The Incendiaries is a sharp, little novel as hard to ignore as a splinter in your eye. You keep blinking at these pages, struggling to bring the story into some comforting focus, convinced you can look past its unsettling intimations. But R.O. Kwon doesn’t make it easy to get her debut out of your system ... Kwon’s crisp, poetic style conveys events that feel lightly obscured by fog, just enough to be disorienting without being frustrating ... One of the cleverest aspects of The Incendiaries is the way Kwon suggests that all three of these people are lying, though for different reasons and with wildly different repercussions ... In a nation still so haunted by the divine promise, on the cusp of ever-more contentious debates about abortion and other intrinsically spiritual issues, The Incendiaries arrives at precisely the right moment.
Kwon evades the pitfalls of the religious novel by giving them the widest possible berth. Here are a handful of facts, she seems to say, if they even are facts. Make of them what you will ... The Incendiaries is so parsimonious with description as to seem nearly starved of it. Kwon makes few attempts to summon an atmosphere or to flaunt arresting imagery, although when she does she acquits herself beautifully ... The Incendiaries seeds such paradoxes in the mind of the reader. It doesn’t force them. It is full of absences and silence. Its eerie, sombre power is more a product of what it doesn’t explain than of what it does. It’s the rare depiction of belief that doesn’t kill the thing it aspires to by trying too hard. It makes a space, and then steps away to let the mystery in.
In R. O. Kwon’s radiant debut novel, The Incendiaries, her two central figures are the perpetrators, and victims, of the act of charm ... This is a dark, absorbing story ... The novel is about extremism, yes, but it’s for anyone who’s ever been captivated by another; for anyone who has been on either side of a relationship that clearly has a subject and object of obsession ... Kwon makes real two characters who are, at first, types ... Kwon’s ornate language adds a creeping anachronism to the chapters. Its metaphors seem accessible at first, but take a bit of parsing ... This unusual novel, both raw and finely wrought, leaves the reader with very few answers and little to rely on.
Kwon’s prose is artfully crafted. It is spare and accessible, then, delightfully explosive in its literary tendencies, the music and the flourish ... Kwon has a knack for setting stunning scenes that immerse us in a world familiar yet fractured: a watery memory that we want to stay and explore, understand. This is fantastic fiction, dripping with detail and nostalgia—experience translated poignantly, accessibly—scenes in this book are a dead-on dream. There are moments that read like an independent film screenplay, or conjure the feeling one gets while watching a film projection. Images come alive, light burns through silver halide, and what we see on screen, on the page, in our minds, is as tangible and fleeting as a film frame ... Written with sparsity and flourish, a well-constructed narrative fractured and woven into cinematic scenes, populated with complex characters that demand our attention in exchange for access, The Incendiaries is at times reminiscent of a Haruki Murakami novel. Alongside Kwon’s persistent, driven prose is a narrative of personal and interpersonal unraveling. Kwon cultivates a palpable emptiness, a space to feel the growing sense of loss that progressively saturates these pages.
...[a] luminous debut novel ... The story is told through a lens blurred by longing and loss, and every sentence is filled with it. Kwon seems to breathe beautiful sentences onto the page ... Reading The Incendiaries is like watching the work of a great auteur, where every shot and shadow is constructed to convey a theme or emotion, and to finish reading the book is to carry feelings of yearning and regret for days afterward ... The Incendiaries is an extraordinary novel in so many ways: the finely hewn beauty of its language, the layering of its themes, the ways that it reveals truth through narrative unreliability, and the remarkable way it makes one uncomfortable with one’s sympathies.
