“Certainly shows promise” – The Incendiaries by RO Kwon

Sometimes you like a book and sometime you don’t. Usually when you like a book, you can say why; ditto when you don’t like a book. RO Kwon’s debut novel, The Incendiaries, is unusual. It’s fair to say that we didn’t get along with it, but hard to say why. What’s more, despite not getting along with it, I picked it up, started it, put it down and read something else three times before I finally battened down the hatches and said to myself: I will finish The Incendiaries. Now, it may be that I am bloody minded and don’t like to leave a book unfinished that I have started. But I also think there was something about The Incendiaries that kept nagging at me. I’m going to try and work it out via a therapeutic review so bear with me.

The Incendiaries is the story of Phoebe (born in Seoul, raised in America, mother and father apart, showed promise as a pianist until she realised she could never be as good as she felt she needed to be to be world-class), Will (a religious sort who loses his faith, who struggles with money, works hard at a restaurant job, seems to care for Phoebe until he behaves in a way that indicates he does not) and John Leal (an evangelical sort, born in India, possibly held in a gulag, possible witness to a pregnant lady possibly being kicked to death). All three cross paths at a prestigious, albeit fictional, Ivy League University. Phoebe and Will go out with one another, and undoubtedly Will is a little more into things than Phoebe is. Phoebe is also somewhat vulnerable, holding herself responsible for her mother’s death in an automobile accident, feeling guilty about the amount of money she subsequently inherited. In lots of ways, this is all background. John Leal, the evangelical sort, has a get-together of like-minds, known as Jejah (which means disciple, Will is told, but is actually “submission” in Korean) – and first Phoebe and then Will are drawn in, studying the Bible, digging holes and then filling them in again before finally graduating to protests outside abortion clinics, group penances, acts of terrorism. As you’d expect, there is friction – between Will and John Leal, between Will and Phoebe – which we glimpse in a tri-partite narrative style, the perspective switching between each of them (although the vast majority of Will’s chapters are long and the vast majority of John Leal’s chapters are about a paragraph in length).

“This situation, well, it was a crisis. The girl I loved was in a cult – and that’s what it was, I thought, a cult. It was a problem, but I’d solve it, because I was intelligent.”

In some respects, then, you wouldn’t be far wrong of the mark if you started thinking of The Incendiaries in the same vein as A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi – although Khadivi’s book is better – in that this is essentially the story of how a person comes to be radicalised. It’s also been obliquely compared to Don DeLillo’s Mao II, another comparison which does The Incendiaries a disservice. What you must bear in mind before you start reading Kwon’s debut is that this is a debut. For everything that sticks between your teeth, imagine Homer Simpson saying, “Debut.” So – the curious narrative imbalance between the three characters (debut), the fact Will and Phoebe’s chapter headings lack a surname whilst John Leal is always John Leal (debut), the faux DeLillo-esque way in which we glimpse the inner workings of John Leal (debut), the fact that we are often told the same things again and again from different perspectives (debut). A lot of these more minor issues coalesce around the fact that Will didn’t feel, to this reader, like a well-drawn male character, and as the book progresses he comes more to the fore while Phoebe all but disappears and John Leal – well, John Leal can hardly be said to exist at all, except as a kind of cypher. But, you know, debut. Debut debut debut debut debut debut debut.

One comparison that is apposite, though, is with Donna Tartt’s debut, The Secret History. Kwon’s debut feels as precocious as Tartt’s. There is something assured about the undertaking, a modern confidence. Here I am, The Incendiaries seems to say. And there are times, such as when we hear from Will as he imagines the shack in the woods that functions as a retreat for John Leal’s ‘cult’:

“I could almost see the place in June. Birch branches gleaming white, like picked bones. They lit bonfires until the sweat flowed into tears. The light tinged the circling trees with blood. They fasted, atoned. Tired bodies ached with hope.”

Or when we hear Sophie describe her attraction to Will:

“Until Will, I drifted: he attached me to this patch of earth.”

that you glimpse the promise of much sturdier writing.

Any Cop?: We’re not entirely sure it warrants quite all of the critical fawning it’s received but it certainly shows promise. Kwon is a writer of angles. When she’s worked out some of the kinks, she’ll be a writer worth keeping an eye on.

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