book review: Kink by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell




KINK: STORIES edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell
★★★☆☆
Simon & Schuster, February 9, 2021



Like most anthologies, Kink: Stories was a mixed bag, though it’s certainly enjoyable for its novelty alone (its thesis being that erotica has a place in literary fiction). I found the preponderance of stories about BDSM started to get a little boring after a while, but this was otherwise a refreshing collection that I enjoyed spending time with.

I felt the stories that were the most successful were the ones that contextualized the characters’ kinks—I don’t mean that in a ‘every kink comes from a fucked up childhood’ kind of way; I mean that your life and your sex life are part of the same whole and some of these stories were more interested in interrogating that intersection than others. 

The two absolute stand-outs were Brandon Taylor’s Oh, Youth (tender, devastating) and Carmen Maria Machado’s The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror (weird, sensual)–incidentally the two longest stories in the collection. The other surprising highlight for me was Trust by Larissa Pham, an author I’d never heard of, whose Vermont-set story I found evocative and effectively moving. 

The less said about Roxane Gay’s Reach the better, and a handful of other stories fell flat too, mostly the ones that lacked interiority of any kind. You could tell that a lot of these authors wanted to forgo character and dive straight into Commentary About Desire, and I always found that much less effective.

(Also, anyone looking forward to new Garth Greenwell should know that his story, Gospodar, is a chapter taken straight from Cleanness–I ended up skipping it when I realized I recognized what I was reading as I hadn’t particularly enjoyed that chapter the first time.)

Bottom line is that it’s honestly worth the price of admission for Taylor and Machado, but otherwise it didn’t totally reach its promising potential.


Thank you to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

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THE INCENDIARIES by R.O. Kwon
★★★★☆
Riverhead Books, 2018

 

Both concise and disturbing, The Incendiaries may lack the depth needed to tell its story convincingly, but there’s something magnetic about it nonetheless. In only 200 pages it follows Will and Phoebe who meet in college; Will has recently lost his faith in God and latches onto Phoebe as a replacement, while Phoebe blames herself for the recent death of her mother and finds herself drawn into an extremist cult.

The entire story is narrated from the perspective of Will, though chapters supposedly from the point of view of Phoebe and cult leader John Leal are also interspersed. But even through these chapters the reader remains in Will’s head, as he imagines the thoughts and actions of these other two characters when their narratives diverge. Unpalatable as it is to read the thoughts of a female character through the eyes of a man, you have to trust that Kwon is employing this technique deliberately, as it does ultimately end up being a type of subversion. As Will attempts to fill in the gaps of Phoebe’s story, certain limitations in his perspective become apparent, and his idealistic construction of Phoebe’s character feels like a deliberate riff on similar narratives which use this device without the same awareness of it. This isn’t handled seamlessly from start to finish, but I mostly appreciated what Kwon was trying to achieve with the perspective angle.

My biggest issue with this book was the way in which Phoebe and Will’s characters are both distilled down to a single element (Will’s loss of faith, Phoebe’s guilt), and John Leal is such a nonentity that he really only exists as a plot device. Kwon is able to accomplish a surprising amount in her examination of grief and faith, but it’s necessarily achieved at the expense of multifaceted characters. The writing itself is poetic and energized and I flew through this book, but for me it did fall a bit short of its potential emotional impact. But I think Kwon shows so much promise for a debut writer and I’m very curious to see what she does next.