I’m Pretty Sure The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon Is a Book

Beyond That, Though, Who Knows?

I read The Incendiaries, by R.O. Kwon. Why did I read this book? I don’t know exactly. It was on the lists, and sometimes I try to read what’s on the lists. I put it in my library queue and forgot about it, and then it came available. At the time, I knew nothing about the book. Now that I’ve read the book, I still know nothing.

The Incendaries by R.O. Kwon contains some characters, I think. One of them is named Phoebe Lin. She’s the daughter of some sort of Korean-American religious figure. According to the book jacket, she feels guilty about her mother’s death, though I couldn’t actually find that guilt, or figure out anything about the death, in the text itself.

Phoebe Lin falls in with another character, named John Leal. According to one of the three scenes I could understand, John Leal was in North Korea for some reason and then ended up in a prison camp. This eventually turned him into a cult leader at an East Coast college town. That is bad, though it could also maybe be good. I couldn’t figure.

The other major character in the book is named Will. He has the name of a man, so I assume he’s a man. Apparently Will believes in Jesus, but mostly he believes in making it with Phoebe. It’s possible that he also gets involved in the cult, but I really couldn’t tell. Phoebe and Will both witness a terrible explosion where a bunch of buildings burn. Or maybe they cause the explosion. Again, I couldn’t tell, exactly. I do know it happened, however. Even though it’s the only actual action in the book, it occurs on the first page.

Some of the chapters in The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon begin with the name of a character. However, they’re not always about that character, or narrated in the voice of that character. Sometimes the chapters start about a character and then change gears midway through the chapter to be about a different two or three characters. Regardless, it doesn’t matter, because every character gets narrated in the same flat voice. Here’s an example, from page 69, because I’m immature:

“He held his plastic cup to his mouth a long time, his solitude obvious. It pulled me in. I shifted into his line of vision, but he kept looking past me, into the crowd of bodies. He lifted his drink again.”

Riveting, no? I think that was Phoebe talking. It’s hard to say. That may be the scene where she meets Will, even though she and Will are together from the beginning. All the action in The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon takes place out of order, even though there’s not any actual action. But there are a lot of long, boring scenes of people playing the piano and, I think, the cello.

Usually a writer has to have a long career before they get away with producing formal experiments that coldly mock the human desire to hear stories. But The Incendiaries is R.O. Kwon’s first book, so she clearly skipped ahead to the boss level.

This concludes my review of The Incendiaries, by R.O. Kwon.

(Penguin, July 2018)

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

One thought on “I’m Pretty Sure The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon Is a Book

  • December 18, 2018 at 12:23 am

    I too found the book unengaging and the writing flat. The author dictated the thoughts and actions so her characters moved as if on puppet strings. But for all the string pulling, the characters essentially walked in place. One example is how many times a consumption of a drink occurs, not no real feeling of inebriation emanated from the pages.


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