The intertwined currents of violence and beauty run through the novel, a striking debut by R.O. Kwon that deals with faith, extremism, love, and loss ... Kwon’s prose sizzles. Her sentences are deft, short, crackling. Her portrait of undergraduate life at Edwards is masterful. She captures the constant haze of alcohol, the courtyards and costume parties and clubs with drinking rules, the push and pull of attraction. She writes the erotic well ... At times, though, the writing can be overwrought. There are moments of exposition where omission might have worked better ... The book is propulsive, especially in later chapters, and I read with dread and hunger ... This novel is overrun with collisions of all kinds: of faith and doubt, of loss and love, of Will’s yearning and Phoebe’s resistance. In Kwon’s luminous prose, these collisions are not quiet. They are explosive.
The Incendiaries finds its greatest depth in the conflation of politics and faith ... Some of Kwon's language delivers meaningful aperçus, while some passages simply try too hard ... Capturing the intensity of the groves of academe might require this kind of elevated puffery, but at times the meat is hard to stomach. Still, Kwon delivers a poignant and powerful look into the millenial mindset. It can be rocky, but it can also rock.
R. O. Kwon's The Incendiaries has that goopy, impressionistic textured prose found in novels like The Girls by Emma Cline and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff ... The descriptive storytelling action is generously mixed with flashes of introspection and pure passages of elegant language, which smartly serves to establish the unreliability of our given narrator, Will Kendall ... The Incendiaries is less a story than a collection of these impressions and imprinted moments, feeling at times like an exercise in teasing out the most abstracted and poetical way of writing about something, often letting any potential sense of narrative propulsion fall to the wayside ... actually reading it means often stepping back from that twisted, lush prose to remember than the story itself is fairly simple, albeit rendered in a non-clichéd way ... Most of what didn't resonate with me on a story-related level can be explained through the incredible deliberate narrowness of how its story is presented to us—it's always through Will's eyes, even when it appears as though Phoebe or John Leal is speaking ... For a cult leader whose influence drives one major character astray, John Leal isn't very charismatic or enticing at all, coming across through Will's jaded psyche as overly dramatic, a suspicious fraud right from the get-go. That's obviously a choice that Kwon made, preferring to keep [the cult] Jejah translated through Will's perception rather than risk letting us, the readers, be tempted by its doctrines.
The Incendiaries is a mystery about the soul that eschews easy interpretations. Even seasoned novelists often flinch while writing ugliness, choosing to resolve a dramatic conflict so that the novel roughly conforms with humanist values, rather than set forth the puzzling, unsettling ambiguities of life as it is actually lived. But this novel’s characters feel remarkably natural and organic, as if Kwon came upon this story growing in a forest, and simply pressed it between the pages. Her novel is the better for the invisibility of the hinges and bolts and flying buttresses that must have gone into her profound imagining of it. Even the tiniest details about these characters are perfect and telling ... throughout, the novel tends to a fierce consideration of faith and fanaticism that is new. Kwon is a writer of many talents, and The Incendiaries is a debut of dark, startling beauty.
...[a] pulsating, hypnotic debut novel ... Kwon’s subject is not so much love and betrayal — though both forces are presented as elementally destructive — as the power of religion, and the grieving that engulfs those who lose faith. She understands what a believer will do to retain her sense of belonging ... The Incendiaries doesn’t read like a debut. Kwon, who can write with lush power...chooses spareness, restraint ... The Incendiaries packs a disruptive charge, and introduces RO Kwon as a major talent.
Kwon’s lush imaginative project is to help us understand for [Will]. With the needle of her prose, she plucks at the fabric of the university, exposing the reactionary impulses that run through American life ... Kwon weaves this power dynamic into the fabric of the novel itself, allowing Will to speak in Phoebe’s voice. What often sounds like her first-person account is in fact Will ventriloquizing ... Part of The Incendiaries’s power lies in the way Kwon contrasts this campus with stereotypes of American campus culture today ... There are moments when Kwon’s novel verges on didactic. She sometimes puts lessons in her characters’ mouths that they’re ill-suited to deliver ... In the same way The Incendiaries isn’t about religion or the 'culture wars' or abortion, it also doesn’t try to create a believable world of college kids or, really, a believable world at all. Instead, it’s an impression of the mysterious social forces and private agonies that might drive a person to extremes.
