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.
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
‘You’ll die laughing’, Guardian, Sunday 19th January 2003, Sean O’Hagan
‘Why Be Serious About Humour’ (Humour, Consciousness and Competence, Steve Wilson
Zero Hour: Season 1, Episode 4, Massacre at Columbine High, the History Channel (USA)
Table of contents
2. Plot summary
2.1 The Catcher in the Rye
2.2 Vernon God Little
3. External conflicts of the main character
3.1 Holden Caulfield
4. Internal conflicts of the main characters
5. Language of the main characters
5.1 Language of Holden
5.2 Language ofVernon
6. Historical context of the novel
6.1 The Catcher in the Rye
6.2Vernon God Little
The term “adolescence” describes the phase of life between late childhood and adulthood. It contains not only the physical maturation but particularly the psychological and mental development from a child to an autonomous, responsible adult.
Also literature has ever and anon created adolescent protagonists who have to deal with typical problems of coming of age. A prime example for such a novel of initiation is “The Catcher in the Rye”. This novel nearly fulfils all aspects a novel of initiation has to deal with. Although “The Catcher in the Rye” was published sixty years ago, it still finds general approval to people all over the world.
Another very successful novel of initiation is DBC Pierre"s “Vernon God Little” which was written in 2003 and won the Man Booker Prize in the same year. The Daily Mail described the 15-year old protagonist Vernon Gregory Little as “one of the most engaging narrators since Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield” and Sam Sifton from the New York Times says that Vernon Gregory Little is a “Holden Caulfield on Ritalin”.
There is no doubt that these two novels have considerable similarities: In both novels, the main character is a male adolescent who tells his story as a first person narrator. Both stories have their sets in the United States and both deal with issues concerning adolescence. I want to research which further similarities these two books have, in particular concerning adolescence. Therefore I am going to take a deeper look into typical issues these two adolescents have to deal with. First of all, I am going to give a short overview about the plot to the reader so the reader understands further issues of my work. Then, I will examine typical signs for adolescence like external and internal conflicts and language use of the protagonists of “Vernon God Little” and “The Catcher in the Rye” as well as the historical context of these two books. I am going to examine all these aspects in order to find out how the two novels explore the problems associated with adolescence and the narrators" messages regarding society.
2. Plot summary
2.1 The Catcher in the Rye
The 17-year-old protagonist and first-person narrator Holden Caulfield starts to tell his story from a mental institution in order to recover from a mental breakdown. From there, he begins to report about a weekend he spent in New York one year earlier when he was 16:
After being expelled from Pencey Prep boarding school because of failing in four of five subjects and after a physical altercation with his roommate Stradlater, he decides to leave school four days early for Christmas break. His parents don't know about his difficult school situation, so he decides not to go back home but to wait in a hotel in New York until his parents have digested Holden's expulsion.
After trying to get in contact with his friends, he takes a hotel room in New York. Not satisfied with the Hotel Bar he visited, Holden wants to call Jane Gallagher, a girl with whom he spent a lot of time one summer and whom is very important to him. He doesn't know how to get in contact with her, so he takes a taxi to the nightclub “Ernie”. He meets some girls there and dances with them, but he is disgusted by them and returns to his Hotel, where the elevator boy Maurice and a prostitute called Sunny betray him. Next day, he meets some nuns at the train station and has a date with his former girlfriend Sally. They go to the theatre and ice-skating. In a restaurant, Holden asks her to run away with him, but she doesn't want to. So Holden insults her and they get apart.
Holden gets depressed and he thinks ofhis brother Allie, who died of Leukemia when Holden was eleven years old. He visits the cinema to watch a sad movie and calls a boy called Carl Luce. After a short, failed conversation with Carl, he gets drunk in a bar. He wanders aimlessly through the Central park until he decides to go home because he wants to see his little sister Phoebe. After a conversation with her, Phoebe gives him money and Holden decides to stay the night at his teacher's house, Mr. Antolini. In the middle of the night, Holden wakes up by Mr. Antolini touching his head. Holden suspects Mr. Antolini molesting him and so he precipitately leaves Mr. Antolinis house. He stays at the central station for the rest of the night. The next day Holden decides to go away from home and tells this to his little sister Phoebe. As Phoebe then appears in front of the art museum and tells him that she wants to go with him, he refuses his plans to go away.
2.2 Vernon God Little
Vernon Gregory Little, a 15 years old high school student, is the main character and first-person narrator of the novel “Vernon God Little”. He lives together with his mother Doris and his brother Brad in Martirio, Texas, a town close to the Mexican border. His father disappeared when he was a child.
Vernon is the only conscious survivor of a high school massacre that was caused by his best friend Jesus Navarro, who killed himself and 16 people in his school. During the story, Vernon becomes America's most wanted “criminal” because everybody thinks he was the abettor of his best friend Jesus, although he was not. The only evidence in his favor is his unexpected bowel movement but he is too ashamed to mention this disease in publicity.
It seems that everything he does or ever has done works against him: The deputy sheriff arrests him without any evidence, the TV reporter Elalio Ledesma first befriends him and then betrays him, the psychiatrist who has to write an examination about him seems to have the intention to abuse him,. To make matters worse, his mother starts a love affair with Eulalio. So Vernon flees to Mexico after meeting the girl of his dreams Taylor Figueroa in Houston. But he doesn't get far: Taylor follows him to Mexico and sells him out to the police in order to get a media job. Back in Martirio, he is condemned to death, but his lawyer finds a piece of evidence in Vernon's favor and he survives.
