I like my share of Vogues and GQs , Marie Claires and Elles. I like the shiny paper and manicured squares with pretty people and stylish clothes. I like those bubbles-on-a-page blurbs that tell me that ‘purple is in’. I pore over expert advice that inform on how ‘black’ is the new ‘white’ and something else is therefore the ‘new black’. I love the clarion call in those pages urging one to promptly sell one’s kidney to buy off the latest bag in quilted leather. In the shade that is the new white or black, of course. But before one dismisses off such magazines as pedigreed vacuousness (or ordinary vacuousness for that matter), I must insist that that is not always the case. Sometimes, a magazine on skirts and suits can introduce you to a lifelong love. The way Vogue introduced me to Lionel Shriver.
Vogue had a picture of a pretty woman with a rather stern expression. Her eyes were sharp. Her chin was set to convey, ‘Understand me. I dare you.’ Maybe it was that expression that got me to read her interview. And her interview got me to read her book, ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. And that book got me to order ‘So much for that’ online and connive a friend to send me ‘A Perfectly Good Family’ .
Shriver’s writing somehow, energizes me on one hand and enervates me on the other. In ‘We need to talk about Kevin’, she writes about a mother (Eva) who doesn’t like her son (Kevin). (Shriver is not euphemistic. It’s not that Eva ‘can’t connect’ or ‘can’t relate’ to her child or anything like that. She just doesn’t like him.) After all, Eva never wanted to be a mother. She loves her husband (Jack) and the son is mainly a tribute to him. Initially, I remember thinking that Eva was just being unreasonable. Like when she starts suspecting that Kevin, as a six month old, knew the power of rejecting people you love. According to her, the baby knew the power of hate and used it. I put that down to the snivelling exaggeration of a selfish woman.
Then, as the novel progresses, she made me think that the mom wasn’t bad after all. Like who would like a son who scribbles notes on a paper-napkin while the mother innocently complains about America. Then he responds to each complaint point-by-point to establish that his mother is a hypocrite. (Kevin is around 14 years old at the time.)
After another incident, Eva suspects that Kevin has caused the younger daughter to go blind. Not obviously, of course. He’s too smart for that. But would a teenager coax his little sister to rinse her eyes with detergent so she is blinded and has to be fitted with a glass eye? You never know. Especially after Kevin had tried to clean her eye of the detergent and had called the ambulance. Jack thinks his son was a superb sibling. Eva thinks that his son squelching through the lychees (as if puncturing eyeballs) deliberately spells out a defiance: “Maybe I did blind her. So what?”
There’s a way Shriver writes about violence, a psychological, insidious violence that is relentless, hidden and omnipresent. Kevin, one day, goes to school and shoots his classmates. (The book was written around the time of Columbine shootings in the U.S.) But that description is perhaps the least shocking part of the book. What got to me was how Kevin, in his ‘non-criminal’ days would wait for the house to get empty. He’d wait until his father had left for work, his sister had gone out to play, and his mother was alone, working in the kitchen. He would then go to the bathroom, the one that his mother could see, leave the door open and masturbate. Purposely knowing she could see that, knowing that she would know that, and knowing that she would be so uncomfortable that she wouldn’t be able to stop that. It’s that sort of stomach-churning, ascetic portrayal of violence that made me feel for Eva right away. Without guns or goons, it is possible to violate a human-being in such a filthy way.
The book progresses. At times, the icicle I carried in my heart against Kevin began to thaw. But then I saw red again. I hated Jack one minute and felt insanely protective of the daughter. Then I melted over Jack’s trusting nature and prayed for Kevin to die. Then came the denouement and the climax where I was sucker-punched. Again.
When the book finished, I was left with this feeling that sometimes life can become really bitter. If you happen to survive the worst, maybe there’s no redemption. There’s just an aching, hollow scream, “That’s not fair.” And that scream remains forever even if the rest of you has gone mute.
I remember being stunned when I turned the last page. I’d read through the night and there were murmurs of daybreak outside. I got up feeling empty – like after days of turmoil, you don’t know how to handle the peace. So I switched on the computer and ordered some more Lionel Shriver into my life.
I get home from work every day, put the phone on silent and quickly microwave the dinner. There’s an urgency with which I want the regular life out of the way before inhaling the story that Shriver puts forth in her pages. (I’m reading ‘The Perfectly Good Family’ now.)
And as much as I am grateful for what it put me on to, I haven’t touched the Vogue so far.