"The Incendiaries” is a sharp, little novel as hard to ignore as a splinter in your eye. You keep blinking at these pages, struggling to bring the story into some comforting focus, convinced you can look past its unsettling intimations. But R.O. Kwon, the 35-year-old Korean American author, doesn’t make it easy to get her debut out of your system.
At its core, “The Incendiaries” is about religious fervor, which has long functioned as America’s nuclear fuel: useful and energizing, except when it melts down and explodes. The Pilgrims, after all, were motivated by faith in their special calling. So, too, were the members of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. But nuance is the first thing sacrificed in most arguments about the relative blessings and dangers of faith — which is what makes “The Incendiaries” so unusual and enticing.
The novel comes to us as a series of intense memories pieced together in the wake of tragedy. Through most of these short chapters, it’s not entirely clear who’s doing the remembering and who’s doing the piecing. Kwon’s crisp, poetic style conveys events that feel lightly obscured by fog, just enough to be disorienting without being frustrating.
Three students meet at a university in the Northeast. Will is a shy, hard-working student who recently transferred from a Bible college. He’s immediately entranced by Phoebe, the center of the campus party scene. “She lived as if spotlit,” Kwon writes, “each laugh evidential, loud.” Both these young people come under the influence of John Leal, a charismatic former student who was captured and released by the North Koreans.
One of the cleverest aspects of “The Incendiaries” is the way Kwon suggests that all three of these people are lying, though for different reasons and with wildly different repercussions. Embarrassed by his poverty, Will pretends that he can afford to participate in the college’s ritzy social scene. Phoebe’s ebullient persona masks a traumatic past and a fierce battle with depression. And John, who permanently gave up shoes after walking barefoot across the Yalu River into China, radiates a magnetism that makes everything he says sound messianic — and dubious. “He wasn’t just his Lord’s child,” Kwon writes, “he often had to be His substitute.”
“The Incendiaries” complicates the story of religious fanaticism by forcing us to acknowledge strains that are typically ignored. For all Americans’ talk of their exceptional God-trusting, John notes that “no one was more spiritual than Koreans could be; no believers, more devoted. It was a land of purists.” John first glimpsed this astonishing capacity for devotion in a North Korean prison camp, where people being starved and beaten to death nonetheless “maintained that the beloved sovereign, a divine being, couldn’t be to blame.” He realizes that “some people needed leading. In or out of the gulag, they craved faith.” When he gets back to America, his mission is born — and he targets Phoebe.
The story that develops is largely about Will’s faltering efforts to woo Phoebe even as she slips under the influence of what may be a dangerous cult. And if you’ve ever cared for someone drawn into the orbit of a religious fanatic, you’ll appreciate just how precarious his situation is. After all, the essential defense mechanism of any cult is its ability to anticipate and disarm objections, to cast all detractors as suspect and jealous enemies. Kwon brilliantly portrays Will’s struggle as he realizes that he may have to lose Phoebe to save her.
But Will’s deeper predicament is that he truly understands the unearthly pleasure of discipleship. Despite having abandoned his mother’s Christian church, he still feels the presence of his old faith like a phantom limb. “People with no experience of God tend to think that leaving the faith would be a liberation,” he says, “a flight from guilt, rules, but what I couldn’t forget was the joy I’d known, loving Him. Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing — the old, lost hope revived. I was tantalized with what John Leal said was possible: I wished him to be right.”
Such rare insights arise all through “The Incendiaries,” which is full of longing and muffled agony. Kwon, who was raised Roman Catholic and has said that she lost her faith in her teens, seems to understand with extraordinary sympathy just what that loss entails. And as her debut novel catches fire and burns toward its feverish conclusion, she offers a strikingly clear articulation of the fanatic’s mind-set: It’s not an excess of belief that drives some believers to violence; it’s a maddening lack of belief, which requires that radical action be substituted for faith.
In a nation still so haunted by the divine promise, on the cusp of ever-more contentious debates about abortion and other intrinsically spiritual issues, “The Incendiaries” arrives at precisely the right moment.
By R.O. Kwon
Riverhead. 224 pp. $26