An Essay on the Novels We Need to Talk About Kevin and Vernon God Little

An Essay on the Novels We Need to Talk About Kevin and Vernon God Little

“These novels are written purely to shock the reader; other than this they serve no real purpose.” To what extent do you agree?
Before proceeding to explain whether or not I agree that We Need To Talk About Kevin and Vernon God Little “shock the reader” and “serve no real purpose”, I will explore the reasons behind this critical perception.

Both novels share a common position: They tackle many aspects of modern American society. These include mindless consumer culture, the media and capital and corporal punishment for youths. Interestingly, both writers draw influence from the Columbine High School shootings of 1999. In Vernon God Little, Jesus Navarro kills “sixteen” in his school shooting spree, three more than in Columbine. Also, as with the Columbine shootings, Jesus’ friend is almost immediately suspected of being an accomplice to the murders. When Vernon cannot prove his alibi, he is convicted and “sentenced to death”. Likewise, in We Need To Talk About Kevin, Kevin murders a number of “handpicked” students and teachers using a “crossbow” . He too is sentenced to life imprisonment. His mother, Eva, labels her son as one of the “Columbine boys” . Casting tragedy as entertainment, it comes as no surprise that both novels “shock the reader”. They take ‘Columbine’, a highly devastating national tragedy surrounding the death of innocent children and fictionalise it, thus providing fertile ground for controversy.

The way the writers (DBC Pierre and Lionel Shriver) manipulate narration and dialogue to present the killings highlights this depth. Pierre’s narrative consists of slang and profanities: “Brad, get your fucken finger out of your goddam anus” . Such language is particularly associated with rap lyrics and challenges conventional sensibilities. It is deliberately offensive. His use of profanities also highlights Vernon’s rebellious attitude to the world around him: “What kind of fucken life is this?” Like Eric Harris (the child at the centre of the Columbine High School Massacre) Vernon’s cutting question displays anger towards society. This is something that many people failed to come to terms with. Perhaps this is a reflection of Pierre’s own childhood, as the author himself points out, “I grew up with a real sense of cultural homelessness and I haven't been successful in fitting in anywhere” . Nonetheless, the repetition of “fucken” is shocking and Pierre induces a rebellious and urban tone with such expletives.
Similarly, Shriver works profanities into the narrative of We Need To Talk About Kevin. Shriver’s use of expletives, however, is more orthodox and grammatically correct: “fucking tired of the same fucking story” , in spite of profanity being worked into the narration through the repetition of the word “fucking”. This use of profanity is made all the more significant because it is presented in a child’s voice.

Childhood is typically associated with innocence and tranquillity. We know this from Vernon’s impassioned speech to the reader: “Under my grief glows a serenity that comes from knowing the truth always wins in the end. Why do movies end happy? Because they imitate life. You know it, I know it.” His assurance that life is a “movie” highlights his naivety. It is therefore not hard to see how such expletives emerging from children could enhance the critical perception that both these novels “shock the reader”.

Following on from this, the combination of children and sexual imagery provides further potential case for offense. In spite of the fact that it is only shown taking place once, sex pervades Vernon God Little:

"We melt into each other’s mouths; my hand finds the round of her ass. Her knees bend up and she takes in my tongue, my finger and my face, she cries and bucks, horny ridges, ruffles, and grits suck me up, suck me to the stinking truth behind panties.”

Such imagery could easily offend sensitive readers as sex is the reason behind Vernon’s downfall; when Taylor Figueroa seduces him to obtain a confession to murder. The colloquial language (“stinking truth behind panties”) emphasises the rawness of this sexuality and challenges conventional notions of childish innocence and purity.

Though typically adolescent, there are times when Vernon’s sexual desire exceeds beyond his years. He and his friends learn about girls, guns and beer in isolated Keeter's field. They are simultaneously turned on and off by Ella Bouchard; a simple-minded, underdeveloped classmate willing to show her north and south "poles" to the boys. Even when his lust for women appears to diminish (after he gives up swearing in prison), it returns as he sees “a tall, beautiful young woman in a pale blue suit” in the witness box. Witnessing a transformed Ella “squeeze(ing) along the back row to her seat, kindling (his) groin out of retirement”, Vernon manifests the inevitable desire of youth. Such graphic descriptions could easily shock sensitive readers unaccustomed to expressive intimacy in novels.

