by R. O. Kwon
“They’d have gathered on a rooftop in Noxhurst to watch the explosion.” So goes the first line of R. O. Kwon’s novel The Incendiaries. As readers we of course do not know what “the explosion” is, nor do we suspect that we are about to bear witness to one — a literary one, in the shape of this elegant, sinister debut novel — ourselves.
A work of stunning assurance and steely poise, Kwon’s novel traces the paths of three young people, two of whom are students at a small unidentified northeastern college (is it Hamilton? St. Lawrence?). Phoebe Lin — restless, beautiful, charismatic — and Will Kendall — shy, uncertain, earnest — become unlikely lovers among the churning sea of preppy undergraduates full of bluff bonhomie. They are both fascinated by John Leal, a magnetic outsider with a fervent belief in himself as a divinely inspired messenger of Christ. As Leal’s hold over Phoebe becomes ever more complete, Will finds himself locked in competition with the ominous cult leader over Phoebe’s attention, love, and even her fate.
This brief description does not come close to conveying the novel’s entrancing power, nor its subtlety and beauty. What Kwon has done here is to explore potent themes — the nature of Christian faith and its potential for misuse and even harm — with a completely organic narrative framework. Phoebe and Will and even Leal are just kids, after all, with kids’ sense of dramatic self-invention and susceptibility to obsession. (The Incendiaries reminds me at times of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, another seductive novel about college kids in over their heads. This comparison is the highest compliment I can think of.) Their actions and decisions and words take on symbolic meaning only in retrospect.
Kwon’s depiction of the enchantments of extreme faith is subtle, assured, and cumulatively rock-solid. While reading the book, I kept thinking (pretentious critic alert here) of Soren Kierkegaard, specifically of his meditation on the story of Abraham and Isaac. The Incendiaries shares with Kierkegaard’s parable some of the unsettling sense that pure faith is, in its drive for transcendence, capable of utter monstrousness, that the line between devoutness and insanity is porous indeed. Kwon does not shy away from the disturbing elements of this dynamic, and Phoebe’s spiral into madness is effected with a calm rigor that is, paradoxically, nearly sickening in its emotional affect.
The engine of this rigor is a species of prose that is so eerily good in its rhythms and evocative nuances that one has the mysterious and disorienting feeling of reading a really good, really long poem. Consider the following paragraph, from early in the book, upon Will’s accession to the erotic landscape of contemporary college:
Late at night, if I walked to the bathroom, I crossed paths with still more girls listing tipsily down the hall in oversized, borrowed polo shirts. They flashed smiles, then swerved back into my suitemates’ rooms. I returned to mine, but I could still hear the squeals, the high-pitched cries. In no time, a pretty girl might zigzag into my bed.
Later, as the novel hastens towards its doom:
I went out for a walk again. Rain fell, melting winter’s ice. Sidewalks broke, heaved, oozing months-old grit. In this newly liquid world, other natural laws might also prove flexible. Time, I’d learned, was believed to be less sequential than it felt. It could spiral; it frilled. It might well halt. Then, it was the next morning.
The measure of the effectiveness of this kind of prose, with its obliqueness, its deft mixture of the concrete and the abstract, is in the result that it is impossible to speak about the beauty of the novel’s language separately from the potency of its themes. One can’t imagine this ensorcelling story being told in “then-he-said” straightforward expository prose, just as one can’t imagine Kwon’s hallucinatory grace grafted onto … a Tom Clancy-style thriller, or some dumb thing like that. The union of language and thought is complete and seamless; there is no separating the terror from the delight, the tragedy from the pleasure.
This is the mark of literature operating at its highest capacity, and it transcends topicality. You’re soon probably going to read a lot of hot garbage about how “The Incendiaries” is “a novel for our times in its straightforward depiction of the violent lunatic fringe,” etc. etc. Don’t buy it: the book is bigger, and better, than that. Like all great books, its meaning is elusive, grand, a little — or a lot — scary.
Michael Lindgren is a writer with bylines in the Washington Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Newsday, Men’s Journal, Brooklyn Magazine, and many other periodicals. He works in a bookstore in Jersey City, New Jersey. His website is www.mikelindgren.net