The Incendiaries is a 2018 novel by R. O. Kwon, published by Riverhead Books. The novel was inspired by Kwon's own loss of faith in God at the age of 17, and it took her 10 years to finish.
The novel follows a young woman who is indoctrinated into a cult on her campus as told by three characters: Phoebe Lin, the woman who is recruited, John Leal, the man who recruits her, and Will Kendall, a fellow student who loves Phoebe and struggles to understand her choices.
Reception and awards
The novel earned accolades and buzz prior to publication and was well reviewed upon its release. It was named a best book of the year by over 40 publications and organizations, including the Today Show, NPR, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, PBS Books, Entertainment Weekly, Vulture, and elsewhere. Before the book's release, Kwon was called one of "4 writers to watch" by The New York Times.The Washington Post called it "the most buzzed-about debut of the summer, as it should be."The New Yorker said it is full of "eerie, sombre power".The New York Times Book Review called it "radiant" and "a dark, absorbing story of how first love can be as intoxicating and dangerous as religious fundamentalism." The Guardian called it "a startlingly assured book by an important new writer,” and CBC called it "a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists".The A.V. Club praised the novel for having "a timeless quality" with particular admiration for Kwon's "parkling, deliberate prose". The L.A. Times noted that it had been buzzed about in literary circles long before publication and called it "the rare book that lives up to its pre-publication hype."
The novel is an American Booksellers Association Indie Next #1 Great Read and an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce Pick. In addition, The Incendiaries is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award for Best First Book, Los Angeles Times First Book Prize, and Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Fiction Prize.The book has been nominated for the American Library Association Carnegie Medal and Aspen Prize.
Don DeLillo’s 1991 novel Mao II opens with a mass marriage of tens of thousands of members of the Unification Church in Yankee Stadium. The Unificationists were a Christian movement founded in the50s, popularly dubbed the Moonies, after its South Korean founder, Sun Myung Moon. A middle-aged midwestern couple, Roger and Maureen Janney, are in bewildered attendance: their daughter Karen is one of the congregants about to be betrothed by the man the Moonies call “Master”. Roger, trying to comprehend his daughter’s choice, wonders if “the terrible thing is they follow this man because he gives them what they need. He answers their yearning, unburdens them of free will and independent thought. See how happy they look.”
The plot of The Incendiaries, the impressive first novel by RO Kwon, pivots around the indoctrination of another young woman, a college student named Phoebe Lin. Phoebe is targeted by John Leal, a Korean-American former missionary who claims to have survived a stint in a North Korean gulag and now heads a religious group called Jejah (“submission” in Korean) based in Edwards College, a fictional east coast Ivy League university. Leal, a perpetually barefoot presence on campus, is not the ambient ranter of the city street corner but a careful proselytiser, who passes students provocatively enigmatic notes: “Call me when you’re tired of wasting this life,” reads his first message to Phoebe.
While Leal and his burgeoning cult catalyse the plot, the main character is Will Kendall, a fellow Edwards student and the former boyfriend of Phoebe. Will, an “ex-child evangelist” who once proudly proselytised his own mother, instantly takes Leal for a charlatan and liar, “a low-rent Jesus freak with Franciscan affectations”, even as he reluctantly, nostalgically envies the magnetic pull of Leal’s rhetoric. If it’s easy for Will to pick out Leal as a fraud, that’s because Will is one, too. A scholarship kid from an impoverished southern California town, he lies, easily and incessantly, to everyone including Phoebe, about his origins and means.
As well as an examination of faith and loss, The Incendiaries is also a perceptive study of class. Ivy League colleges are a seemingly paradoxical phenomenon: professedly elite institutions whose cheerleaders insist they are, somehow, classless;, meritocratic spaces theoretically accessible to anyone of sufficient drive and talent. Mostly, of course, they are incubation centres for the children of the ruling class, and through Will, Kwon depicts the intrinsic class antagonisms that meritocratic instruments such as scholarships are supposed to erase but actually reinforce. Will’s bursary permits him access to the lavish halls and manicured quadrangles of the Edwards campus but does not, of course, provide him with the material resources to live a lifestyle to match his privileged peers. As Will puts it: “I had a scholarship. It wasn’t enough. I told no one.”
Will, the aloof, deflecting heart of the novel, is a brilliant creation, a wincingly convincing portrait of gnawing inadequacy masquerading as detached entitlement. Self-loathingly deferential to anyone with more economic or social cachet, meticulous about never losing his cool or composure in public but constantly worried about his lack of money and status, he courses with unarticulated rage. He’s also a shitty, possessive boyfriend and a chronic gaslighter. When caught in a lie by Phoebe, who realises he’s been moonlighting at an Italian restaurant instead of studying, he half apologises, then interrupts the apology to wistfully wonder if he didn’t tell her the truth because “sometimes I thought you guessed”. “Don’t fucking pretend I was in on this,” Phoebe has to tell him. (The Incendiaries is also a gruellingly vivid breakup novel.)
Driven away by Will’s escalating jealousy, and still grieving for the mother she lost in a car crash as a teenager, Phoebe immerses herself in Leal’s teachings even as the Jejah group transforms from a genteelly eccentric band of students who play piano and drink wine into an increasingly militant organisation with plans for violent direct action against abortion clinics.
The Incendiaries is a book of careful feints – the emphases in the story never fall where you expect, but Kwon is always in total control. She writes with aphoristic concision and a disciplined sense of what to leave out. Wisely, many of the details of Jejah and Phoebe’s radicalisation are left to the reader’s imagination, though what glimpses we are afforded are grimly amusing, such as when Leal enjoins his followers to dig a giant hole in the backyard and then fill it back in again, because “nothing energises like humiliation”. By anchoring the narrative to Will, the disillusioned ex-believer, Kwon can write with a forensic but sceptical eye about the consolations of devotional ferocity – about the unburdened happiness Roger Janney believes he sees in the assembled faces of The Moonies gathered in Yankee Stadium in Mao II – without ever losing the secular reader. The Incendiaries is a startlingly assured book by an important new writer.
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