Thursday, 2 August 2018

Book review: The Incendiaries, R.O. Kwon (2018)

It’s hard to know where the model for the prose in this ambitious experimental novel lies. The author is an Asian-American, a woman, and the book has been compared to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’ (2013) (which I thought was a dismal failure).

In Tartt’s novel, the drama is so tight in the opening scenes you can see the explosion that rips through the art gallery coming from a mile off. The screws in the mechanism are wound down by a completely visible hand until the bone gets crushed in slow motion. You’re supposed to be moved by the clumsy artifice but the art is absent. In Kwon’s novel, too, the art is poor but the medium – clipped, short sentences, poetic asides, impressionistic mark-making that is supposed to accumulate to form a rich tapestry of meaning – is ostentatiously sophisticated.

Apart from this failing, there are also major problems with characterisation in the novel. You see Will lusting after Phoebe and his thoughts are transferred to the page in order to underscore the depth of his desire (leaving aside the criticism that I wasn’t convinced of the writer’s understanding of male desire), but there is nothing similar to show how Phoebe feels about Will. Phoebe’s earlier life living with her mother, a migrant like her from South Korea, and her obsession with piano music, are realised in some detail but Phoebe is not given a personality of her own that would justify the time spent on her. And she is central to the plot (presumably).

The plot outline that you get comes more from news articles you read about the book than from the beginning of the book itself. There’s apparently a religious Christian cult and an act of terror. These are the big bits of the plot that the characterisation somehow has to justify by filling in the gaps lying between its girders. But John Leal (another Korean-American), who survives a spell in a North Korean gulag, is distant and untouchable. The author has to make him breathe if we are to believe in his charisma and his messianic pull, but the work hadn’t been done by the time I gave up reading the book, at about the 25-percent mark.

It seems to me that you have here just another example of plain-old American myopia. In America, roughly 50 percent of the population goes to church every week. The rate in Britain and Australia is more like eight percent. There is something about the stories that Americans tell themselves that privilege the individual above the collective. The devil. The messiah. The solitary stranger who comes to town one day. In his book ‘The Founding of New Societies: Studies in the History of the United States, Latin America, South Africa, Canada, and Australia’ (1964) Louis Hartz posits a “fragment theory” to explain differences in societies that are founded at different stages in the development of the root culture.

Kwon in her disappointing novel is clearly trying to say something profound about America but her grasp of the facts, and the strength of her artistic vision, are unequal to the job of supporting let alone ferrying to the reader the weight that the project places on her talent.

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