Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Murder Gene: Defending Jacob, We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Good Father

There is a general belief that having a genetic predisposition for violent behaviour and growing up in an aggressive environment can be lethal. In the novels Defending Jacob by William Landay (Delacorte Books, 2012), We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver (Counterpoint 2003) and The Good Father by Noah Hawley (Double Day 2012), the second condition is absent yet horrific crimes are perpetrated. The mystery is not about the identity of the perpetrators – in two of them the reader is informed at the outset and in the third, early on he has a sneaking suspicion – but rather why these murders were committed, to what extent genes play a role and, perhaps most interesting, the response of the fathers when their sons are charged with murder.

The science of behavioral genetics is most explicitly raised in Defending Jacob when the fourteen year old son of the Assistant DA, Andy Barber, is accused of knifing a classmate to death. Although Andy is a successful lawyer, who with his wife, Laurie, and their son, Jacob, enjoys a comfortable suburban lifestyle until the son’s arrest, he harbours a secret that he has never told his family. His own father, whom he has not seen since he was a child is serving a life term for murder, and his grandfather and great-grandfather were violent men, both incarcerated for many years. With Jacob’s trial approaching and the possibility that his family history will be raised, he has no choice but to inform his family. They visit a scientist, who, while assuring them that “predisposition is not predestination,” solicits a DNA test from the three generations to determine whether their genes might be encoded for violence. Although Andy considers this “junk science,” he accedes to the request even though he insists that he has never been violent at any time in his life. That may or may not be true but in his understandable belief that Jacob is innocent, he will do anything to prove it. 

When he skirts around the law by disposing of Jacob’s knife found in his son’s room and by incriminating someone else in a manner that he must have realized would have terrible consequences for that person, the reader suspects there may be more to him than what he presents. When Laurie, who begins to unravel psychically under the pressure, raises the possibility that their son may be a murderer and “it’s possible it might be our fault,” Andy dismisses her suggestion even as the damaging evidence, which largely comes from classmates and friends on Facebook, testimony at the trial and Jacob’s own words on the Internet, reveals that Jacob had the means and a motive. Jacob, who remains uncommunicative and monosyllabic with his parents and lawyer, is voluble on the Internet even posting jokes that could be used against him at his trial. Despite the mounting evidence and Andy’s willful blindness, the family appears to secure a reprieve. But the stunning conclusion to this propulsively-paced read leads one to suspect not only the unreliability of the first person narrator but also to consider that the law could take the murder gene into account.

We Need to talk About Kevin is a disturbing epistolary novel which consists of a series of letters from the wife, Eva, to whom appears to be her estranged husband, Franklin. The letters chronicle their early relationship when she was a successful travel writer, her pregnancy and difficulty with Kevin’s early life. She goes on to relate his adolescence leading up to his Columbine-like rampage and concludes with its aftermath, mainly in the facility where he is being held. Franklin has always remained blinkered about his, sullen, manipulative son. He has a boundless belief in his Kevin and engages him in activities that he thinks Kevin will respond to in a positive way. Franklin is incapable of recognizing that his son is putting on a performance for him. Almost every time his father appears, Kevin alters his voice, mannerisms and vocabulary to impress his father. And from an early age, he succeeds. Franklin absolves Kevin of every allegation that Eva enumerates: boys will grow out of their aggression toward other little children; you cannot blame him for what others carelessly do themselves, even when that includes the blinding of his younger sister in one eye: “I’m sorry but most of the time he seems pretty good-natured to me.” Instead, Franklin blames Eva for being cold, resentful and emotionally unavailable to their son, whose single passion is archery, which he encourages. Even when Franklin half-heartedly attempts to boundary his son in order to appease his wife, it has a wink-wink nod sensibility. Only once does Franklin experience the full-throttled disdain that Kevin really feels towards him – and by this time it is too late. But Franklin is not the only one to be snookered. In one revealing incident, Eva describes a hearing to determine whether a drama teacher was guilty of sexual harassment. Kevin expertly plays the role of a confused, awkward student, a victim of a woman who exploited his adolescent sexuality. Only Eva recognizes his thespian skills as he dupes the superintendent and other parents. The result is the teacher is dismissed from teaching. While she labels the charade a “show trial,” predictably, Franklin entertains no doubts that the teacher behaved badly and deserves whatever punishment she receives.

