The incendiaries

R. O. Kwon

Book - 2018

A young Korean-American woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea and then disappears, leading a fellow student into an obsessive search for her.

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New York : Riverhead Books 2018.
Physical Description
214 pages ; 22 cm
Main Author
R. O. Kwon (author)
Review by New York Times Review

"Think of charm as a verb, not a trait," Gavin de Becker writes in his 1997 best seller, "The Gift of Fear," in a chapter on predators. Charm is an ability, not a passive feature, he writes, and it almost always has a motive. In R. O. Kwon's radiant debut novel, "The Incendiaries," her two central figures are the perpetrators, and victims, of the act of charm. They twist against the barbed wire of human connection in an isolating world. This is a dark, absorbing story of how first love can be as intoxicating and dangerous as religious fundamentalism. Will and Phoebe meet during the still-sweaty first days of the college school year. Phoebe is a Koreanborn, California-raised freshman of relative means whose evident sexual confidence ensnares the ex-born-again, working-class Will. Each of their narratives is told in the first person, interspersed with brief chapters about John Leal, a fanatical Christian cult leader whose grip over Phoebe grows in parallel with hers over Will. The novel is about extremism, yes, but it's for anyone who's ever been captivated by another; for anyone who has been on either side of a relationship that clearly has a subject and object of obsession; for anyone who's had a brush with faith, or who's been fully bathed in its teachings; for anyone afraid of his or her own power. Kwon makes real two characters who are, at first, types. Phoebe, in the book's opening pages, commands with her onlychild, rich-girl arrogance, a ponytailed, Korean-American version of the familiar manic pixie dream girl. "I ate pain. I swilled tears. If I could take enough in, I'd have no space left to fit my own," Phoebe says. As her story goes on, the reader learns that she once glittered with promise as a piano prodigy, her discipline now replaced by casual self-destruction after the grief and guilt of being involved with her mother's death in a car accident. Will, waiting tables to pay for pâté, lies hopeless next to his girlfriend, consumed. But he, too, transcends his role as the stable, economically beleaguered Eagle Scout, before he falls completely from grace. Power, along with charm, is also an act in this novel. Phoebe mostly holds power over Will, the wounded enchantress who receives his love. As she slips farther into fanaticism and the arms of John Leal, Will is driven desperately and jealously to his own retaliatory exertion of control. Kwon's ornate language adds a creeping anachronism to the chapters. Its metaphors seem accessible at first, but take a bit of parsing: "I lifted Phoebe's hand; I kissed bitten nails that shine, in hindsight, like quartz, spoils I pulled down from the moon." Throughout, objects are vaguely animated, as if someone is recalling the story years later: Frisbees soar, oil drips, bare shoulders roll. Early on, "punchstained red cups split underfoot, opening into plastic petals." From Leal's first appearance, he's a harbinger of chaos. A former student with a shady back story as a prisoner in North Korea, he looms over the narrative, peppering the shifting, unsettling timeline of the love story. As Will and Phoebe picnic with mulled wine, make summer plans, rent a weekend house at the beach, Leal casts an ominous shadow for the reader, his chapters delivering a piecemeal sermon as he slowly and steadily pulls the young couple's strings and lays out, log by log, what will be his final masterpiece: a pyre. As the narrative escalates, the reader goes from a sane friend in a bar, listening impatiently as the storyteller gabs on about a new beau, red flags firing off in her head (Do you not see what's happening?), to a paralyzed spectator of a five-car pileup on the TV screen. Each horrible act mounts on the others, as Phoebe's narratives get closer and closer in tone and content to Leal's. On top of his pyre, Phoebe - a vessel through which life, or God, has poured trauma, grief, shame, discipline, love, loss of purpose and a desire to please - is splayed. It's Will who strikes the match. The action picks up quickly in the final chapters. (Readers may want to skip the jacket description, which contains a giant spoiler.) A wedge has been driven between the young lovers, and Will is left trying to piece together what happened to his grinning, gin-doling girlfriend. The details become sketchy and speculative; the narratives become unreliable. This unusual novel, both raw and finely wrought, leaves the reader with very few answers and little to rely on. Alove triangle between a young man, a young woman and a higher purpose is torched, with few witnesses to say what happened. Unsettled by all the charming that's gone up in flames, Will and the reader are left alone together holding the ashes, some of the embers still burning to leave scars. ? THU-HUONG ha is a books and culture reporter for Quartz and the author of the Y.A. novel "Hail Caesar."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [July 29, 2018] Review by Booklist Review

