By R. O. Kwon
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
Have you ever eaten french fries for dinner?
Do you know that feeling you get, after? When you’re technically full, but you haven’t eaten anything of substance, so your blood feels both thick and empty? Like, your stomach knows that it’s extended, but not satisfied? And you feel heavy, but not strong? Not healthy? And you can feel the grease working its way out through your pores and somehow you know that you haven’t eaten one single nutrient? And even though you know you’ll be fine, it also sort of feels as though you’re having a medical emergency?
And you’re not sure why the situation feels so dire, because potatoes aren’t that bad for you, right? It’s not like you ate gummy bears for dinner (I’ve done this, too, several times, and if you haven’t, trust me: it feels different, even worse, than fries). Potatoes have some value as food, right? And maybe you had ketchup, and that’s technically a fruit but also kind of a vegetable? And so maybe you kind of had a salad? So why do you feel…like you didn’t eat a salad?
Also, french fries are delicious! You loved every bite; you experienced, in those first fries in particular, a sense of happiness which approached pure joy – that’s why you ate so many fries that you can’t eat anything else now. So many that you sort of don’t want to eat anything ever again.
That’s how I feel about ‘The Incendiaries‘. I feel like I just flew through a book, devoured it, and it felt, at the time, as though there must have been substance in there somewhere, but that substance is eluding me now that the book is over. Now, I just feel weirdly mentally bloated.
Will and Phoebe meet their first year at a prestigious New York university. They each come weighted down with significant baggage. Will is a former born-again Christian who has had a crisis of faith. From a less prosperous background than most of his classmates, Will hides the fact that he must work several jobs in order support himself.
Phoebe is a former piano prodigy. She has spent her entire childhood in brutal pursuit of excellence. When she realizes one day that while technical perfection may be within her grasp, she will always lack intrinsic artistic greatness, she retires from piano. She delivers this information to her single mother during a drive; in the ensuing emotional scene, she crashes the car and her mother is killed.
Will and Phoebe fall in love and begin a relationship. Phoebe becomes Will’s whole world, the focus of an all-consuming love. During their first year, however, Phoebe meets a man named John Leal.
A figure of some mysteriousness, Leal is, like Phoebe herself, of Korean ancestry. According to local legend, he has spent time in a North Korean prison camp. Once freed, he returned to North America and has since taken to wandering upstate New York barefoot, recruiting local college students to his prayer group, which he calls Jejah.
As Phoebe becomes more involved in Jejah, Will becomes concerned that it is a cult. When Will sets himself against Jejah, he will risk losing Phoebe, and these three troubled people will become melodramatically tangled in a web of love and guilt and anger.
I know what ‘The Incendiaries‘ wants to be about. ‘The Incendiaries’ believes that it is a nutritious novel. It doesn’t think it’s french fries – ‘The Incendiaries’ definitely thinks it has some vegetables in it. It thinks it’s about, well, love and grief and guilt and anger. It thinks it’s about how, in a weird way, those are all the same thing. Not exactly the same, obviously: there are meaningful differences between love and grief and guilt and anger. But they are the great forces which shape or, in adverse circumstances, warp us. They braid together and bleed into each other. And they are so, so powerful that when they combine, they can drive us into states so extreme we would not even recognize ourselves.
That all sounds pretty deep, doesn’t? Those are heavy themes; these plot elements (cults, terrorism, rape), these are varsity-level plot elements. They should add up to something substantial, but they weirdly don’t.
Or, at least, they don’t for me.
One of the differences between good novels and Great Novels is that great novels transcend their plot. Like all novels, they are about some people doing some things, sure, but, in Great Novels, those people and those things have meanings which relate to the greater concerns of humanity. Great Novels, through their plot, teach us something about ourselves. Goods novel might be beautifully written, enthralling, moving, but they are only about the exact people and things that they are about. They are limited by their plots, for better or worse.
‘The Incendiaries‘ is not a Great Novel. Sure, it’s an absorbing story – I did mention that I chewed through it, right? It’s not boring, at all. The characters are interesting (well, Will is. Phoebe isn’t, and John Leal is barely a character). But Will is an interesting character! Maybe not a deep one, not an illuminating one, but interesting, fun to read.
But I don’t think this novel goes any deeper (allowing, always, for the possibility that it went way deeper and I missed it). And that would be fine – the world needs great stories that don’t go any deeper – but I have the distinct impression that ‘The Incendiaries‘ thinks it’s pretty deep.
It’s this discrepancy that I find hard to cope with. I don’t like it when a novel’s ambitions show, and I find it extra-cringy when they show all those ambitions and then don’t realize them. It makes me uncomfortable.
This is probably my hang-up. You know how some people can’t watch ‘The Office’ because the humor makes them so uncomfortable? And the rest of us think those people are complete wussies who are missing out? This is probably my version of that. When I read novels that are aiming way higher than they land, my teeth hurt.
And it’s a shame, because good novels are good, and if this isn’t a good novel, it’s definitely a fun one. It’s about stuff I enjoy reading about, like terrorism and cults and relationship drama. It’s right in my sweet spot.
But I think that we should be judging books the way they want to be judged. Put differently: we should be taking books at their word. If a book claims to be a Great Novel, if it takes aim at grand themes, then it has picked the standard by which it should be judged. And when a book sets its sights on love and grief and guilt and anger, then I am allowed to say that it is not enough for it to be merely fun to read. That even if I had fun, I didn’t learn anything, or a grow at all. And that, therefore, it failed.