Recently I seemed to be reading a lot of father-and-son stories, from John Fante to Stephen King, books that delved into the mixture of guilt, regret, and disappointment inherent in such relationships. Then I realized two things. First, there are also a lot of mother-and-son stories out there. Second, they don’t meddle with complex or secondary emotions: they’re about stark and unmitigated love, or about equally strong and unmitigated hate.
In the hate category, I am awed by Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, the beautifully written story of travel writer and entrepreneur Eva Khatchadourian and of how her life is destroyed by the birth of a child, Kevin, who turns out to be inscrutably mean. It reminded me most of Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, where Ben’s congenital malice, even if doctors say there’s nothing wrong with him, ends up destroying his family. Of course, there are several differences between the two stories: Ben is, as the title says, the fifth child in a large and previously happy family, while Kevin is the first-born, followed only years later by angelic little sister Celia. And while Ben, being English, ends up joining a gang of juvenile delinquents, Kevin, living in suburban New Jersey, finds himself enjoying a fleeting notoriety in jail for killing seven classmates, a teacher and a cafeteria worker in a quasi-Columbine-style high school massacre. Yet, in spite of telling two different stories, at the core of both novels are the devastating hate that the son vomits on the world around him, and the helplessness of his mother, or really any mother similarly cursed with evil offspring.
In the love category, here are two books about children brought up by single mothers as a vast educational project: Loverboy by Victoria Redel and The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. Redel’s book, written in a rather minimalistic prose of short and luminous chapters, is about the obsessive love of a mother for her little boy, Paul, and her desire to protect him from the outside world: but while Paul always remains a bit out of focus, his mother’s compulsive behaviors and lies are laid out in a fast escalation to the not-so-surprise ending.
DeWitt‘s wonderfully eccentric story, about depressed but linguistically gifted mother Sibylla and her child prodigy Ludo, is vastly more charming: Ludo starts playing the piano at three, reading Ancient Greek at four, and goes on to Hebrew, Japanese, Old Norse, Inuit, and advanced mathematics. Oh, and he is also an insightful film critic, particularly fond of watching and rewatching Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which Sibylla provides to compensate for the lack of male role models in Ludo’s life. In his teens, he sets out (in spite of Sibylla’s opposition) to look for his father, methodically testing one by one all the men who might unknowingly have fathered him. Among these four books, this is the quirkiest, and if you like the outpour of erudition you’ll find it quite enjoyable.
(In reviewing The Last Samurai, a critic wrote that Helen DeWitt “seems to have written this book as if her life depended on it“: three years later, DeWitt appears to have planned and attempted suicide. She has since then moved to Berlin and written another book, Your Name Here, with the Australian journalist Ilya Gridneff. As far as I can tell, she seems to be hanging in there. You can even get two of her short stories by sending her five bucks via PayPal, which I am thinking of doing just now).