The main attraction and reward of this book is Ms. Kwon’s prose. Spiky, restless and nervously perceptive, it exhales spiritual unease ... There’s something crucial missing from the novel, however. Phoebe evolves from being a vulnerable college kid to perpetrating 'the biggest attack on U.S. soil since 9/11' with unbelievable speed. How does it happen? What exactly makes Leal so compelling? Who are the other members of Jejah? Why have they, unlike most fringe groups, turned to terrorism? Ms. Kwon largely elides these questions, focusing on the overly familiar subject of Phoebe and Will’s relationship troubles. Her writing is stylish and risk-taking; her story, despite its explosive premise, plays it safe.
Throughout the novel, Kwon’s writing stuns. It shines in the little details and in-between sentences where you’re least expecting to find yourself lingering over a beautiful phrase ... Kwon, having personally experienced the pull of faith and the devastation of its loss, is gentler with these characters than I could ever be ... She does not let her characters off the hook for their detestable behaviors, but she does not villainize them beyond human recognition either. They blow up buildings, manipulate and hurt people, sometimes navel-gaze to an eye-rolling degree. They are troubled and troubling characters and they are precisely as comprehensible and infuriating as they should be. Despite, or likely because of, these difficult characters, The Incendiaries is a haunting portrayal of faith—its draw, its loss, its dangers.
R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries... [is] hardly the first...to wrestle with the strange confluences of fate and consequence ... But...[the book does it] with such shrewd insight and graceful economy that the result feels gratifyingly new ... If Kwon’s often intoxicating prose has a fault, it’s that her characters all tend to speak in the same feverish, convoluted syntax of an M.F.A. grad. (These are smart kids, but still; Will’s an econ major.) In the end...[the] book... [doesn't seem] especially interested in definitive answers or happily-ever-afters. What...[it] offer[s] instead are stories that don’t try to outline or erase otherness but illuminate it, beautifully.
Kwon vividly explores a subject that's rarely raised in mainstream novels about life on campus these days: that is, the allure of a belief in God — or at least the things that a belief in God provides ... Sometimes Kwon's style can get a bit too doggedly lyrical, but she's deft at moving the plot toward its explosive climax. In The Incendiaries Kwon has created a singular version of the campus novel; it turns out to be a story about spiritual uncertainty and about the fierce and undisciplined desire of her young characters to find something luminous to light their way through their lives.
The Incendiaries is a book of careful feints – the emphases in the story never fall where you expect, but Kwon is always in total control. She writes with aphoristic concision and a disciplined sense of what to leave out ... The Incendiaries is a startlingly assured book by an important new writer.
The Incendiaries is a campus novel with a twist and a love story with a sting. Like Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, it is also a political novel that examines the rationale for, and consequences of, terrorist acts—'the destruction of what is.' Kwon depicts controlled lives and warped convictions with great skill and intelligence. Will’s narrative is refreshingly candid ... Kwon rummages around in her characters’ pasts and exposes rash deeds and guilty consciences that serve to illuminate and inform their present states of mind and personal agendas. Kwon could have picked up the pace in some of her sections. Otherwise it is difficult to fault this powerful debut, which explores complex issues in a remarkably assured way.
The Incendiaries is primarily character-driven, relying on fragmented memories relayed by Phoebe, Will and Leal leading up to the clinic bombing. This works because Kwon's trio is undeniably fascinating. She unpacks each person’s motivations, finding out how the cracks in their lives led them to fall in or out of love with religion. But despite acknowledging faith’s seductive power, Kwon never makes excuses for the Jejah’s actions. Sometimes her imagery is sparse, but when it hits, it strikes with lush beauty or ugliness, artfully revealing truths that Kwon’s characters may try to deny ... Kwon’s novel is urgent in its timeliness, dizzyingly beautiful in its prose, and poignant in its discovery of three characters fractured by trauma, frantically trying to piece back together their lives.
