“To love is but to imagine well,” writes R.O. Kwon in “The Incendiaries,” her luminous debut novel. It’s somewhat of a throwaway line, but it embodies the novel in microcosm—that tenuous line between imagination and fantasy, the kind that can veer dangerously toward all-consuming obsession. It’s true of both erotic love and religious fanaticism. Love, like religion, requires a certain leap of faith—some grasping for the other side without the certitude of reciprocity, a blind offering of the self with all of its vulnerabilities laid bare.
With this fragile tension between love and religion, the scene is set for “The Incendiaries,” the simmering story of two university students, Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall, who both seek to fill a void in their lives. Will, who has severed ties with religious faith, fills “the God-shaped hole” with a worshipful longing for Phoebe, whom he comes to regard with reverent infatuation. “Sometimes,” Will thinks, “when I saw the girl in the flesh, she looked as implausible as all the Phoebes I’d dreamed into being.” For Phoebe herself, who is mourning the loss of her mother, different venues serve to distract from grief: Mastering the piano with militant discipline gives way to joining Jejah, the religious fundamentalist group led by John Leal, an enigmatic North Korean refugee. As Phoebe immerses herself more deeply into Jejah, Will is forced to reckon with the religion he abandoned in order to protect a girl he loves.
At 210 pages, “The Incendiaries” is a compact novel, but Kwon packs it with sublime detail and fully fleshed-out characters, whose richly imagined inner lives lend their intricate story a haunted depth. The novel makes no attempt to masquerade as a simple love story. Instead, its pages traverse the complex questions that define love, faith, and loss: what happens when love becomes obsession, when religious belief manifests in violent action, when deserted faith leaves a dangerous emptiness. “The Incendiaries” is less about the explosions that give the novel its name, and more about the spark that started the fire, and the slow burn of its consequences.
Kwon is a self-professed aesthete, and her meticulous deliberation over syntax—techniques that range from reading out loud to whiting out whole paragraphs, as described in an interview with the Atlantic—pays off. Her sentences are crisp, candid, and wrought with precision: In one scene, “ripped flip-flops still held the stain of footprints,” the symbolic vestiges of a past life. Later, Will “inhaled the lazy, bittersweet stink that lingered in her room from a hyacinth bouquet she’d let spoil in a vase… The rich hint of rot persisted.” It’s a lovely detail in and of itself, but it’s also thematically purposeful—an image of love cut with pollution, on the verge of rancidity. On occasion, though, rich detail slips into disorienting, borderline nonsensical abstraction: “Pop champagne to spout, like liquid mirth, from jeroboam bottles,” Kwon writes of a party. “Twirl the partiers. Set them to dance beneath the jasmine, florets dangling like bells from white-limbed pergolas.” Her sound is elegant, but sometimes indistinguishable from mere noise.
Kwon’s characters clearly have eyes for observation, but the novel’s narration sometimes dances with a coy ambiguity. Chapter headings would have a reader believe that the novel is narrated in turns by Will, Phoebe, and John Leal, but Kwon disabuses her reader of the presumption of accuracy, making it clear early on that this is merely Will’s representation of events, the narrative he pieces together by making imaginative leaps. “I’ll add what details I can,” he begins, sounding half-apologetic. True, certain discrepancies raise questions that go unanswered, even by the novel’s conclusion. Are John Leal’s harrowing accounts of North Korea—which waver in their consistency—factual reports or sensationalized fables? What is it, exactly, that drives Phoebe to seek out Jejah and to cling to it, despite its terrorist activity?
And, when distilled through Will’s narrative lens of privilege, is it important that Will is white and Phoebe is Korean? It’s difficult to read a relationship like Will and Phoebe’s and not scan the pages for an undercurrent of colonial tension, hyper-aware of any of the typical tropes that define this romance: a fetish for the so-called “exotic,” the submissive Asian woman, the dominating white male. An internship in Beijing heightens Will’s awareness of his dominance: “In physical fact, I was tall in Beijing. My stride extended long and tireless, a champion’s pace, fit for taking spoils, sizing land.” At times, Will treats Phoebe with a troubling ownership. Her slew of past love interests “predated me, she said, but I couldn’t help seeing the oil of all the hands, like starfish prints, staining Phoebe’s skin.” And beyond ownership, there is his willful mythologizing, his love for her becoming a kind of fanatical religious devotion: “With Phoebe, the walls lifted. Invitations spilled out; warmth, life.” Even her body is, for him, a sacred experience, “Phoebe’s tongue sliding between my lips, its salt taste the daily host.” Yet Kwon—who knows that the best novels never answer questions, rather pose them—never quite authorizes one verdict, instead leaving these facts behind for us to decide for ourselves.
Although this fraught politics permeates their relationship, admittedly, Phoebe wields a kind of subversive power over Will. Their introductory meeting, initially conveyed by Will as a happenstance drunken come-on, is ultimately revealed to be a choreographed advance on Phoebe’s part, one layered with purposeful intent. “Fine, I thought,” she thinks as she approaches him, then deliberately spills punch on his leg. “If I were less selfish,” she thinks later, “I’d have released the hold I had on him, this love-dazed Will, more child than man.”
Still, though Will paints a decent picture of her interiority, so much of the language about Phoebe is frustratingly conditional, each section prefaced with some variety of “She might have said,” or “I’m still not telling it right, though.” The lens narrative structure leaves us scrabbling for the innermost thought process that drives Phoebe to religious extremism, the machinery of her infinitely complex mind. Phoebe’s thoughts are all products of Will’s memory or imagination, a blatant facsimile. Here, Will takes on the ultimate power role: the one of the narrator. Only Will decides what Phoebe reveals, and therefore, what the reader knows. Godlike, he subsumes her words, her feelings, her story. One wonders how he has shaped her in his image.
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.