There’s a point late in R.O. Kwon’s luminous debut novel The Incendiaries where Phoebe Lin, the haunted young woman at the novel’s center, says: “longing should be allowed the chance to find its object.” Phoebe, a college student and follower of Jejah, an extremist Christian cult, is speaking of God here, but she also speaks to the central theme of the book: longing, birthed from loss, and how it shapes who we are and how we see the world.
The book’s narrator is Will Kendall, Phoebe’s tortured boyfriend, who tells his story in retrospect, after Phoebe has committed an atrocity he can’t begin to come to grips with. Will is a nice young man, thoughtful and articulate. But Phoebe is the spectral mystery at the heart of the book, the girl the narrator has pledged to try and understand. To do so he attempts to excavate her life, recounting his relationship with her in an endeavor to know her hidden self. But just as The Great Gatsby is as much about Nick Carraway as it is about Gatsby, The Incendiaries is as much about Will as it is about Phoebe, and his excavations reveal his own shadowy nature as much as they do hers. He narrates from three alternating perspectives: his own, Phoebe’s, and that of John Leal, the charismatic leader of Jejah, and as a reader one must constantly remind oneself that everything being told is filtered through Will’s own needs and his own lack.
Will is a reluctant apostate, floundering for meaning in his life. As a devout Christian in high school he had a crisis of faith and abandoned his beliefs, his life’s purpose. In the wake of this breakup with God he comes to Edwards, the small Eastern liberal college where the novel takes place. There he meets Phoebe, who quickly grows to fill the hole that God has left in Will’s life. But Phoebe bears a hole of her own, a dark well tunneled out by the guilt and grief she feels at her mother’s death in a car crash in which Phoebe was the distracted driver. To fill this hole Phoebe finds herself drawn to John Leal and Jejah, and much of the book consists of Will watching helplessly as she falls under Leal’s spell and Will’s fruitless attempts to wrestle her from Leal’s grasp.
The story is told through a lens blurred by longing and loss, and every sentence is filled with it. Kwon seems to breathe beautiful sentences onto the page. Fantasizing about having the money to take Phoebe to see the world, Will narrates: “We’d watch the lights of alien cities rush beneath the plane, strewn pearls we’d reach down to grab.” A bit later, as he takes her on a trip he can afford, to Cape Cod, Will reminisces: “Pants rolled, we walked across the beach. The sea hissed, stinging exposed skin. It sucked the wet earth from beneath our feet. The next morning, we had Bellinis with toast, then we lolled on the sun porch, reading from old, salt-bloated magazines. Light spilled through closed eyelids, and I was turning into gold.” Reading The Incendiaries is like watching the work of a great auteur, where every shot and shadow is constructed to convey a theme or emotion, and to finish reading the book is to carry feelings of yearning and regret for days afterward.
Because Kwon’s language is so infused with longing and beauty, loss and grief, part of what it does is to mask, for much of the book, just how unreliable a narrator Will is. Not because he’s been manipulating or seducing us—he’s no Humbert Humbert—but because his own actions and motives have gone deceptively unexamined. His relentless attempts to excavate Phoebe’s nature (and sometimes his own) make him seem thoughtful and self-aware, but as his blind spots grow from small lacunae to veritable cataracts one is forced to reevaluate everything he’s told us.
It’s hidden behind these blind spots that other themes of the book emerge, themes that are submerged because Will himself is so determined not to face them. The main such theme is the myth of the Nice Guy and the things he’s capable of when hurt and his sleeping misogyny awakened. Will is a nice young man to be sure, thoughtful and articulate. He waits tables to help to his mother financially when he can barely pay his own bills, he feels badly around the sexual harassment of a female coworker, he gives change to the homeless, and he offers to help a too-drunk girl on the street. But there’s a creepy kind of darkness lurking in him that’s even more disturbing given how blind he is to it, a darkness borne of unrequited need and jealousy that when unleashed changes the the entire reader-narrator relationship. So it’s a strange kind of coup that Kwon pulls off here, where by the end of the novel the reader is left feeling Will’s utter sense of loss, sympathizing with Will himself, and yet at the same time feeling vaguely hoodwinked by a narrator who’s been in bad faith the whole time.
The Incendiaries is an extraordinary novel in so many ways: the finely hewn beauty of its language, the layering of its themes, the ways that it reveals truth through narrative unreliability, and the remarkable way it makes one uncomfortable with one’s sympathies. I marveled at its efficiency, that it could do all of this in just over 200 pages, and I very much look forward to Kwon’s next book.
By R.O. Kwon
Published July 31, 2018
R. O. Kwon is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing is published or forthcoming in The Guardian, Vice, Buzzfeed, Time, Noon, Electric Literature, Playboy, and elsewhere. She has received awards from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Omi International, the Steinbeck Center, and the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony. Born in South Korea, she has lived most of her life in the United States.