Following on from this sexual theme, it is interesting to note that whilst Kevin shows no real interest in sex or women he too is prone to using sexual imagery, “His cocks the size of a Tootsie Roll. The little ones, you know” . In Kevin’s case, however, the reason for such imagery is to manipulate his imagination in order to enhance his criminal image and attain what he wants. Here, Kevin is seen using his reputation as the new “Columbine boy” to undermine fellow inmates. The metaphor directly comparing a “cock” to a “Tootsie Roll” is effective in conveying disrespect and ambivalence. More shocking, though never proven, is his fabrication when attempting to get his drama teacher, Miss Pagorski, sacked. His vivid imagery, “She wanted to know if I’d ever seen a horse’s cock. How big it was. She said every time she saw a horse’s cock she wanted to suck it” , exhibits the extremes Kevin is willing to go to for his personal pleasure. The italicised “cock” suggests something disturbing about Kevin’s false truths as Shriver manipulates both his age and actions to “shock the reader”.

For many, the most shocking and significant episode in We Need To Talk About Kevin occurs at the end of the novel. Kevin carries out a high school massacre using a “crossbow” and “arrow”. Whilst typically a symbol of love and child’s play, Shriver utilises such weapons to expose the animalistic nature and savagery that can be possessed by humans. Her use of grotesque imagery, “flopped like voodoo dolls stuck with pins” , is a significant illustration of the violence inflicted by Kevin. The simile is effective in conveying the helplessness of his “handpicked” victims and the plea by students and teachers, “She’s bleeding all OVER!” epitomises the brutal violence of the scene. It is simply shocking. The exclamation and capitalised “OVER” effectively captures their desperation. By combining action and violence, Shriver provides further cause for offense and encapsulates the panic of ‘Columbine’, akin to Pierre’s efforts in Vernon God Little.

Returning to my introduction, therefore, it is certainly conceivable that such features (profanity, violence, suffering, imagery and sex) could shock the reader. However it is now worth considering why this would be so from the point of view of the novelists themselves.

The presence of a sympathetic tone for both Vernon and Kevin helps elucidate this. The reader of both novels cannot escape from the ignorance displayed by their parents. It is evident from the opening that both Vernon and his mother fail to connect on an emotional level; “it’s like she planted a knife in my back when I was born, and now every fucken noise she makes gives it a turn.” This motif, a psychological image, represents the guilt that Vernon feels imposed on him by his mother Doris; a woman who constantly thrives on sympathy, making those close to her feel responsible for her pain. Progressively, she becomes trapped in the illusion of parenting a criminal: “Vernon I love you! Forget about before- even murderers are loved by their families, you know” . This highlights her lack of trust in Vernon and growing faith in what the media wants the public to believe. Her advice to Vernon, “Sit up straight in the car-town’s crawling with cameras” , shows how Doris is consumed by superficial concerns of how the media will view her and her son. This exemplifies the need to address the harsh realities facing youth in a culture where morality is distorted by media. This fragile mother-son relationship is elevated further by her catchphrase, “Vernon are you alright?” The rhetoric and close ended question does not allow Vernon to elaborate on his feelings and an astute reader no longer caricatures Vernon as a simple ‘shocking’ child.
In the same way, in We Need To Talk About Kevin, Franklin comes across as extremely loving but also intensely short-sighted and even deluded where his family is concerned. He makes a huge effort to believe that his household conforms to his idealistic view of typical family life, convinced that he has a normal, happy son: “We have a happy, healthy boy. And I’m beginning to think he’s unusually bright, if he sometimes keeps himself to himself, that’s because he’s thoughtful, reflective.”Here Pierre highlights the conflict between illusion and reality. Franklin is blinded to Kevin’s malice, whose actions become progressively worse: Initially minor, using a squirt gun on his mother’s rare maps and driving babysitters out the house, to encouraging a girl to gauge her eczema affected skin and tampering with the brakes of their neighbour’s bicycle (“we don’t appreciate Kevin’s tinkering with Trent’s bike.”)

By inducing sympathy for the children with a deep human dimension reflected in the parenting dynamics of both novels, both authors use fiction to point out and draw attention to what’s going on in reality. These protagonists are not mere caricatures. By highlighting conflict between illusion and reality, the impact of the media and education in the midst of parenthood, perhaps these writers want to urge the reader to consider what is going on in a broader picture.

We can now review the episode of the “Columbine boy” and see that Shriver was drawing attention to the impact of the media. Kevin’s nonchalant attitude and the ease with which he delivers insults show he thinks it is acceptable to kill. He is attempting to fashion a reputation for himself with the aid of the media. He is not simply ‘shocking’.

