IS THERE ANY TIME of life more racked by yearning and uncertainty than college? Not, at least, in R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, a debut novel that cannily blurs the line between campus novel and cult lit. As Kwon depicts them, those aching years are a time for confronting the fuzziness of one’s beliefs, for wrestling with the problem of who we want to be.
Even those of us who matriculated with less drama than Kwon’s characters will likely find something familiar in their desire for self-coherence. Mine surged forth sophomore year, when a misguided professor invited me to a kind of undergrad conservative indoctrination seminar in Savannah, Georgia. At school in Chicago, I’d often felt adrift, just another lonely skeptic avoiding the riskiness of belief. Here, though, among true foils, I watched a new, confident version of myself come into view.
I scoffed at the tenets of limited government and made vaguely accurate Rousseau references. What I said was scattershot, but I felt like I had principles. And, I think, the same was true of my foes. In our mutual antagonism, we gave one another the feeling that we knew what we were talking about. Leveling identical charges of naïveté and muddled thought, we made ourselves make sense. There was nothing better than our own certainty.
Certainty’s pull is something Kwon’s novel illuminates well. Already the recipient of significant attention, The Incendiaries touches on a cluster of issues that seem ripped from the headlines. Religious extremism, race, college rape, casual misogyny, North Korea, and abortion are all here in just over 200 pages. The sheer density of hot-button concerns could easily feel sensational, but the text’s immediacy feels effortless and necessary.
Set at fictional Edwards College, an elite school on the banks of the Hudson (think Bard except it’s Princeton), The Incendiaries breaks with much college fiction to portray campus life as inseparable from the world outside the gates. Neither sanctuary nor club, the lush Edwards campus doesn’t let its students escape from anything. This is true, too, of Jejah, the Christian cult that claims one of the book’s protagonists. For Jejah’s devotees, faith in a deity is no more or less fraught than faith in others, or oneself.
Like many stories of faith lost and pursued, Kwon’s hinges on a crisis. In the novel’s opening pages, we learn that an Edwards student named Phoebe has done something strange and awful: “Buildings fell. People died.” In other words, we see from the start where things are headed. What remains to be discovered is why.
This is a question not just for us, but also for Kwon’s central narrator, Will, an ex-Evangelical Christian who saved souls before losing faith and fleeing to a new life at Edwards. At school, Will learns to pass for preppy, though not well enough to avoid being singled out by Phoebe as a fellow misfit. Phoebe, gifted with the ability to put others at ease, makes friends easily even as she privately flounders under a double burden of guilt and loss.
The only daughter of long-separated Korean immigrant parents, she mourns a mother she believes died thinking her a disappointment. Still reeling from her death, Phoebe courts self-annihilation during her first months at Edwards. Walking home from the hospital after a particularly bad night, she remembers her mother protecting child-Phoebe’s body with sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats: “Such pains she’d taken, for the little I’d since become.”
The pace in these early chapters is unhurried, the writing careful and evocative, as though the characters are attempting not so much to remember as to conjure their pasts. Doing so isn’t mere nostalgia — it’s an attempt to pinpoint the moments when things went wrong, when they saw only what they wanted to see. Recalling the heady early days of his relationship with Phoebe, Will seasons even his most exuberant memories with a note of caution: “If I could be anyone, I’d ask to be the Will rushing to see more, again, of Phoebe […] The suck and howl of a siren pierced the cold, and the fall wind smelled of reasons to live.”
As they reflect on their relationship in alternating flashbacks (Phoebe’s mysteriously nested inside Will’s), Will and Phoebe both admit to keeping secrets. They’re so good at being what they think other people want that they don’t know how to stop even when they want to. When Phoebe starts attending what seems to be a kind of Christian support group run by John Leal, a charismatic and mysterious man who claims to have survived imprisonment in a North Korean gulag, Will is baffled by her credulousness even as he’s certain he can unmask John as the same kind of self-aggrandizing faux-Jesus-warrior that he used to be. Will admits early on that he blames himself for having been unable to save Phoebe, but as we learn more about Phoebe we come to question how well he ever knew her.
But as Phoebe is to Will, so Will is to the reader. He’s charming but a little distant, slipping in and out of focus, his passionate self-reflection alternately earnest and performative. What we know of Phoebe is always mediated by Will, but it’s Will who remains the most inscrutable. At one point, during a summer internship in Beijing, Will spies a girl on the street buying a snack and, seeing something that intrigues him, trails her. Is his impulse curious? Protective? Predatory? We never know. The girl, sensing she’s being followed, flees in obvious and understandable terror. Instead of leaving her alone, Will becomes determined to explain that he doesn’t mean her harm, literally chasing her until she dives behind a door. Kwon ends the scene here, a move that, like so much in The Incendiaries, brilliantly turns an apparent moment of revealing self-reflection into another layer of uncertainty.
