by R.O. Kwon
In this slim but rich volume, R.O. Kwon offers a meditation on faith, guilt, and loss. Will, formerly a staunch Christian, has transferred to Edwards University from Jubilee Bible College after losing his faith. Phoebe, a former piano prodigy, is grief-stricken after losing her mother in a car accident. The two college students are drawn together as they find comfort, if not honesty, in each other. Their happiness, though, is challenged when Phoebe becomes involved with John Leal, formerly a student, who founded Jejah, a religious group. Will believes Jejah is a cult and that he needs to save Phoebe from the misplaced belief that colored his life for so many years. His single-minded focus on rescuing Phoebe leads to an unspeakable betrayal and unimaginable tragedy.
The Incendiaries unfolds with luminous prose, primarily through Will’s point of view. Of particular interest to me was the loss he expresses over losing his faith. For him, it wasn’t a forgone conclusion or a relief from orthodoxy but the painful parting with a figure he loved, even if he came to believe he constructed it himself. Yet, for him, it wasn’t an authentic life, and he wanted Phoebe to avoid the traps from which he emerged. Additionally, observing Will construct the narrative was absorbing. At one point, Kwon writes, “Recollection is half invention” so teasing out possible invention was a fascinating proposition.
Recollection is half invention.
Since Phoebe and her mother immigrated from South Korea, Phoebe’s story offers a glimpse of her experience as an immigrant. While it’s not the focus of the book, it does show the challenges and highlights South Korean culture. As Phoebe’s family faces American culture, Will, from an impoverished, religious background, faces the mores of the secular, upper class when he arrives at Edwards. How each integrate into the dominant cultures affects their relationship with each other and with the Jejah cult (using Will’s word). The Incendiaries also asks what counts as a gift and what obligation the recipient has to use such gifts, from musical talent to money.
While I enjoyed the reading experience throughout the book, I did prefer the first two-thirds to the last section, which might be described as the reckoning. And with the focus on a narrow story, Kwon is economical with events outside those directly relating to the trajectory of the plot. For me, time in the novel occasionally passed in a dreamlike way, with months or years compressed into sentences or paragraphs that made me curious.
That said, I do plan on reading the Incendiaries again, and I don’t doubt it will be as rich and deep an experience. I’m not sure this book is for everyone, though I expect those who enjoy contemporary fiction will appreciate the style.