3. External conflicts of the main characters
3.1 Holden Caulfield
Within his story, Holden gets into various conflict situations. These external conflict situations often reflect the insecurity of Holden towards his fellow human beings. He often doesn't know how to act in certain situations because ofhis lack of experience.
The first significant conflict Holden has is the one with his roommate Stradlater. Holden takes Stradlater for “a very sexy bastard” and for a typical womanizer. As Holden finds out that Stradlater has a date with his secret “crush” Jane Gallagher, he worries about Stradlater and Jane coming closer. When Stradlater returns to his room after the date with Jane, Holden gives rein to his jealousy and affronts Stradlater. This verbal attack leads Stradlater to batter Holden and so Holden leaves school the same night.
The conflict between Holden and Stradlater makes apparent that Holden has special feelings for Jane Gallagher. Although Jane is Holden's secret crush and he really wants to meet her, he's not brave enough to really get in contact with her.
After escaping from Pencey Prep, he takes a hotel in New York in order to avoid a conflict with his parents. His parents don't know anything about Holden's failed school career.
Just arrived in the Hotel in New York, Holden receives an offer from the elevator boy Maurice. He asks Holden if he is interested in a five-dollar- date with a prostitute. Holden approves Maurice's offer and the prostitute called Sally visits Holden in his room. But as Sally divests herself, Holden loses courage and proposes Sally to have a talk instead of having sex. Sally becomes irritated by his proposal, takes the 5 dollar and leaves the room. That's the moment the second conflict begins: Maurice and Sally return to Holden's room and claim for further money. Holden refuses further payments and suddenly gets in trouble: Maurice beats him.
Furthermore, Holden has a dispute with his former girlfriend Sally Hayes, when he asks her to run away with him. As she refuses his plan, he gets angry and affronts her. So they get apart.
During the whole story, Holden encounters a lot of people, hoping to feel less lonely. The most people Holden meets just hold cursory conversations with him. Besides his dead brother Allie, with whom he holds imaginary conversations, he only has got deep conversations with his beloved sister Phoebe. But even with Phoebe he has an argument: At the end of the story, when Holden tells Phoebe of his plans to run away, she wants to go with him. He refuses Phoebe's plans and they argue. However, they agree after a short time as Holden decides to stay with her in New York.
3.2 Vernon Little
Vernon doesn't come into any physical conflict with other people. In most of the external conflicts he is the rather passive participant. By his passive behavior he increasingly becomes the scapegoat for the people around him. Vernon is often annoyed about the perfidy of his fellow men. This also becomes obvious in various statements he makes about people in his hometown to the reader.
On the contrary, Vernon doesn't directly complain to the people around him, also because they don't give him any chance to speak. Even before his execution he doesn't speak out on the reproaches against him. He rather tattoos his message to the others on his chest so everybody can see it on TV: “I take off my shirt. My skin is mostly healed now, from my art project. Tattooed in big blue letters across my chest are the words „Meves y sufres"-„Seeme and suffer"”.
4. Internal conflicts of the main characters 4.1 Holden
Coming of age is always connected with the accomplishment of internal conflicts, also in case of Holden Caulfield. Within the story it quickly becomes apparent that Holden is contemptuous of the adult world. He describes adults as “phonies” and doesn't by any means want to become like the adults in his surroundings. He uses the word “phony” very often in his narration. Moreover, as William T. Noon points out in his essay, “phoniness covers all the signs of hypocrisy, cant, fraud, and selfish insincerity with which Holden is obliged to collide”. That Holden sees “phony” people all over the place and he describes them in a sarcastic and ironic way: “You never saw so many phonies in all your life, everybody smoking their ears off and talking about the play so that everybody could hear and know how sharp they were [...]”.
Holden is afraid of becoming an adult and so he tries to separate himself against the adult world. He loves children and childhood and sees his life-task in the prevention of childhood for all children. His wish becomes particularly apparent when he points out that he wants to be “The Catcher in the Rye”, who helps children to not fall down the “crazy cliff’. The “crazy cliff’ symbolizes some kind of abyss into the adult world which children fall down when they grow up. On contrast to dissembling adults, children act naturally and earnestly.
Holden himself stands between adulthood and childhood and it's hard for him to allocate himself to one of them.
 Daily Mail. Flap Text in Pierre, DBC. 2003. Vernon God Little. Faber and Faber Ltd.
 Sifton, Sam. "Holden Caulfield on Ritalin" in The New York Times on http://auerv.nvtimes.com/ast/fullpaae.html?res=9B0CEEDB1430F93AA35752C1A9659C8B 63 (accessed March/20/11)
 Salinger, JD. 1951. The Catcher in the Rye. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd, p. 28.
 Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye,p.29
 Pierre, DBC. 2003. Vernon God Little. Faber and Faber Ltd, p. 41
 Pierre, DBC. Vernon God Little
 Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye, p. 8
 Costello, Donald P. (1957). "The Language of The Catcher in the Rye" in: Bloom, Harold (ed.), Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations: The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Chelsea House: 11-21, p.18