One Perfect Sentence #8


by Nicholas Rombes

The Incendiaries, by R.O. Kwon. Riverhead Books, 2018.

—too loyal to this suffering, you forget that others are also in pain, he said, barely audible.

A direct echo of last week’s line from Teju Cole’s Open City, “if you’re too loyal to your own suffering, you forget that others suffer, too.” In Kwon’s novel, this line is overheard by Will as he observes the young woman of his obsession—Phoebe—drift slowly into the orbit of cultist John Leal. From Will’s perspective (it’s important that everything in the novel is from Will’s perspective, even the parts that seem to be narrated by Phoebe) Leal’s words to Phoebe about putting her own suffering (she thinks herself responsible for her mother’s death) in perspective are a threat to Will.

What about the close echo between the Cole’s sentence and Kwon’s? Kwon has spoken about Cole’s influence on her, and has noted that she was reading him during the writing of The Incendiaries. The line is so good, almost too good to leave for just one author. In a weird sense, Open City and the Incendiaries are of a piece, both narrated by men who hide and shelter important parts of themselves from readers, unreliable in the sense that we all are when telling our stories. In an interview with The Rumpus, Kwon has said that “I always try out third person, but end up switching back to the first. I think we’re all unreliable narrators of our lives. So I don’t know that I know what a reliable narrator is.”

It’s true, and yet some novels call attention to this unreliability, and so it’s a bit disingenuous to suggest that all narrators are unreliable. Technically, yes, but narrative art shapes first-person stories in ways that either dial up the noise of obvious and warped subjectivity, as in Will’s case, or signal that the trustworthiness of the narrator is not really the point. Perhaps novels exist as the most radically democratic art because, in the end, the reader is the one who chooses how to the read the story and in doing so, the reader is the one who makes the story.

About the Author:

Nicholas Rombes is author of the novel The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio), Ramones, from the 33 1/3 series (Bloomsbury) and Cinema in the Digital Age (Columbia UP). His film The Removals was released in 2016. Rombes is a columnist and contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine, and teaches in Detroit, Michigan.

Each week Rombes will comment on a “perfect” sentence from a novel or short story he’s reading. He encourages you to submit your perfect sentence and comment via Twitter @Requiem102.