Fictionalizing Horror

Today, we'll talk to Dave Cullen about his comprehensive book on Columbine — today is the ten-year anniversary. The event inspired a raft of fictional school shooting accounts, from movies like Gus Van Sant's Elephant to the cluster of novels that followed. The event bullied its way into the imaginations of so many people that it's not surprising that so many fiction writers have used it as a jumping off point, but their efforts, in my opinion, have varied in quality. Here's a small review of just three of the books I've read that use a school shooting as the central premise:

Nineteen Minutes, by Jodi Picoult.
I like Picoult a great deal; she's got a nice way of writing her female characters, and her books are compulsively readable. However, this is by far the weakest of the three. It takes the false premise that school shootings happen because of bullying (in the case of Columbine — that's one of the central myths), and worse, adds an improbable twist — not even worthy of an airport mystery — towards the end. There are worthwhile parts of the book, namely the rich characterization of the shooter's parents, but all in all, a mediocre effort from a good writer.

The Hour I First Believed, by Wally Lamb.
This is the most recent of the books, and it does something odd that the other two avoid — it uses the real Columbine as its central event. Lamb did a great deal of research, and even goes to the trouble of a re-enactment of the massacre, along with long extracts from Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris's journals. The book focuses on the husband of a fictional Columbine teacher that survives the shooting in a library cabinet — if focus is the right word, given Lamb's sprawling plot. And the unwieldiness of the story (which, I'm not kidding you, also includes 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Iraq War) isn't helped by Lamb's writing style, which is, for me, very hard to read.

We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver.
By far the best of the three, Shriver (who is another gal with a somewhat androgynous name) creates a suspenseful and thoughtful book around a school shooting — told in the first person as a series of letters from the mother of the shooter to her husband. Kevin, the murderer, is portrayed as a psychopath, which is somewhat harder of a literary device to tackle. Shriver does it admirably, and still manages to make the book both thrilling and relate-able. It's a terrifying book, but still, a must-read.

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