Review: The Incendiaries

This review contains spoilers.

Sparse, elegant and oblique, R.O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries is a complex, layered exploration of faith, obsession, performance and the unreliability of perception.

The novel centres on three characters: Will Kendall, a poor white student at an elite university who’s recently lost his faith in the Christian God; Phoebe Lin, the daughter of South Korean parents, a former piano prodigy turned party girl who’s attending the same university as Will; and John Leal, the charismatic half-Korean leader of a faith group called Jejah that turns out, perhaps inevitably, to be a cult.

(There’s maybe a post to be written here about how religion is almost always portrayed in mainstream contemporary literature as marginal and contingent, if not non-existent – how often do we see sympathetic depictions of heartfelt, honest belief in any religious tradition? Anyway: not a post for today.)

Will and Phoebe, also inevitably, are drawn together by their shared losses – of faith and of music, respectively – and then apart again as Phoebe is sucked into John’s orbit. The novel ends as it begins, with the fatal bombing of an abortion clinic, and a question mark over Phoebe’s whereabouts.

The Incendiaries is narrated entirely by Will – even the chapters that are purportedly written from Phoebe and John’s viewpoints are reconstructed from diary entries he’s discovered. As such, one of the novel’s key themes is how character in the artistic sense is constructed, and more broadly how our outward identities are constructed and performed. In her characterisation of John and Phoebe Kwon shows her working, so to speak: her presentation of them both bears the hallmarks of having been filtered through Will’s gaze (for instance, Will refuses to believe that Phoebe was responsible for the bombing that opens and closes the novel), just as our perception of all fictional characters is filtered through the gaze of the author. In Phoebe’s case in particular, this technique satirises and ironises the male gaze, which in much literary fiction (and fiction in other genres too) flattens female characters in service to the stories of male protagonists. Will is not really capable of seeing his girlfriend for who she is, as a real person, in the same way that many male authors appear to be incapable of conceiving of female characters as whole and real people.

If Will is engaged in a process, consciously or not, of constructing an identity for Phoebe that serves his own emotional ends – an identity for his own consumption – then all three characters at the heart of the novel are similarly engaged in a process of (re)constructing their own identities for the consumption of those around them. Will is attempting to pass himself off as more wealthy than he actually is for the benefit of his fellow students; Phoebe is concealing a deep grief over the death of her mother behind her party-girl façade; John claims to have helped people defect from North Korea in order to present himself as a heroic, even messianic, figure, but the details of his story shift with every telling.

With all of this dissembling going on, how can we ever really know another person? Everyone in this story ends up doing something terrible that, in Will and Phoebe’s case, is pretty shockingly inconsistent with how they’ve been characterised throughout the novel, and in John’s case is at least at odds with how he likes to present himself. Will, despite having presented himself as kind and well-meaning, ends up assaulting Phoebe when he finds that John has been beating her (it’s not difficult to read into this an assertion of ownership); Phoebe, who Will has idealised for pages and pages, plans a bombing that kills five schoolgirls; John is, well, a cult leader, contra his activist credentials and religious pronouncements. How do respectable men become violent? How do people become radicalised? How do we know when someone we trust is abusing us?

This isn’t a novel that offers answers, only profoundly destabilising questions. Its main strength lies in how it applies age-old concerns about the gap between performance and reality to hot-button issues of gendered violence and radicalisation – and, indeed, its very lack of answers is profoundly postmodern. Nothing is really knowable; everything we think we know is filtered through layers of text and/or interpretation. The signified – to get theoretical for a moment – is irreparably detached from the signifier. That uncrossable breach, maybe, lies at the heart of many of our problems.

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