Sunday, April 22, 2007

American Literature Tackles Terror, Part 2

The Sunday Observer provides an interesting and topical look at where fiction can provide an insight into reality: this time in the context of the tragedy that fell upon Virginia Tech last week, and I am talking about Lionel Shriver and her prophetic We Need to Talk About Kevin which won the 2005 Orange Book Award for fiction. As fiction merges with reality at the edges, the name “Kevin,” thanks to Shriver’s book, has become synonymous with the term “campus-killer.”

Lynn Barber talks with Lionel Shriver (aka Margaret Ann Shriver) at length in the wake of the terror that unfolded on an American campus. Firstly the Observer provides us with a little background on Shriver -- an American displaced in London who is releasing her latest work The Post-Birthday World from HarperCollins:
Born : Margaret Ann Shriver, 18 May 1957, Gastonia, North Carolina, to a Presbyterian minister father and full-time mother who was also a poet, political campaigner and theology academic. Currently lives in London with her husband, jazz drummer Jeff Williams.

Education : Columbia University.

Career : Taught English in New York. Spent 12 years reporting on the Troubles in Belfast. Published six novels before achieving popular and critical acclaim for We Need to Talk About Kevin. Though rejected by 30 publishers it went on to win the 2005 Orange Prize For Fiction and has sold 600,000 copies in the UK.

She says 'Writing is fundamentally dull, and there are no real secrets to it: You sit down, you type something out, most of the time, if you have any self-respect, you throw it away.'

They say 'There's plenty of chick-lit in the world, and we need a Shriver to pick holes in it. We need literature not another Yummy Mummy.' (Kate Muir in the Times.)
Firstly, Shriver blogged over at The Guardian earlier in the week after the full terror of Virginia Tech exploded across our television, radio, Internet and newspapers. She said:
The campus shooting phenomenon in the US would have lost much of its power to shock by now if it weren't for the fact that the perpetrators keep ingeniously introducing new twists. Last October, it was an Amish school, of all places; in 2005 it was a school on a Native American reservation. On what was almost exactly the eighth anniversary of Columbine - hitherto a one-word thumbnail for this whole family of atrocities - the 32-body-count shooting at Virginia Tech has an uncomfortably competitive flavour. The man who killed himself all too late in the day in Blacksburg, Virginia, claimed more than twice as many victims as Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris did at Columbine high school in 1999. Though "Virginia Tech" doesn't have the same ring as the punchier "Columbine", you wonder if this new shooter wasn't making a bid to update the cultural lexicon - to coin the new byword for random campus violence.

While the killers continue to improvise, the media aftermath is numbingly ritualistic. We ask: why do these rampages keep happening, why primarily in the United States, and what is to be done? The answers vary, but they are universally unsatisfactory.
Lynn Barber reports in The Observer:
As I was interviewing Lionel Shriver in Foyles jazz cafe in London, a student was shooting 32 of his classmates and staff at Virginia Tech, and sure enough, next day, I heard someone say ‘Another Kevin’. It is a mark of how deeply Shriver’s novel ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ has penetrated that Kevin has become almost the generic term for campus killers.

When her novel won the Orange Prize in 2005, having been rejected by 30 publishers, the big question was: Who is Lionel Shriver? A woman with a man's name, an American who had lived for years, unknown, in London, she seemed to arrive from nowhere to become overnight a literary star. But it turned out to be the usual story of overnight success - Kevin was actually her seventh novel, or eighth if you count one that was never published; she was 48 and had been writing for 20 'very lean and very hard' years before she found recognition. Print runs of her early novels were so small that they are now collectors' items - a tatty copy of her first novel, The Female of the Species, will set you back £83 on AbeBooks.
As we know very little about Shriver, The Observer does allow a peep behind her curtain:
Given that Lionel Shriver is an internationally acclaimed author, we still know surprisingly little about her life. The potted biographies in her books give nothing away. But here is what we know so far. She was born on 18 May 1957 in North Carolina, the middle child of three with brothers on either side. Her father was a Presbyterian minister and later president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, and she idolised him. Her mother was a homemaker until Lionel was 15 when she started working for the National Council on Churches. They were a deeply religious family - there were family prayers and Bible readings over dinner. She has said in the past: ‘There is a very thin line in my family between God and my father.’
When she was 12 she announced that she wasn't going to church and ‘My father literally dragged me into the car by my hair. And that carried on for a while and then finally, when I was 16, he couldn’t do it any more.’ But although she is not religious herself, she says it rubbed off on her: ‘You said something about my moral seriousness -- I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a terrible drag! But my father’s specialty is ethics so in that sense it’s gotten inside. I think the difference is that I’m not satisfied by liberal platitudes. I like the hard case.’
The full piece on Shriver can be accessed here.

I’ll leave the last word to Shriver’s blog as, in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, she tackles gun control:
How many mass killings does the American public have to witness before its government gets serious about gun control? While the source of armaments in Monday’s shooting has yet to be disclosed as I write, Virginia has some of the most lax gun laws in the country. You can buy “only” one handgun per month, and criminal-background checks are not required to buy weapons at gun shows.

Nevertheless, American versions of strict gun control are so farcical that many campus shooters would still have had no problem acquiring weapons while playing by the most stringent of rules likely to be applied. Who is to say that campus shooters of the future won’t be perfectly content to bide their time as a required “waiting period” between purchase and acquisition ticks by?

For America’s federal government to take gun control seriously, nothing less than mass armed insurrection is required. Were the public ever to act on the principles of their own Declaration of Independence, for example - “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive ... it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” -- Congress would shut down the gun industry in a heartbeat.
In my opinion, the edges between Reality and Fiction, as presented by contemporary literature, have never been so blurred. I remember an old English teacher of mine telling me that fact is far stranger than fiction, but in the 21st century I’m having difficulty seeing where the borders lie.

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