Certainty’s pull is something Kwon’s novel illuminates well. Already the recipient of significant attention, The Incendiaries touches on a cluster of issues that seem ripped from the headlines ... The Incendiaries breaks with much college fiction to portray campus life as inseparable from the world outside the gates ... The pace in these early chapters is unhurried, the writing careful and evocative, as though the characters are attempting not so much to remember as to conjure their pasts ... The Incendiaries flips a convention of the religious conversion narrative on its head.
The novel abandons simplistic notions of guilt and innocence and takes us further inside the psychology of the young and the confused thank almost any contemporary novel I've read. The sometimes-startlingly relatable interiorities of Kwon's characters are so well constructed that the plot is almost secondary. This is not a criticism—it's something to marvel at.
...a luminous and propulsive if uneven debut ... Kwon wisely keeps the characters cloaked in mystery, gradually revealing their tragic backstories in short, seductively impressionistic chapters ... Kwon’s language is often intoxicating, but in her drive to layer on poetic sentences she occasionally overreaches ... Her pacing in the final stretch feels rushed, wrapping up loose plot threads, as if she’s unsure about the narrative choices she’s made ... But these are minor quibbles ... The Incendiaries marks the genesis of a dazzling career and showcases a writer who pushes herself courageously into the dark.
Kwon’s depiction of the enchantments of extreme faith is subtle, assured, and cumulatively rock-solid. While reading the book, I kept thinking (pretentious critic alert here) of Soren Kierkegaard, specifically of his meditation on the story of Abraham and Isaac. The Incendiaries shares with Kierkegaard’s parable some of the unsettling sense that pure faith is, in its drive for transcendence, capable of utter monstrousness, that the line between devoutness and insanity is porous indeed. Kwon does not shy away from the disturbing elements of this dynamic, and Phoebe’s spiral into madness is effected with a calm rigor that is, paradoxically, nearly sickening in its emotional affect. The engine of this rigor is a species of prose that is so eerily good in its rhythms and evocative nuances that one has the mysterious and disorienting feeling of reading a really good, really long poem ... The union of language and thought is complete and seamless; there is no separating the terror from the delight, the tragedy from the pleasure. This is the mark of literature operating at its highest capacity, and it transcends topicality.
...[a] stunning debut novel ... The book generates considerable momentum through its short chapters and often gorgeous language, and through the always present search for understanding. It is a difficult book to put down, one whose images and ideas remain long after the read ... we see Kwon’s ability to create this tightly coiled structure on every level of this novel ... it is her imagination and language that enables this novel to soar. Each sentence feels tight and close to perfect; never is there a wasted word.
In The Incendiaries, illusion and its stepsibling, deceit, carry out bombardments on the novel’s characters courtesy of others and the self. Delusions get picked off only to have new ones take their place, amplifying the notion that Kwon is scattering clues to a conclusion that has the unknowable up its sleeve. Rather than frustrating, this makes The Incendiaries more captivating, a school where no one ever graduates, continually caught up in the question of what really happens, body and soul. R.O. Kwon excels at the function of making the invisible visible, and delivers signs from on high—that is, where a gifted new writer is performing at a lofty level.
Big themes of religion, identity, and death swirl through the pages of The Incendiaries, but Kwon keeps her narrative grounded in the very human experiences of the young couple ... Sparkling, deliberate prose weaves the three characters together ... Kwon’s exceptional care with each character creates fully formed people who are nevertheless kept at a distance ... Phoebe may be entering a cult, and Kwon deftly enfolds her narrative to keep readers enticed until the last page. Phoebe’s Christian organization eventually sets its sights on the abortion debate, making its religious fervor feel especially specific to 2018. The potent promises of faith and love, though, give The Incendiaries a timeless quality.