An exploration of the killer gene is arguably the subtext of the novel. Eva has ambiguities about her pregnancy, is unable to breast feed, and endures his nonstop shrieking until his father appears and then he miraculously stops. Kevin from a very early age – perhaps too early to be credible – is clearly waging war with his mother. He is a monster who at the age of four destroys his mother’s decorated study, at six defiantly poops in his underwear in order to spite his mother, and shows cruelty and sadism toward anyone who appears vulnerable. Even though Eva comes to dislike and fear her son and does not flinch from exploring her own culpability, Shriver’s novel is not about the failure of nurturing; it is about the inexorable power of nature. When Kevin carefully and sadistically orchestrates the massacre of his chosen victims in the school gymnasium to achieve maximum horror, he kills not because his parents (and grandparents) are flawed but because he is the “bad seed.” With full awareness of the criminal law regarding young people, he stages his slaughter just days prior to the age when the law would have treated him as an adult wherein his crime would have entailed more serious consequences.

More people will likely be familiar with the 2011 film adaptation of We Need to talk About Kevin. This is unfortunate because Lynne Ramsay’s heavy-handed impressionist film does not illuminate the novel. Instead it is ponderous and distorts the book’s meaning. When he does appear, the father is basically clueless. Unlike the novel’s spirited exchanges between Eva and the unrepentant Kevin after the massacre, the camera agonizingly dwells on their long silences, punctuated by a few muttered utterances. Whether intended or not, the film focuses on blaming and reinforcing the guilt of the mother with scenes minimized or not in the book depicting neighbours and co-workers hurling verbal abuse and defacing her house and car. Ramsay appears intent on punishing the viewer as much as the mother.

The murder gene is implicitly raised and rejected in The Good Father, perhaps the most nuanced and satisfying of the three novels because the heinous crime does not lend itself to an easy explanation. In the harrowing opening chapter, Paul Allen, an accomplished physician whose specialty is diagnosing patients with conflicted symptoms, is about to have dinner with his second wife and family when a television news flash reports that a charismatic Democratic presidential Democratic nominee has been assassinated and early reports indicate the captured culprit is Paul’s twenty-year old son, Daniel, from his first marriage. Paul devotes the next year to trying to prove his son’s innocent. As the incriminating evidence accumulates – Daniel has been caught on film, his fingerprints are on the weapon and he pleads guilty – Paul hears that his son and two veterans were arrested on a freight train, he wonders whether his son has unwittingly become involved in some conspiracy in which he is the fall-guy. At the same time, Paul parses his son’s enigmatic life and conducts a self-forensic examination to determine how he failed him. He realizes that although Daniel’s early life was not abusive, it was unstable after his first marriage ended when Daniel was seven. The divorce left his son unmoored living with his erratic mother on the west coast while he resumed his career and started a new family in the east. In order to visit his father, Daniel shuttled by plane back and forth. On one occasion, the aircraft almost crashed and the experience seared the boy. His parents seemed “smaller” since they were unable to protect him; he later acknowledges to his father that he should have died on that flight. When he was a teenager, Daniel came to live with his father in Connecticut but he felt like a visiting exchange student rather than a member of a family. Paul initially believes that he was there for Daniel but on self-reflection, realizes that except for a camping trip, he was rarely available for his son in the manner he currently enjoys with his young twins from his second marriage. As Paul examines the evidence with the same precision that he uses in his practice, he comes to accept his son’s probable guilt, his own limitations as a father and the sad realization that he does not know his son at all. No reader will be unmoved by Paul’s grief, his guilt and his unconditional love for Daniel.

Apart from the father’s probing self-awareness and his case studies of the assailants from other political shootings – among them the Kennedy assassinations, the attempts on Reagan and on Congresswoman Gabriele Giffords in 2011 – what distinguishes The Good Father from the other novels under consideration is that the narrative alternates between Paul’s soul-searching attempt to understand his son and Daniel’s own viewpoint and ruminations after he drops out of college and drifts around the country. He seems aimless and detached even though he spends a happy few months with a family working on a farm before his restlessness forces him to move on. When he hears in Austin Texas about the Texas Bell Tower sniper, Charles Whitman, who in 1966 killed thirteen people while wounding thirty others, he acknowledges that his life has been dramatically altered. He changes his name to Carter Allen Cash and becomes obsessed with guns. After initially being impressed by the candidate, he turns against the “hypocrite” (à la John Edwards during the 2008 primary or Bill Clinton) and is convinced that he must punish this politician before he is elected. Yet Daniel is no grotesque monstrosity like Kevin. He seems mostly lost and angry before becoming delusional. In sum the novel is not primarily interested in investigating whether his unsettled childhood, much less his lineage, can explain his terrible act. If anything, The Good Father is about the weighted responsibilities and the limitations of fatherhood. Even a decent parent needs some good luck. 

(photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. 11 The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, will be launched on Thursday March 7 between 6 PM and 8 PM at Ben McNally Books 366 Bay St. (Richmond and Bay) in Toronto.

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