Looming death, missing parents, God, and reinvention turn an unlikely pair, Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall, into lovers at privileged Edwards University in upstate New York. In the fresh, transformative independence that is college life, Phoebe can forget her aching connection to the piano, hide her debilitating guilt over her mother's tragic death, and eschew her estranged father's religion. Will, who transfers from a small Bible college on scholarship, finds distance from his failed adoration of God, worry about his ever-fragile mother, and dismissal of his father. Will's hunger, physical and emotional, is magnetic, holding the desperate lovers together until dropout John Leal a savior to some, a charlatan to others, with his zealous stories of horrific imprisonment in a North Korean gulag invades their orbit, and violence implodes their bond. Kwon's debut has all the elements of what should be a stupendous success exquisite prose, vivid characterizations, and astute observations yet somewhere between spark and explosion, the narrative strays unnecessarily from the essential, then becomes overly elliptical to provide a persuasive finale.--Hong, Terry Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Written in dazzling, spare prose, Kwon's debut tells the fractured story of three young people looking for something to believe in while attending the prestigious Edwards University. There's Will Kendall, a one-time "kid evangelist" who transferred from a Bible college after losing his faith in God. He soon meets-and falls in love with-Pheobe Lin, a Korean-American pianist wrestling with the death of her mother in an accident for which she blames herself. And then there's John Leal, a charismatic cult leader and former Edwards student who claims to have been held captive in North Korea; he offers Phoebe the supposedly noble cause she craves. Will watches in horror as Phoebe joins Leal's so-called Jejah, a circle of quasi-religious radicals that soon sinks into right-wing terrorism targeting abortion clinics. Phoebe disappears following a fatal accident involving members of her group, leaving Will to untangle Leal's web of deceit and find out what happened to Phoebe. Kwon's novel expertly addresses questions of faith and identity while managing to be formally inventive in its construction (the stream-of-consciousness style, complete with leaps between characters, amplifies the subject matter). In this intriguing cult story, Kwon thoroughly explores her characters' motivations, making for an urgent and disarming debut. (July) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

DEBUT Told in three voices, this debut novel explores connections among people. The sparsely written first-person chapters alternately tell the story of college students Will Kendall and his Korean American sort-of girlfriend Phoebe Lin, who attend Edwards University. Interspersed are third-person narrations about John Leal, the enigmatic half-Korean cult leader of Jejah, to whom Phoebe is drawn and who threatens to come between the couple. In an effort to salvage his relationship with Phoebe, Will makes an attempt to attend Jejah meetings and tries to keep her from falling even deeper into the organization. When a clinic is bombed, killing five young women, Will tries to convince himself that Phoebe was not involved in the incident. VERDICT Kwon successfully defines her characters' depth while maintaining an air of intrigue and suspense. Throughout, she looks at the imperfections in all our lives and how our interactions may lead us down paths unbeknownst to ourselves. With a breezy yet intense style, newcomer Kwon is a writer to watch. [See Prepub Alert, 1/8/18.]-Shirley Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

A first-time novelist explores identity, deception, and obsession."In the estival heat, he set his back against the cold stone of a tomb. He plucked a honeysuckle stalk sprouting from what had once been men; he sipped its bit of juice. In time, lying in the dirt, he, too, might nourish future pilgrims. If he had one petition for himself, it was this: that he be made useful." How one reacts to this passage is almost certainly an indicator of how one will react to this novel as a whole. Readers who delight in encountering seldom-used words and precise depictions of physical and mental landscapes are likely to love Kwon's writerly style. Her book is shot through with carefully limned descriptions and unexpected language"orphic," "sacerdotal," "shibboleths," "harlequin." Readers who are interested in plot and character, however, may well be less satisfied despite the fact that the basic elements of a gripping story are present. Will Kendall is a poor kid and a lapsed evangelical. When he arrives at Edwards University, he invents a preppy persona to hide the fact that he's waiting tables to support himself and his mother. Phoebe Lin was a child prodigy, the product of her own gifts and her Korean immigrant mother's aspirations for her. Phoebe's decision to quit the piano and her mother's death leave her unmoored when she arrives at Edwards. And then there's John Leal, a charismatic Edwards dropout who has become a cult leader. It's clear from the beginning that these three characters are moving toward cataclysm, but.The narrative is so slow and so superficial that the climax is anticlimactic. The biggest problem is that Will is both the dominant voice and the least interesting character, which diminishes the reader's ability to understand Phoebe and John. This does make some thematic sense, in that Kwon is clearly interested in performative selfhood and the inability of truly understanding another person, but.This leaves the reader with an outsider's perspective.Aesthetically pleasing but narratively underwhelming. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.