R.O. Kwon’s debut The Incendiaries reads like the trim and violent baby of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker. Quick, terse, and wrenching, it starts as the alcohol-soaked fever dream of a college romance and turns into a train crash of religious cults and anti-abortion terrorist bombings. Will Kendall is a former born-again Christian who transferred out of a “Bible college” after losing his faith. His on-again off-again girlfriend Phoebe is falling deeper and deeper into Jejah, a Christian extremist cult masquerading as an intense Bible study group. Will wants to rescue Phoebe; Phoebe doesn’t want to be rescued. The turnout is predictably tragic.
“If we could believe all people existed in their minds as much as we did in our own, the rest followed,” says John Leal to Phoebe. “To love is but to imagine well.” Kwon loves her main characters. Both leads are introduced as archetypes. Will is the poor college misfit from a broken home, waiting tables at Michelangelo’s to afford pretending to be what he isn’t. Phoebe is the pretty rich girl who everyone loves, a manic pixie dream type whose attitude towards love fits the tragic aesthetic of a Lana Del Rey song. But Will is not a humble, virtuous hero except in his own mind. His behavior is colored by deep streaks of misogyny that he refuses to acknowledge or take responsibility for. He hurts Phoebe as much as he wants to help her. Phoebe turns to religion not because she’s been swindled by a charismatic cult leader, but because of years-long guilt and a desire for punishment for the part she played in her mother’s death.
The only character I wish we could have learned more about is John Leal, Jejah’s terrifying and mysterious cult leader. It’s never revealed whether he really did witness all those horrible things in a North Korean gulag, or if he made it all up to swindle his cult followers. But knowing less about John Leal serves the story’s message–we can’t understand why Phoebe is so enraptured by him, just as we can’t understand from the outside the frenzied intensity of a cult following, or of overbearing love.
The story doesn’t center around racial identity, but Kwon addresses Phoebe and John’s Korean backgrounds with a casual deftness that only a Korean-born author could. Their race manifests in the little details. Phoebe’s mother only calls her by her Korean name, Haejin. There’s a nice discussion of the prevalence of Christianity in South Korea. And Will, the white character, imagines this exchange about John Leal’s ethnicity:
I could have brought up, but didn’t, the fact that he wasn’t even Korean.
His mother, she’d object. She–
Well, yes. But still.
It’s a quick, economical dialogue that packs in a world of conversation about biraciality and authenticity testing. Kwon’s prose has a way of doing that–it’s quick and efficient, alluding to larger conversations without over-writing anything. The Incendiaries is a fairly short read–only around 200 pages–but it feels much longer just because the story grasps at so many larger philosophical, social, and interpersonal issues, all of which Kwon manages to summarize in a few clever words.
The Incendiaries is a book about extremism, fanaticism, and faith–both in love and religion. Nobody is a hero or a perfect victim. I didn’t feel good when I read it. But still I read the whole thing in a single, feverish spurt because I had to see the disaster to the very end. Highly recommend!
The Incendiaries comes out from Riverhead Books on July 31 in the US, and from Virago Press on September 6 in the UK.
Review by Rebecca F. Kuang