Certainly, one thing that these novels emphasise is that these children are absorbing superficial role models and consumerist attitudes from mass media. Both authors show that television (“Miramax”, “Against All Odds” and “The Andy Griffith Show”), modern pop culture (“Rose Garden”, “Sailing”) and literature (“Robin Hood”) play formative roles in shaping the identities of Vernon and Kevin. From such media, individuals are foregrounded as role models in modern culture. “Eric Harris”, “Dylan Klebold” and “Andrew Wurst” are mentioned by Kevin, who strives to commit mass murder on a larger scale than his counterparts. Similarly, Vernon strives to live and hope for the lifestyle of his idol, “You don’t know how bad I want to be Jean-Claude Van Damme. Ram her fucken gun up her ass, and run away with a panty model” .
Pierre and Shriver, therefore, highlight uniformity to marketing, advertising and the forceful influence of peer pressure. These examples point out to the reader that the sensationalising of death has a huge impact on the consciousness of youths. Eva’s key statement: “This whole county’s lost, everybody copies everybody else, and everybody wants to be famous” , encompasses the novel’s movement. She highlights the tragedy of youths growing up in an age devoid of direction, meaning and morality, where media is king and common sense is diminished.
It is also worth reviewing the use of profanity in both novels. Without doubt, the use of profanity in Vernon God Little “shocks the reader”: “Fuck, fuck, fuck goes the mantis, like it does every four seconds of my life” . The repetition of “fuck” is both shocking and comical. Shriver’s use of profanity in We Need To Talk About Kevin is equally rude, “they fucking worship me”. Using expletives, however, induces a humorous tone.

The inclusion of humour in both these novels (more so in Vernon God Little (“Like fucken duh”)) makes harsh truths more palatable. This is all the more significant because both novels address such formidable topics as capital and corporal punishment for youths. Such use of expletives coming from a child’s voice makes them hard to take seriously. Because both authors are challenging the way things are on an intense level and questioning structures of power (government, media, legislation) they utilise humour (however sardonic) to serve more personal transparency with the reader, while deftly displaying criticism and authenticity.

It is therefore possible to see how the statement “These novels are written purely to shock the reader; other than this they serve no real purpose” is somewhat short-sighted. Of course there are shocking elements in both novels (profanity, death, violence, suffering, sex). However, as the inclusion of the deeply humane dimension in both novels of the parenting dynamic (and the sympathy this induces for the children) these novels are not mere caricatures and merely sensationalistic, as the statement suggests.

The purpose these novels serve is to hold a mirror up to the reader of reality in fictional form. They “shock” to “shock the reader” out of a numb state.

It is worth considering literary tradition and the presence of such classics as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin and JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. In both cases the authors used the mask of childish innocence to expose hypocrisy within American culture and society. Vernon’s language reflects both his age and his attitude to the world around him. His mispronunciation of scapegoat, “skate goat” , is deeply touching. It shows his lack of innovation and understanding in a world devoid of direction. Vernon is a device to criticise negative aspects of American society. This is evident in such passages like when he ponders over his father’s gun: “My daddy’s gun. If only my ole lady had let me keep it at home. But no. The fucken gun gave her tremors.” Here, Pierre draws into question the wisdom of gun laws that enable deadly weapons to exist in almost every house and in every street. Similarly, Shriver’s novel unfolds from the perspective of the killer’s mother. This helps convey her message in haste. Such formal experimentation complements the choice to fictionalise a devastating tragedy, by providing a deep insight into the minds of such tragic youths and tragic predicaments.

In conclusion, I do not agree that these novels are “written purely to shock the reader” and “other than this they serve no real purpose”. They use a variety of literary devices across the use of form, narrative voice, language and structure to tackle a highly sensitive event, ‘Columbine’, and provoke the reader to question where responsibility lies.

Bibliography

Books:
Pierre, DBC. Vernon God Little. London: Faber and Faber, 2003.
Shriver, Lionel. We Need To Talk About Kevin. London: Serpent’s Tale Classics, 2003.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1985.
Salinger, JD. The Catcher in the Rye. London: Penguin, 1958

Articles:
‘You’ll die laughing’, Guardian, Sunday 19th January 2003, Sean O’Hagan
‘Why Be Serious About Humour’ (Humour, Consciousness and Competence, Steve Wilson

Websites:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/jan/19/fiction.features1
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_Need_to_Talk_About_Kevin
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbine_High_School_massacre
http://www.bookrags.com/content/studyguides/?p=guides&u=vernon-god-little

Video:
Zero Hour: Season 1, Episode 4, Massacre at Columbine High, the History Channel (USA)