REVIEW: A Captivating Novel of College, Faith, Love -- and a Creepy Cult

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The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

Riverhead Books, 210 pp.

By Celia McGee

God is in almost every detail of R.O. Kwon’s debut novel.  And when He’s not—this is the deity of the Judeo-Christian Bible, mostly the New Testament, so the capitalized masculine prevails—He just was or is about to be. Taking many forms, He issues from childhood, from aspirations, from deception, from longing. There’s taking, there’s giving, there are disappearing spaces halfway as Kwon generates waves to ride toward revelation, catastrophe and reinvention.  The Incendiaries is written as though language is also a religion. Kwon worships well. Just your basic college novel.

When Will Kendall arrives at posh Edwards College, a Bible-college transfer wishing to leave God and much else behind, it’s Phoebe Kim, a Korean-American beauty and rich party girl, a lapsed piano prodigy who has yet to crack the plastic wrapping of her course books or her real story, who seduces him—she becomes his new religion--onto the toll road he decides to follow. He hides his scholarship status and outskirts restaurant employment with deliberately insouciant preppy attire, homeworking Edwards’s most select social circle, where Phoebe reigns supreme as she coasts on alcohol and camp. She hides, above all, the anguish of her mother’s death in an accident she caused. She and Will become a couple, a passionate attachment for him that doesn’t deter their further concealments, subterfuge masquerading as the inevitable.    

Kwon gives these two an even greater obfuscator in John Leal, the eye-catching, tale-spinning founder of a pro-life Christian group, whose false openness suggests he has the most to hide. He mesmerizes his “disciples,” young people with lots of damage, and holes where reality should be, with accounts of his time in a North Korean prison camp. He has a way with the Word. His acolytes have come looking to study up on public service; Leal wants them in service to him. To the formerly evangelical Will’s credit, he recognizes Leal as a familiar type with “a bag of tricks,” “lies,” and “a shifting harlequin cast," though why it takes him so long to look for any media coverage of Leal’s alleged ordeal is bewildering.  Creeped out by how much Leal knows about her at initial meeting, the naïve sophisticate Phoebe nonetheless proves susceptible to the cult he’s perfecting by preaching the purifying merits of pain and the idea that he’s substituting for God for his followers own good.  They aim for spiritual transformation. He aims for explosive destruction. For a fuse to be lit, and Phoebe to become the face of a violent gospel, it’s just a matter of time, which is a crown-of-thorns tangle in The Incendiaries. Leal’s crescendoing perversion of Christian good works proves one of the few straight lines. 

Despite his declarations of apostasy, Will enters the gates of Edwards struck by a vision of paradise— “The tall pronged gates stood wide…. [A]nd the darkness opened up into light… It was a lost garden, but I’d been allowed in.” Equally stubborn, his thoughts and calculations as he tries to grapple with where Phoebe’s penitent need is taking her decline to steer clear of his past struggles with God and faith. Phoebe is full of hurt that she hopes to supplant by absorbing the hurt of others to heal them, except that, against the forces Kwon ranges against her, she can’t.  Likewise, all the ribbon belts and hedge fund jobs in the world are incapable of dividing Will from Kwon’s steering him back and forth, in her short, succinctly lovely sentences and her willowy eschewing of transitions, between the secular and the sacred. Her balletic writing pirouettes on a period, placing beginnings in their ends, and opposing reckonings into trenchant echo chambers. Will’s recall—of both theological wrestling and personal history-- is a default mode he can’t escape. He wants to convert Phoebe out of Christianity the way he once sought to convert people—his suicidal mother among them--into holiness.

Kwon has a bead on obsession and its ambushing of belief, love, aversion and the dedication to becoming someone new.  Religious fanaticism is faith’s deviance in that direction, but all require the fix of illusion to get to the fields of glory where truth no longer applies. In The Incendiaries, illusion and its stepsibling, deceit, carry out bombardments on the novel’s characters courtesy of others and the self.  Delusions get picked off only to have new ones take their place, amplifying the notion that Kwon is scattering clues to a conclusion that has the unknowable up its sleeve.   

Rather than frustrating, this makes The Incendiaries more captivating, a school where no one ever graduates, continually caught up in the question of what really happens, body and soul. R.O. Kwon excels at the function of making the invisible visible, and delivers signs from on high—that is, where a gifted new writer is performing at a lofty level.    

Celia McGee is a culture writer and book critic in New York and is on the board of The Center for Fiction.