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Excerpt from The Incendiaries by R O. Kwon, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Incendiaries

A Novel

by R O. Kwon

The Incendiaries by R O. Kwon X
The Incendiaries by R O. Kwon
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2018, 224 pages
    Jul 2019, 240 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

But I didn't just wait, she said. I expected, no, I wanted to work for it. I spilled time into the piano as I'd have put cash in a bank. I saw full concert halls in the future, solo recitals. Front-page plaudits. I practiced Liszt while imagined spotlights gilded the living room. Recollection is half invention, but it feels as though I spent my entire childhood training to prove I was the significant pianist I believed I'd be.

So, I piled up trophies. It wasn't enough. The teacher flicked my hands with a rod each time I didn't hit the right note, but I didn't mind. My ambition outstripped his. Let my hands swell. I could use the extra span. Bright-knuckled, I tried again. The months ticked past, then years. I kept lists of rivals; I indexed others' exploits by age. Kiehl, at five, had given his first recital to the Danish king. Ohri, eleven, debuted at Carnegie Hall; Liu, fifteen. One night, my teacher called Libich's Étude no. 5 the most challenging piece a soloist might attempt. It's eluded the finest pianists, he said. I rushed to find the étude's score. I learned it alone, in secret. I memorized Libich's high trills. I flailed through wild ostinatos.

* * *

Once, at the table, my mother asked what I was smiling about. Haejin, she said.

I blinked, Libich vibrating in my head. I, I don't—

She laughed. It's all right, she said. I ate while she peeled a white peach. The skin dropped in a single coil. She picked it up, holding it to the light. Such a rich hue, she said. It flushed pink, backlit; I nodded, then she put it down. I could tell she wished to talk, but I was lost in trills. I pushed a last peach slice in my mouth, and I went back to the piano.

* * *

Until then, nothing I played had evoked the orphic singing I knew to be possible. It was an ideal I lacked the skill to bring to life. Each first-place prize marked a point when I'd let the music down. With Libich, I failed less. His étude asked so much of me that, at times, I'd forget I had an I. I should have learned, from this, that playing had to be birthed in a place without ego, in which I didn't exist except as the living conduit, Libich's medium. But then, when I showed the teacher what I could do, he was astonished. I'd achieved more than he'd hoped, he said. He switched the piece in for the next competition, a city-level open. I was driven to the recital hall. The sun fell on my hands as I practiced Libich again, fingers dancing across my legs. Spotlit, I listened to the traffic sing my name. The lax blue of L.A., heat-rippled, veiled the horizon. Like curtains, I thought, poised to rise.


I first met Phoebe in a house full of strangers, five weeks into the Edwards fall term. I was new to the Noxhurst school, but a sophomore, a late arrival. I'd transferred in from the Bible college I'd had to leave, and I was often on my own. Then, one night, while I was taking a walk alone, I noticed a loud throng of students turning into a gate. It was left propped open; I followed them in. Hip-hop pulsed, rolled. Pale limbs shone. I'd learned that the alcohol table was the one place where I could stand without looking too isolated, and I was idling at my usual station, finishing a third drink, when a girl in a striped dress tripped. She spilled cold liquid down my leg.

She shouted apologies, then a name: Phoebe Lin. Will Kendall, I said, also in a shout. We tried talking, but I kept mishearing what she said. Phoebe started tilting her pelvis from side to side. Life as a juvenile born-again hadn't put me on a lot of dance floors; uncertain, I followed the girl's lead. She swayed left, right, bare shoulders sliding. Others writhed to the frenzied tempo, but Phoebe's hips beat out a slowed-down song. Punch-stained red cups split underfoot, opening into plastic petals. Palms open, she levitated both hands. The room clattered into motion, rising to spin. She dipped, glided along its tilt, and still she moved to the calm rhythm she'd found, dragging the beat until my pulse joined hers.

Excerpted from The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon. Copyright © 2018 by R. O. Kwon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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