The raw materials are there for an explosive novel ... But despite promising a tale of obsession, fanaticism and loss, RO Kwon’s debut The Incendiaries fails to ignite. The stylish writing and interesting subject matter are lost in a plodding narrative that feels like a paint-by-numbers attempt at Donna Tartt’s The Secret History ... This is no doubt about Kwon’s prose, which is at times beautiful and eloquent and worthy of attention ... Aesthetically pleasing in parts, Kwon’s novel is let down by a startling awkwardness in narrative style ... The raw materials might be there for a powerful book, but The Incendiaries is an overhyped debut that lacks a fuse.
The source of tension here isn’t the question of what will happen, because we know what’s coming; it’s why, and whether the reason is something that we and Will together have any chance at all of truly understanding. As Kwon weaves her way through this story of absences and omissions, her language stays sparse and stark. We are given the bare minimum of grounding in time and place ... For Will, the organizing figure is Phoebe, and even after their relationship ends, he is still trying to give himself over to her in order to tell her story. But The Incendiaries refuses to reveal whether Will is truly successful, whether he is able to give us a sense of who Phoebe is beyond Will’s idea of her. This is a novel of ambiguity, one in which meaning is created around absence, and in such a world, there are no easy answers.
...this slim, intense novel is the rare book that lives up to its pre-publication hype ... The narrative jumps around, like memory does ... The Incendiaries isn’t an easy novel to parse. Who here is the perpetrator, who is the victim and is it possible to know? Some sins may be worse than others—and certainly, both John Leal and Will fall on the worse side of the spectrum—but ultimately, as much as they yearn for it, none of the novel’s central characters really deserve easy absolution. And yet the beautiful writing and nuanced storytelling invites compassion; such is the power of Kwon’s narrative.
There’s taking, there’s giving, there are disappearing spaces halfway as Kwon generates waves to ride toward revelation, catastrophe and reinvention. The Incendiaries is written as though language is also a religion. Kwon worships well ... short, succinctly lovely sentences and her willowy eschewing of transitions, between the secular and the sacred. Her balletic writing pirouettes on a period, placing beginnings in their ends, and opposing reckonings into trenchant echo chambers ... Delusions get picked off only to have new ones take their place, amplifying the notion that Kwon is scattering clues to a conclusion that has the unknowable up its sleeve. Rather than frustrating, this makes The Incendiaries more captivating, a school where no one ever graduates, continually caught up in the question of what really happens, body and soul. R.O. Kwon excels at the function of making the invisible visible, and delivers signs from on high—that is, where a gifted new writer is performing at a lofty level.
The plot of R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries is as exceptional as her prose, unravelling in sensuous, time-bomb fashion ... Kwon’s talent is sensational: her character building is meticulous. Not for a moment does Phoebe—who exists only in recollections and in the notes she gives Will—become vaporous. Rare is the book that deals so well with losing (and finding) one’s faith; The Incendiaries is also a crucial novel of the #MeToo movement, exploring toxic masculinity and the way it is exerted by men in positions of power—preacher, boyfriend, father ... A tour de force début if there ever was one.
Kwon’s debut has all the elements of what should be a stupendous success—exquisite prose, vivid characterizations, and astute observations—yet somewhere between spark and explosion, the narrative strays unnecessarily from the essential, then becomes overly elliptical to provide a persuasive finale.
Kwon’s novel expertly addresses questions of faith and identity while managing to be formally inventive in its construction (the stream-of-consciousness style, complete with leaps between characters, amplifies the subject matter). In this intriguing cult story, Kwon thoroughly explores her characters’ motivations, making for an urgent and disarming debut.
Readers who delight in encountering seldom-used words and precise depictions of physical and mental landscapes are likely to love Kwon’s writerly style. Her book is shot through with carefully limned descriptions and unexpected language. Readers who are interested in plot and character, however, may well be less satisfied despite the fact that the basic elements of a gripping story are present ... The narrative is so slow and so superficial that the climax is anticlimactic. The biggest problem is that Will is both the dominant voice and the least interesting character, which diminishes the reader’s ability to understand Phoebe and John ... Aesthetically pleasing but narratively underwhelming.