-upon.
‘Unless you’d rather not.’
‘I’d rather not.’
‘Great, we’ve found one more thing you don’t want to do,’ I said. ‘You don’t like to go to the park and you don’t like to listen to music and you don’t like to eat and you don’t like to play with Lego. I bet you couldn’t think of one more thing you don’t like if you tried.’
‘All these squiggy squares of paper,’ he supplied promptly. ‘They’re dumb.’ After Idonlikedat, dumb was his favourite word.
‘That’s the thing about your own room, Kevin. It’s nobody else’s business. I don’t care if you think my maps are dumb. I like them.’ I remember raising an umbrella of defiance: He wouldn’t rain on this parade. My study looked terrific, it was all mine, I would sit at my desk and play grown-up, and I could not wait to screw on my crowning touch, a bolt on its door. Yes, I’d commissioned a local carpenter and had added a door.
But Kevin wouldn’t let the matter drop. There was something he wanted to tell me. ‘I don’t get it. It was all gucky. And it took forever. Now everything looks dumb. What difference does it make. Why’d you bother.’ He stamped his foot. ‘It’s dumb!’ ’
From Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003)
Schriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) is as widely read across the world as its narrator and central protagonist, Eva, is well travelled. In addition to its popular appeal, the novel has also received considerable critical acclaim. It reached an even wider audience thanks to the 2011 film adaptation of the novel starring Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller. Adopting an epistolary form (with a twist), the novel presents the troubled relationship between Eva and her son, Kevin, who commits seemingly unmotivated mass murder. The episode of decoration and destrution from which this extract is taken is highly significant as an early instance of what Eva will later refer to as ‘character assassination’ – the desecration and annhiliation by Kevin of what a person holds dear, of who a person is. Ostensibly we see here Kevin as criminal, as malicious deviant who uses a water gun to cover his mother’s labours in ink. But there are also hints here towards Kevin the victim, more sinned against than sinning.
By this point in the novel, the family have moved from Manhattan to the suburbs and Eva has stopped working at the head of her own travel guide company. She is a fish out of water in suburbia, and this is compounded by her intense dislike of the open-plan house chosen by her husband.
The pasting of maps onto the walls of her study is an effort to feel more at home, and to make a bold statement about her identity. In this dialogue-dominated extract we see the contrasting initial reactions of Eva and Kevin to this cartographic endeavour, as well as the mother’s response to that of her son.
Eva’s pleasure and delight is firmly established in the first verb- and noun-heavy paragraph. Her cosmopolitan character and impeccable taste is crystal clear in the objects displayed against the backdrop of the maps. She unreservedly praises her own achievement and presents herself as capable, determined and powerful, having ‘forced one patch of this blank, witless house to mean something.’ Although an intensely personal and idiosyncratic process, she nevertheless makes an effort to reach out to Kevin, to include and involve him I what she has done.
But Kevin’s response is as negative as his mother’s is positive and his very short interjections contrast with her extended babble and reflections. What is meaningful and beautiful to Eva is ‘junk on the walls’ to Kevin. Shorn of a question mark, the ambiguous interjection, ‘What personality’, suggests that he doesn’t understand the word or that he’s wilfully playing dumb (Eva’s interpretation), or perhaps that he is struggling to apply to himself this process of representing one’s identity via things held dear. Underlying the latter possibility is the chilling suggestion that he has understood the process but can find only a void where his personality should be. The dismissive and disparaging attitude towards the room reaches a crescendo in the final outburst which constitutes his longest dialogue but which is still made up of a series of short staccato phrases. The negativity continues (cf the repetition of ‘dumb’), but there is also a clear sense of perplexity and frustration, of futility and even nihilism. As before, the absence of interrogation marks renders what would normally be questions as mere observations instead, suggesting a blunt lack of interaction. Kevin’s strangeness is strongly emphasised here, making it hard to spontaneously sympathise with him.
Eva’s response to the continual negativity is highly revealing. She dismisses his dismissal, refuses to let his response bring her down, just as in a few pages she will destroy his water gun in response to his destruction. There is perhaps more complicity between mother and son than first meets the eye. At the same time, there is also a sort of role reversal going on. Eva is defiant, an attitude frequently associated with children rather than mature adults, while Kevin demonstrates a more adult world-weariness. Similarly, it is children who ‘play grown-up’, an expression typical of Eva’s sardonic sense of humour, but which also suggests her sense of having been deprived her adulthood along with her freedom. Eva is clearly longing for isolation, for distance (from Kevin) and self-immersion. It’s as though she wants to pretend she isn’t a mother at all, to escape and return to her former life. She may invite Kevin to follow her lead and get involved, but the act she undertakes, the way in which she decorates her room, is basically a gigantic billboard advertising everything she’s lost and given up. Perhaps Kevin’s deflationist response, his bursting of his mother’s bubble of joy, isn’t as unreasonable and disturbing in its lack of enthusiasm as it at first seems… or as Eva – our narrator – makes it seem.