R. O. Kwon‘s The Incendiaries has that goopy, impressionistic textured prose found in novels like The Girls by Emma Cline and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (whose celebratory blurb naturally graces the cover of my advance reader’s copy). The descriptive storytelling action is generously mixed with flashes of introspection and pure passages of elegant language, which smartly serves to establish the unreliability of our given narrator, Will Kendall.
Memory, sense perception, and fact all roll together, and we have to tease them apart to get at some version of the truth. After all, when we remember important events, events that crushed us and rendered us raw in some way, our sense memory is stronger than the minute detailed steps of our procedural linear memory: that flush on our cheeks, the ripe feeling of shame, lingers long after we forget the perfect A to Z of what happened to make us react this way.
The Incendiaries is less a story than a collection of these impressions and imprinted moments, feeling at times like an exercise in teasing out the most abstracted and poetical way of writing about something, often letting any potential sense of narrative propulsion fall to the wayside. It can be roughly sketched out as boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl joins cult, boy loses girl, its crystallized story beats coming almost like a screenplay. But actually reading it means often stepping back from that twisted, lush prose to remember than the story itself is fairly simple, albeit rendered in a non-clichéd way.
Scholarship student Will Kendall transfers from Bible college to Princeton-esque Edwards University, where he immediately is dazzled by the screaming, falling star that is Phoebe Lin. When former Edwards student John Leal returns to town as the leader of a Christian cult called Jejah, Will can only watch as Phoebe falls further and further into its rituals and righteous fire, seeing in her a strange mirror of the faith he abandoned years earlier.
At just over 200 pages The Incendiaries feels like it rushes through the story a little too quickly for my taste, although I suppose that’s the point: it’s almost confessional, as if Will is furiously trying to recall just what went wrong before time sands down the rougher edges of his memories. Most of what didn’t resonate with me on a story-related level can be explained through the incredible deliberate narrowness of how its story is presented to us—it’s always through Will’s eyes, even when it appears as though Phoebe or John Leal is speaking. The lack of quotation marks is a smart representation of how, over time, memories of who said what, and even what exactly was said, get muddied and unclear; Will isn’t quoting what was said, merely doing his best to remember the gist of it. Even the passages that seem to be about Phoebe are chiseled a degree away from her interiority by including a “she said”, meaning that even this first-person narration is being recounted to us, the reader, via Will, who is hearing Phoebe speak.
Through the passages detailing Phoebe’s childhood, we learn she is the child of immigrants (a working mother and an estranged preacher father), and we are struck by how passive, even disaffected she appears to be. Even her prodigy-level proficiency at the piano fails to truly make her feel completely whole, so Will naturally sees her transitioning from popular party girl to devout Jejah acolyte as an attempt at reaching some level of spiritual and emotional fulfillment, turning from physical pleasures to something she believes will be more nourishing.
But we only know about Phoebe by what she chooses to let Will know, and in turn what Will chooses to remember about her, meaning that she never really coalesces into as rounded a character as Will, whose hypocrisies, resentment, and eventual violence towards Phoebe are the mark of a fully-inhabited and fleshed-out protagonist. When we fall in love, we tend to idealize that special person, seeing everything they do as something momentous, and Kwon’s prose, those little physical dashes of a silky black ponytail or pale legs, acutely recreate that sensation. But we spend so much time in Will’s head, seeing what he sees and experiencing what he experiences, that by comparison Phoebe remains as much a cipher to us as she is to Will over the course of their doomed relationship.
The element of The Incendiaries that I found less satisfying was its treatment of John Leal and Jejah—or, rather, how we only learn about John Leal and Jejah second- and third-hand through Will’s observations of Phoebe getting more and more wrapped up in the cult’s philosophy. For a cult leader whose influence drives one major character astray, John Leal isn’t very charismatic or enticing at all, coming across through Will’s jaded psyche as overly dramatic, a suspicious fraud right from the get-go. That’s obviously a choice that Kwon made, preferring to keep Jejah translated through Will’s perception rather than risk letting us, the readers, be tempted by its doctrines.
The last chunk of the book, in which Phoebe fully embraces the cult of Jejah, acting as a solider and domestic terrorist and Will, as the presumptive boyfriend, is greeted at the door one day by FBI agents, blitzes by incredibly quickly; the fallout is swift and brutal. Phoebe essentially vanishes (literally from Will, and from Edwards University) at this point but because she was never truly there for us the entire rest of the story, Will’s recollections and musings make her just as present for us as she was when she was there, becoming, in the end, a memory of a shadow of the girl he once loved.