By Jennifer Reese
January 23, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s easy to see why Columbine-style high school massacres have become popular fodder for novelists. As the sadistic 15-year-old assassin in Lionel Shriver’s powerful, harrowing We Need to Talk About Kevin says: ”I got plot. Bought and paid for. That’s what all you people want, and why you’re sucking off me. You want my plot.”

True enough. And what a stretchy, accommodating plot high school murder turns out to be. From a single real-life blueprint — boy goes into cafeteria and starts shooting — has emerged in the last year a handful of wildly dissimilar books, each clearly imprinted, for better or worse, with the bias and worldview of its author.

The latest entry is Jim Shepard’s Project X, the delicate tale of Edwin Hanratty, a self-conscious eighth grader (”I’m such a loser and a half. I’m the kid you think about when you want to make yourself feel better”) who helps orchestrate a school shooting. He’s a nice boy, with sympathetic parents. Much too nice, as it turns out. He is talked into the rampage by his sexually confused buddy and when the crucial moment arrives, Edwin bursts into tears and doesn’t pull the trigger. Good for Edwin; bad choice by Shepard. Why lead us, step by step, into a bloodbath without answering the million-dollar question: What makes a kid kill other kids?

A similar gutlessness afflicts DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little, last year’s surprise winner of the U.K.’s prestigious Man Booker Prize. (Europeans clearly delight in tales of American teen barbarity; director Gus Van Sant’s chilly Columbine-inspired ”Elephant” took the 2003 Palme d’Or at Cannes.) Set in the aftermath of a school shooting in fictional Martirio, Tex. — populated exclusively by vulgarians, perverts, and ignoramuses — hapless young Vernon tries to exonerate himself of any involvement in the murders committed by his tormented ”Meskin” pal Jesus (as with the perpetrators in ”Project X” and ”Elephant,” also sexually confused). Vernon gets no help from his fatuous mother or her piggy friends, busy gorging on barbecue, obsessing over appliances, and competing for the affections of a slimy newsman in town to exploit the tragedy. The novel’s tone is burlesque, its plot a haphazard mess, and its message — school killings are business as usual in the great American freak show — asinine.

Happily, American culture can’t be blamed for the violence that kicks off Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus! because, for a change, the disaster takes place in Canada. Coupland’s promising, crystalline first chapter is narrated a la ”Lovely Bones” by Cheryl, the pregnant, deeply Christian 17-year-old victim of a school killing who doodles ”GOD IS NOWHERE/GOD IS NOW HERE” in homeroom right before her death. But the gunmen — angry boys resentful of the cool crowd — barely figure in ”Nostradamus,” which in the second chapter floats off into a bewildering meditation on the dysfunctional family of Cheryl’s high school lover. What a cop-out. If you’re going to stage a lunchroom holocaust in chapter 1, you need to commit to it.

From none of the aforementioned books will you catch but the faintest whiff of evil. Middle American buffoonery, yes; victimization, absolutely; sexual confusion, check. Fortunately, Shriver’s magnificent ”We Need to Talk About Kevin,” written in the form of letters from 55-year-old Eva Khatchadourian to her estranged husband after their son slaughters seven schoolmates, reeks of spiritual cordite. Hyperarticulate, narcissistic, and, since Kevin’s killing spree, utterly broken, Eva offers a blistering account of her son’s life, from his birth (she resented him instantly) through his nightmarish childhood to his adolescence, when he regularly and maliciously masturbated in front of her. She’s a crummy parent, but he’s an awful son — and it’s never entirely clear which came first. When Kevin sends arrows through the hearts and brains of his victims — in a scene of chilling, precisely rendered violence — he hisses a word that he just learned in English class: maleficence.

As this recent crop of novels shows, you can interpret late-’90s school shootings a dozen ways, spin them, load them with moral freight, and use them to cudgel American culture. But without acknowledging human maleficence, the book will have no more weight than a Harlequin romance.