The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
Riverhead Books, 2018; 214 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
If the present-day readership in the world is looking for a missed memory to corroborate with, they need look no further than R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries. That missed memory is part nostalgia in a lover who misses Kwon’s heroine Phoebe, part missing the memory in trying to piece together blurred occurrences in what Phoebe does with her life, and part emphatic testimony in freshly-delivered and vital spiritual needs that may come across to the rest of Phoebe’s wold as exaggerated. Phoebe Lin is looking for truth and a centered existence, and while she hopes to find it in her college boyfriend and fellow spiritual seeker Will Kendall, Will arrives too late in her search to save her from a spiritual group that tests themselves with endurance in both physical and spiritual ways. While Will recognizes the definition of a cult in front of him, Phoebe sees a path in front of her, and follows that path with the conflict of a self-recognized sinner.
What makes Kwon’s story different from all of the other cult-narrative works is that she weighs the lack of the reliability in both the character calling out the cult (Will) and the character insisting on the cult’s validity (Phoebe). In a world where we all fact-check our truth, Will’s truth is clouded by the fact that he used to be deeply religious and lapsed, whereas Phoebe has never been religious and has suddenly (and more importantly, inexplicably) found faith that Will thinks could be found in him instead. Kwon cements the doubt and blurry nature of both of their “testimonies” with floating points of view: Will’s portion of the narrative is in first person, Phoebe’s and John Leal’s (the religious leader) is in third person. This approach to their testimonies may not seem so artful until the reader realizes how Kwon is doing this, because in several places in the book it looks like Phoebe is talking in the first person as well—until she suddenly isn’t:
While I look for the Lord, I’ve found Him. If I lift a stone, I’ll see Him beneath it. Cut a tree open, and I’ll have him again. I’ve thought so often, Phoebe said, of the idea that longing should be allowed the chance to find its object. Since desire pleads to have more, I’ll inhabit that space. It’s a privilege to have loved: with each loss, I’ve gained practice in the divine.
Reading passages like that one quickly, one can miss the fact that Phoebe isn’t telling the story; the person listening to her testimony is telling her story. Her story might be interpreted as hearsay, a narrative once removed. John Leal’s sections are even more removed; the narrator is simply watching what he does and his suggested motive. Meanwhile, Will has all of his microphone, perhaps to make a stronger point, but also running the risk of protesting too much, overstating his case. This point of view mind-bender takes a few pages at the beginning to get used to, but soon the reader is following along and listening from a memory of their own, perhaps murky as well, in a voice that might be the claims and doubts of their own spiritual experience, and their own mislaid testimony, better articulated by three bruised characters in this deft line of narratives on the same story.