(Riverhead Books, 2018)
R.O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries feels like a book meant to be read in a manic frenzy, with the reader stringing together a series of memories and clues to get to the end. Chapter to chapter, Kwon jumps through the minds of three young adults, who, through their often unreliable narration, attempt to disorient us, forcing us to piece together a puzzle that leads to tragedy.
Will Kendall, Phoebe Lin, and John Leal meet in college. Will is a quiet, somewhat straight-edge student, recently transferred from a Christian school but disillusioned with the religion. It’s clear early on that he’s inexperienced in most walks of life. Phoebe, a Korean-American, is popular and flirtatious, quickly developing a friendship, and eventually romantic relationship with Will. We eventually learn of her past traumas and her depression, which become major forces in the decisions she makes. John Leal, also Korean American, is a former student who claims to have been captured and released by North Koreans and as a result has found God. John Leal targets Phoebe and pulls her into his religious cult, and Phoebe, already vulnerable, acquiesces.
However, throughout the novel, no one really tells the truth, each character attempting to make themselves as sympathetic as possible, and it is up to the reader to figure out who to trust. Kwon’s unique style and mode of storytelling often makes it difficult to decipher who is speaking and whose memories we’re in, but at no point was I ever frustrated, and that’s very much a testament to the skillful narration at play. Each chapter reads like a puzzle piece, leading someplace important, and as the characters all attempt to exonerate themselves from the tragic ending, we eventually see that they are all flawed, all at fault.
While the book is about a religious cult, to a certain extent, Kwon shows us through the character of John Leal that it’s not religion on its own that’s to blame. While those in the cult are indeed religious fanatics, John Leal recalls another type of fanaticism, one outside of religion, that he experiences in North Korea. He describes the torture and starvation North Koreans have experienced in prison camps, while simultaneously describing the peoples’ utmost faith in their sovereign leader. John Leal sees this and then leads his own cult, using Christianity to prey on the vulnerable—to prey on Phoebe. Through this, Kwon shows that fanaticism of any kind is both dangerous and powerful, and she shows the differing ways in which faith and lack of faith can make one vulnerable to such thought.
Kwon creates an interesting shift in Phoebe’s voice as the novel goes on. She goes from an independent, charismatic young woman to a shell of a person whose narrative more and more parallels John Leal’s, and we just want to shake her out of the spell she’s under.
The most interesting character in the novel, though, is Will. Will’s chapters are the longest, and while he seems nice at first, we begin to see an almost sociopathic aspect to his personality. This becomes especially unsettling as we continue to read his lies and rationalizations only to realize for ourselves how insidious his nature really is. Without giving anything away, in one particularly violent, disturbing scene with Phoebe, Will tells his story nonchalantly, his act of violence getting only one line of description, after which he goes about his life with little remorse. As readers, though, we are horrified, and Kwon develops this tension beautifully, creating a jarring disconnect between Will’s retelling and our own emotional journey. As Will continues to tell his story, making himself out to be a sympathetic character, Kwon has us, too, sympathizing, only to later remind us of his violent act and to shake us out of a dream.
The Incendiaries is a powerful novel that delves skillfully into issues of faith, fanaticism, love, and trauma. On a craft level, Kwon’s writing is impressive, displaying a level of control and precision that most writers can only dream of. This is certainly an excellent debut novel.