R.O. Kwon’s gripping debut novel “The Incendiaries” explores the psychic appeal of religious zealotry. With acute insight and imaginative structure, the book describes the emotional fragility of two college students as they stumble into adulthood.
Will Kendall and Phoebe Lin, California kids who meet at elite Edwards College in upstate New York and are burdened by personal crises that altered the course of their lives, start a relationship. By the story’s end, police are interrogating Will about Phoebe’s involvement with a Christian cult responsible for bombing an abortion clinic. Five girls perished. Will narrates the story in a retrospective attempt to analyze his relationship with Phoebe and their harrowing first year at college. He writes to Phoebe, whose fate is unknown, “You once told me I hadn’t even tried to understand. So, here I am, trying.”
When Will was in junior high, his mother descended into depression. He then became an evangelical Christian who proselytized at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. “I thought I was chosen by Christ. Hand-picked to preach His word.” But Will stopped believing, dropped out of Bible College and transferred to Edwards. There, his life feels hollow.
Phoebe, who was born in Korea, moved to Los Angeles with her mother. She became a piano prodigy. Despite rave reviews, she quit. “I realized I’d rather have no talent than just enough to know how much I lacked.” She and her mother argued about her decision. One night, as she was driving, she accidentally drifted into an oncoming truck and her devoted mother died. It was a shattering loss; guilt compounded Phoebe’s anguish. At Edwards, she hides her suffering behind a cheerful façade.
Both Phoebe and Will zealously pursued passions that consumed their energy and had given them meaning. But in the absence of those pursuits, they’re haunted — by the loss of parents and secrets they hide. Phoebe moves in with Will; they’re both comfortable and conflicted. Later, she drifts toward John Leal, a half-Korean Edwards College dropout cult leader with a murky past. He brainwashes vulnerable students to become “radical for God.” The focus of his pathology is stopping abortions.
Phoebe and Will flail as they mourn the crumbled remnants of their lives. They receive some solace from each other, but there are no adults, counselors or therapists available to advise or help them — that role is taken up by the cult. Phoebe fills her emptiness by joining Leal and his followers, where she receives both the punishment and absolution she seems to be seeking. Will doesn’t join, but fills his void by obsessing about Phoebe and popping pills. Having extricated himself from his evangelical past, he feels betrayed by Phoebe’s involvement with the radical cult. But Will reveals that he, too, is capable of violence.
With bold prose, elliptical style and vivid characters, and evocative yet sparse language, Kwon’s novel is engaging and provocative. She clearly has empathy and compassion for those who are broken and damaged.
What gives the novel power is how Will pieces together the factors he believes led to Phoebe’s participation in the bombing. He reflects to the best of his ability. It would have been interesting if Kwon had set the story later. With the benefit of time and deeper psychological reflection, would Will have an even more in-depth view? Would he feel greater remorse for his role in the tragedy?
The incendiaries in this book are lost, damaged students who take fateful steps down a violent path. We may not forgive them, but thanks to Kwon, we better understand them.
Katherine Read blogs at readsreading.blogspot.com.
Written by: R.O.Kwon
Published by: Riverhead Books
Price: $16 (paper) $26 (hard cover)
Note: Kwon appears at 7 p.m. July 30 at Book Passage in Corte Madera and at 6:45 p.m. Aug. 8 at Books Inc. Opera Plaza in The City; visit https://ro-kwon.com/events/