In such passages, The Incendiaries flips a convention of the religious conversion narrative on its head. Telling a story of faith gained or lost is traditionally a way of reconciling a riven life, of making consistent what defies consistency. In one of the most classic examples, John Henry Newman’s 1864 autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua (literally translated as “A Defense of His Life”), Newman describes his scandalous conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism as a realization of his true self evoked by reading the Catholic proclivities of his childhood as omens. Only when he finally comes to the moment of conversion — the moment, in other words, that requires him to own what he was in order to ground his transformation into something else — does he flinch: “I feel overcome with the difficulty of satisfying myself in my account of it, and have recoiled from doing so […] For who can know himself, and the multitude of subtle influences which act upon him?”
Describing the actual threshold of conversion would require Newman to admit momentarily that he hasn’t always been who he is, and so instead he invokes the distortions of memory to render it unseeable. Doubt becomes a bandage, a way of obscuring and attempting to heal the most profound of inconsistencies so that the coherence of faith and life he desperately desires can be maintained.
The self-account that grapples with a painful revelation is key to conversion narratives like Newman’s. It’s essential, too, to the contemporary memoir genre that, even as it avoids pat conclusions, it often frames the storytelling act as therapeutic. For Kwon’s characters, though, divulging hurts doesn’t guarantee anything. Even the faults they admitted freely and soberly can be used against them. In The Incendiaries, telling one’s story to others never heals old wounds, it only rips them open.
This is true not only for Will and Phoebe, but also for the novel’s secondary characters. One of Phoebe’s tactics for fitting in is allowing others to unburden themselves to her. When she first meets Julian Noh, a campus bon vivant who becomes a friend, Phoebe deflects his questions about her by telling him that she wants to know all his secrets. Months later, trust gained, he finally lets his habitual playfulness drop and confesses that his traditional Korean parents have rejected him for being gay. The confession isn’t salutary, though. It’s a source of shame laughingly diminished as soon as it’s made. Likewise, when their mutual friend Liesl publicly accuses a popular student of rape, speaking out only brings more pain. John Leal, too, uses coerced confessions to exert control over his disciples, then makes these forced revelations a pretext for supposedly curative punishment. Self-doubt in the hands of others is a weapon.
Yet none of these characters stop wanting things to make sense or trying to align who they want to be with who they are. This desire is at the core of Phoebe’s pursuit of faith and her attachment to John. Trying to make Will understand, she speaks of a rift at the core of her identity: “People tell me I’m the whitest Asian girl they’ve met. I think they figure it’s a compliment. I’ve heard it as one. Will, I used to take pride in knowing so little about what I’m from. John Leal calls it a kind of self-hatred, and it is. He’s right. I don’t want to be this kind of person.”
We understand Phoebe’s yearning to reclaim this part of herself, to separate who she is from the perceptions and desires others have imposed on her. Will, inadvertently underlining the point, fixates on her wanting to go to Seoul with John even though she declined to accompany him to Beijing. We may know the terrible thing Phoebe will do in the name of her faith, but that doesn’t make her conversion’s motivations less poignant or, in their own way, logical. For Phoebe, faith means not having to cover up or hate what she sees as her sins and failures. As she tells Will, “To recall those I’ve hurt, to catalog the times I’ve failed, is also to learn how to forgive. Each loss includes its redress; each evil, its pardon.”
Phoebe’s God is an always-present interlocutor who, in knowing what she is and does, makes her cohere, hurts and all. This is part of what makes her conversion so frustrating to Will, who is always seeking and never finding the audience he craves. His own loss of faith arrives when he asks God for a sign and is met with silence. When he loses God, he loses certainty. When he loses Phoebe, he loses his ability to be a person she could love.
Thus, a novel about a former believer’s attempt to understand a former agnostic becomes a more familiar but no less powerful story of how we use others — God included — to make sense of ourselves. This may seem strange territory for a campus novel, but in another way it’s just right. For many of us, college is the first experience that offers the terrifying opportunity for self-reinvention. It’s a seminal crucible in which we see ourselves reflected in the gaze of people we envy or hate or want or even maybe love. It’s when we may first catch sight of, if only briefly, a version of ourselves we might be able to live with.