The explosive opening scene of R.O. Kwon’s “The Incendiaries” turns out to be its devastating endpoint. Will, the novel’s narrator, describes a bomb blast and visualizes the perpetrators’ triumphant celebrations. The short, arresting section concludes with confusion: Buildings fell and people died; why, Will wonders, did Phoebe do it?
With Will stunned and her reader intrigued, Kwon unspools. From a new, earlier beginning, she proceeds to chart events in which lurk answers, impulses and method behind later madness.
Will meets Phoebe in the first term at Edwards University. He is an ex-Christian fundamentalist who waits tables at an outlying Italian restaurant to make ends meet. She, like her creator, is Korean-American; she is also incredibly popular, confident, experienced and reckless. The pair become an item: Will believes Phoebe to be the girl of his dreams; Phoebe finds love-dazed Will “more child than man,” but he anchors her. “Until Will, I drifted.”
When former student John Leal arrives on the scene, barefoot and offering to overhaul her life, Phoebe shows signs of drifting again — not into his arms but into his Jejah group. Will’s skepticism hardens into concern on learning that this select Christian organization with bizarre initiation rituals is, in fact, a sinister cult with North Korean connections. What was previously a situation for Will is now a crisis. In time, bombs go off and Phoebe goes missing, leaving Will to wonder if she is lost or on the run.
“The Incendiaries” is a campus novel with a twist and a love story with a sting. Like Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” it is also a political novel that examines the rationale for, and consequences of, terrorist acts — “the destruction of what is.” Kwon depicts controlled lives and warped convictions with great skill and intelligence.
Will’s narrative is refreshingly candid. He lays bare his feelings for Phoebe and his contempt for John Leal and his “shape-shifting lies”; he reflects on the faith that slipped from him “like the last remnants of a loved, radiant dream,” and relays his desperate attempts to rescue his girlfriend before she falls completely and irretrievably under her guru’s spell.
The novel is composed of more than one perspective. Will’s point of view dominates, but at regular intervals Kwon breaks off and brings in Phoebe’s account, told in a series of Jejah “confessions.” In addition we get snippets of John Leal’s shadowy back story (his life-changing incarceration in a North Korean prison camp, his subtle manipulation of Phoebe) and segments of his twisted philosophy.
Kwon rummages around in her characters’ pasts and exposes rash deeds and guilty consciences that serve to illuminate and inform their present states of mind and personal agendas.
Kwon could have picked up the pace in some of her sections. Otherwise it is difficult to fault this powerful debut, which explores complex issues in a remarkably assured way.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: R.O. Kwon.
Publisher: Riverhead Press, 214 pages, $26.