A friend of mine started her own virtual book club in the UK’s first lockdown. I didn’t join it straight away because I figured I was already putting enough pressure on myself to read 2 books a week. Then they read Convenience Store Woman and I asked her what she thought. She invited me to join and I said yes. As you’d expect, the book selection has been hit and miss. My friend and her boyfriend come up with a selection of titles that are all around 200 pages in length. Then we all vote on our favourite. I think I’ve only picked the winning book a couple of time since joining but there haven’t been many books that I’ve really disliked. Until this week. It hadn’t been my choice but that’s not really the point. It sounded like an interesting read and I was quite excited to read it. How wrong I was.
Normally I’d get through a book this length in about 2 nights. It took me over twice that to finish off The Incendiaries. After reading the premise, I was sure that I’d be hooked from the very beginning but that just didn’t happen. The Incendiaries describes itself as the story of a young woman is drawn into a dangerous cult. Strictly speaking, that’s true. What is doesn’t tell you is that the book doesn’t care much about the young woman or the cult. Instead, it focuses on her boyfriend. He’s your typical toxic male with a superiority complex who puts words in his girlfriend’s head and fills the narrative with his paranoid jealousy. This novel does nothing to explore cults or the danger that they pose to vulnerable people. This novel just shows us, once again, that life if hard for white men.
Now, I’m sure you could argue that the way this novel represents Will is meant to be a takedown of that kind of controlling and negative male persona. I wanted to believe that myself. However, there is nothing about the way the story is written that ever suggests he’s in the wrong. There are no consequences to his actions. He treats his girlfriend as a mute object and that is never questioned. Especially because the writer doesn’t actually give Phoebe her own voice. The chapters that are taken from her perspective are actually just Will imagining moments for which he wasn’t present. If this novel is actually trying to be subversive, then it’s really going about it in the wrong way.
Then there’s the fact that Kwon includes two experiences of sexual assault in an attempt to give her female characters some development. Rape isn’t something to be chucked in as a plot-device because you don’t know how to get your character to where she needs to be. This is what it felt like here. There are absolutely no consequences to this event and it just gets pushed aside. It feels really irresponsible and like a really dangerous move for a writer. I know this was Kwon’s debut but that’s no excuse for just chucking in a sexual assault for the sake of it. I was genuinely quite angry about it. There was no attempt to dig deeper into the college experience and how that might link to rape. It was just, oh and that happened.
As I was reading, I had to remind myself that the writer was a woman because of the way women are described. The way Will describes her body and her personality could be taken straight from the Men Write Women Twitter account. There’s her “fist-sized breasts” and “rosebud ass”. It’s absolutely ridiculous and there is never any hint that this isn’t the right way to describe a woman. And if this is just Kwon’s attempt to be lyrical and poetic, then it hasn’t worked either. It doesn’t feel natural and is, in fact, quite jarring. As I was reading The Incendiaries, I couldn’t help but feel as though it was an experiment with language that had gone horribly wrong somewhere along the way.
It was such a laborious read and the language felt immature. As though someone had set about to write literary fiction but with a wild misunderstanding of what literary fiction is. The description is dense and incredibly flowery. Now, I’m not always averse to ornate writing but it has to serve a purpose. I really struggle to find a reason for it here. Is it meant to contrast with the horrors committed by the cult? If so, we really needed to see more of the actual cult for this to work. Is it meant to create a sense of mystery about Phoebe? Well, we know basically nothing about her so it doesn’t feel necessary. I just don’t think the language added anything and just became more frustrating as time went on.
Of course, the language might not have been so much of a problem had there been something else to keep reading for. I’d say you can describe books as being plot-driven or character-driven. I honestly don’t know which one The Incendiaries is trying to be. In terms of plot, it is severely lacking. The information you get in the blurb is pretty much the whole story. Okay, there’s a bit more about Will’s various prejudices towards his fellow students, women, and religion. There’s his self-hatred about his background and financial status. What this book lacks in plot it more than makes up for in white male rage. So, you’d think that would make this a character-driven book but I beg to differ. What do we really take from this? What do we really learn about any of these people? This is meant to be a book about cults but there is no evidence of John Leal being a charismatic leader. There’s nothing to suggest anyone would be taken in by him. I don’t know how a book can say so much without actually saying anything.
I was exhausted by the time I got to the end of this book. It felt like a real slog just to get through it. The first two thirds or so moves at a snail’s pace and then the final part just races along. All of the vaguely interesting aspects of the story are just tossed aside for more wild speculation. I know that not all books need to have a social message or moral. Although, I’d like to think there was something to be taken from them. I can’t find anything to take from this book. Well, apart from the fact that, according to this book, people are mostly awful. This feels less like a debut novel and more of a creative writing project. The kind of thing an eager teenager might send into a writing competition.