It’s always tricky for a novelist to write about an event heavily covered by the media. Pictures speak louder than words, the cliché goes, yet public traumas deserve novelistic treatment, because only novelists can go inside the heads of participants. Four years after the tragedy at Columbine High School, two new novels try to deal with what happened.
Set in 2000, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin features a teen-ager who brings a gun to school and kills six of his classmates, a teacher and a cafeteria worker, before being apprehended. The novel unfolds during the aftermath of this horrible crime as the youth’s mother Eva wrestles with her guilt and shame.
Had this novel arrived in stores shortly after the murders at Columbine High, Shriver would have found herself on network news explaining to Americans why our children kill one another. Thankfully, We Need to Talk About Kevin is not a treatise on crime prevention but a meditation on motherhood. Composed as a series of letters from Eva to her estranged husband, Franklin, the novel evokes the confusion and apathy of a woman who stumbled into parenting late in life, only to have these misgivings writ large in her offspring: She creates a monster.
Shriver takes a calculated risk by casting this story entirely in Eva’s voice, but the gamble pays off as she strikes a tone of compelling intimacy. Darting back and forth in time, Eva scrutinizes her every parenting decision and wants her husband to do the same. It’s heavy material, but Shriver tackles it with admirable panache, turning a sensational story into a troubling one. There are no flat answers to how children go so horribly awry, Shriver suggests, but that won’t stop the blame from stinging.
While Shriver uses this event to get inside the head of someone who feels partly responsible, Douglas Coupland focuses on the metaphysical wrench such an event throws into one’s life in his latest novel Hey Nostradamus! The book’s main characters are two high school seniors who were secretly married to one another at the time of a Vancouver high school shooting. Cheryl Anway begins the tale from beyond the grave, waffling between grisly details of the massacre and poetic musings on the nature of faith.
Cheryl’s husband, Jason, picks up the narrative eleven years later, after his life has dissolved at the bottom of a beer bottle. Unlike Cheryl, who has a willowy optimism even beyond the grave, Jason is bitter and angry. Though he heroically killed one of the shooters, he was smeared by the press and eventually dropped out of life to avoid that stigma.
Whereas Shriver’s novel draws its power from the psychological hell the shooting puts people through, Coupland’s depiction of these emotions feels tinny and predictable. Unfortunately, his portrayal of the religious issues is not much better. “Hey, Nostradamus!” Jason brays at one point, “Did you predict that once we found the Promised Land we’d all start offing each other?” It’s an age-old question—how can God exist if he allows mayhem to occur—but Coupland’s slaphappy rendering of the issue feels borderline exploitative, especially when Jason’s religious zealot of a father steps in to add a word. At times it feels as if Coupland took an event that was sacred and soul-scouring to many people and simply responded to it with his usual set of preoccupations: familial dysfunction, the lack of God in this world and the curious surreal quality of modern life.
Coupland is much stronger when addressing the hypocrisy of human behavior—such as the squeaky-clean Christian youth group of which Cheryl and Jason were a part, which spends most of its time spying on the sexual activity of its members—rather than imposing his usual matrix of theological issues from above. In its finest moments, Hey Nostradamus! shows how sorely misplaced was their vigilance.
Still, such reminders feel a bit like Monday morning quarterbacking now. What is more helpful is some sense of how awful and devastating is the guilt. Lionel Shriver understands this, which is why We Need to Talk About Kevin lodges so deeply under the skin.