Certain literary circles have been buzzing about R.O. Kwon’s “The Incendiaries” for months. And this slim, intense novel is the rare book that lives up to its pre-publication hype.
On its surface, “The Incendiaries” has a simple plot. Will Kendall meets Phoebe Lin. He falls in love with her. He watches her fall in with a group of nominal Christians whose version of faith is so intense that shegives herself to it body and soul. He realizes that the group is not just a bunch of bible thumping zealots but a cult led by its demanding leader. Will tries to extract her — and fails. Things fall apart. But there is more to it than that, because when faith, obsession and grief become bedfellows, the differences between them blur. Additionally, the novel’s narration is complicated, compromised and unreliable.
From the very first page, Will tells us that he is speculating. “They’d have gathered on a rooftop,” he assumes. “She would sit apart from this reveling group,” he hypothesizes. It makes sense — he’s trying to put a narrative together in order to understand the events that have occurred to and around him. Sections marked “Phoebe” detail Will’s conjectures about her life mixed with bits of what might be her own account, copied from a notebook he finds. Others labeled “John Leal” describe what little Will knows about this man who started Jejah, the cult Phoebe joins. John Leal — and he is, like Jim Jones or Charles Manson, always addressed thus, though it isn’t clear whether Leal is his surname, middle name, or an adopted moniker — is a mystery of a man. He walks barefoot, claims that God speaks to him and tells stories about having been kidnapped by North Korean soldiers and brought to a gulag where he worked and watched death and misery surround him, until he was let go for no apparent reason.
John Leal is made to cross a frozen river that would lead him to China: “Behind him, a guard laughed. If they didn’t shoot him, they’d watch him plunge through ice, and drown. He tried the next step. Spindrift lifted, fell. Inhale. Exhale. His nerves stretched, a net to span the width of ice dividing him from the rest of his life. Filaments glittered, straining with his weight. China stood prismatic on the opposite side.”
The narrative jumps around, like memory does; the emphasis changes as Will’s grief stirs him to recount different parts of the months leading up to the climactic events he’s trying to reckon with. But as the chapters move along, Will forgets to remind his readers that he is theorizing about what happened, that there are so many chunks of this story — of Phoebe’s story especially — that he doesn’t know. He asserts control over her, uses her voice. At first, Will clearly speculates — “In Phoebe’s next confession to Jejah, she might have said” — but eventually he simply states, “Phoebe said.”
It takes a long time to see that Will may be an unreliable narrator, as dangerous to Phoebe, in his way, as is John Leal. Will reads as such a decent guy at first, this former goody two-shoes who left bible college after he lost his faith, a gradual, then sudden process. Instead of God, he fills his life with school, his frat brothers, but most of all, Phoebe. “If I could be anyone, I’d ask to be the Will rushing to see more, again, of Phoebe.”
The schisms between them are clear from the start, if you’re looking for them. Edwards College, which they both attend, is full of privileged middle- and upper-class kids. Trying to fit in that world and with his fraternity brothers, Will invents a new reality for himself, one in which his father didn’t leave his mother, she didn’t sink into a deep depression, he has no financial worries. He can’t sustain the ruse for long, not when he’s working hours a week at a restaurant. Eventually, Phoebe finds out — and she’s angry. But she has her own secrets: She is haunted by grief and guilt over the death of her mother. Phoebe first dealt with it by drinking too much, taking any drug that was offered to her, sleeping around — trying to drown herself in other people and their emotions so she wouldn’t have to face her own. But then Will came along, a steady presence. Except Phoebe keeps searching for something — and that something becomes John Leal.
John Leal acts as kind of a guide back to what she sees as a more authentic self. “[Phoebe] started talking about hoping to visit Seoul. ‘I should be able to picture it, she said. But I left when I was an infant, and I haven’t visited it once. People tell me I’m the whitest Asian girl they’ve met. I think they figure it’s a compliment. I’ve heard it as one. Will, I used to take pride in knowing so little about what I’m from. John Leal calls it self-hatred, and it is. He’s right. I don’t want to be this kind of person.’ ” Will is skeptical, thinking, “I also could have brought up, but didn’t, the fact that he wasn’t even Korean.”
“The Incendiaries” isn’t an easy novel to parse. Who here is the perpetrator, who is the victim and is it possible to know? Some sins may be worse than others — and certainly, both John Leal and Will fall on the worse side of the spectrum — but ultimately, as much as they yearn for it, none of the novel’s central characters really deserve easy absolution. And yet the beautiful writing and nuanced storytelling invites compassion; such is the power of Kwon’s narrative.
Masad is a writer, critic and PhD candidate at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.