Faces lit up if I walked into a room, the liking a light I could refract, giving it back. Phoebe, oh, I love that girl, people said, but it’s possible they all just loved their reflected selves.
I think about Phoebe Lin, the female protagonist of R.O Kwon’s The Incendiaries, a lot. She is eerily familiar, as though I’ve been her in some other incarnation. I’ve been in her skin: bared and coy, spine like a rope, fists nightmare-clenched in the dark. I have been haunted. I have been her broad smile and easy demeanor. I have been performative. I have danced alongside Phoebe, sweaty in a dive bar, a party—always acutely aware of eyes watching, my own seeking something, someone who might love the emptiness out of me, render me salvageable.
I craved the postcoital talks, the truths told in bed. I ate pain. I swilled tears. If I could take enough in, I’d have no space left to fit my own.
I’ve been that Phoebe, too.
Reader beware, this book got under my skin. Narrated by Phoebe’s boyfriend Will Kendall, Kwon writes in Will’s stream of consciousness, nary pausing to take a breath or punctuate. This rushes us into feeling as though we operate at the close proximity to Phoebe’s psyche, that this is her story and we have such insight. The characters are so compelling and the language so effective that we forget we are at the mercy of Will’s devoted but ultimately unreliable secondhand narrative. He admits: “It’s possible these are just the details I’ve saved. It could be grief’s narrowed vision: I’ve noticed what I’ve lacked.” Still, he puts words in her mouth:
If I were less selfish, I’d have released the hold I had on him, this love-dazed Will, more child than man. But I wasn’t. I couldn’t.
This is what Phoebe might have said; what Will wishes, wants to believe she may have said.
But Phoebe Lin is gone.
Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan in the eyes of Gatsby and Nick, Will’s Phoebe is the lovelorn male’s idea of Woman: conjured to fill the space left behind by the real Phoebe’s disappearance, a difficult past, and by a Christian faith that Will, once doggedly devoted to, fled with nothing to replace its safety. This same faith (and version of Phoebe) is distorted by John Leal, the magnetic leader of an extremist cult that lures Phoebe in with the promise of exactly what she seeks: recompense, penitence, forgiveness for a tragic past, and an opportunity to make good on what both John Leal and Will call her “gift.” (I want to tell you about this gift, but you’ll have to read the novel first.)
If you can find delight in this lack as you did with presence, you’ll gain what you think is lost. – John Leal
Phoebe is a bright, provocative façade of a woman who masks grief with grace. Fundamentally, Phoebe’s crisis of faith is in herself, her goodness. This makes her a malleable conduit for the fulfillment of both Will and John Leal’s desires; both of which grow increasingly parallel and toxic; begging the question—when does love cross the line into obsession? And what do either passions serve? Kwon buttresses this point with other women and marginalized characters in the novel whose interactions with Will and other male characters echo similar roles and themes, and illuminates a shitty truth about the roles that women, the soft-hearted, and the othered are forced to embody within the confines of patriarchal institutions— academic, religious, and social.
Within these confines, both conjured and internalized by victim and fanatic, Phoebe, Will and John Leal act upon their drives to heal and to destroy—themselves and their worlds—certain that they are acting upon renewed faith, that their desires are to patch wounds.
The desire to believe is a central theme in this book. It is this desire—to salvage one’s soul, to be found again— that, ironically, clouds the truth. And isn’t it from this desperate fog that extremism and fundamentalism, so rigidly assured in their narrow ideas of good and evil, blossoms?
Kwon blurs the lines between truth, facts, myth, and what we (and the characters) wish were The Answer. I found myself often forgetting that Will speaks for both Phoebe and John Leal. Much like the way Leal believes he speaks with and for God, both men act upon delusions of grandeur, their devotions turned fanatic. We are always one step removed from Phoebe and her actual personhood. Will stands sentry, there, as a voice of Love and Reason. And, there we must stay, admire, and ache for who Phoebe may actually be, from afar.
She swayed left, right, bare shoulders sliding. Others writhed to the frenzied tempo, but Phoebe’s hips beat out a slowed-down song. Punch-stained red cups split underfoot, opening into plastic petals. Palms open, she levitated both hands. The room clattered into motion, rising to spin. She dipped, glided along its tilt, and still she moved to the calm rhythm she’d found, dragging the beat until my pulse joined hers.
Kwon’s prose is artfully crafted. It is spare and accessible, then, delightfully explosive in its literary tendencies, the music and the flourish.
Kwon has a knack for setting stunning scenes that immerse us in a world familiar yet fractured: a watery memory that we want to stay and explore, understand. This is fantastic fiction, dripping with detail and nostalgia—experience translated poignantly, accessibly—scenes in this book are a dead-on dream. There are moments that read like an independent film screenplay, or conjure the feeling one gets while watching a film projection. Images come alive, light burns through silver halide, and what we see on screen, on the page, in our minds, is as tangible and fleeting as a film frame.
And, picture this party:
…the paint-stained, strewn bodies of Liesl’s cast. It was the play’s final night. In ripped tulle, howling, actors had flitted across the backlit stage. They pelted the back wall with vines, then fell in piles. I still wasn’t sure what I’d seen; when I asked Julian if he could fill me in, he whispered Believe me, it’s my third time watching this, oh, exhibit and I’ve quit raising questions. I’ve filed it with all the world’s riddles that lack solutions.
The electric color, bodies intertwined, red panties, and wine—a drunken memory we can all share. Or, imagine a busy Manhattan street corner suddenly overtaken by an onslaught of tiny fetuses in a sleeping pill-induced hallucination.
Then, in a quick pivot, we are reminded that we are at the mercy of Kwon’s linguistic prowess. The dreamy theater party abruptly ends on a sinister image of woman as pig led to slaughter. In a single line, a detail, we are thrown—for a loop, out of the kiddie pool and back onto the speeding bus, at the mercy of Kwon’s direction. We are mere passengers on this ride, sloshed on longing and aesthetic.
It is incredible to crack open an American novel and wince upon seeing parts of yourself reflected back so strikingly. As a Korean American daughter, I see my mother’s hands and my father’s silence, his absence, in Kwon’s depictions of both Will and Phoebe’s parents. Details possibly inconsequential to some—a pile of Fuji apples and a paring knife; a cordless telephone kept close while gardening, just in case; a momentary embarrassment while trying to order cigarettes—are all familiar windows into my own childhood and what I’ve seen my parents and my community experience as Korean immigrants in Los Angeles. I particularly appreciate the cultural details Kwon weaves into Phoebe’s and Will’s makeup. The translation of certain idioms: “It’s a crack across the brain, she explained. It let sadness in,” as Will’s mother describes her crippling depression, for example. And I laud Kwon’s decision to illuminate generational herstories shared by many Korean mothers, mine included: traumas unshared, imposed shame kept hidden, carried alone, often to the grave. Both Phoebe’s and Will’s relationships with their mothers are very familiar to me.
Written with sparsity and flourish, a well-constructed narrative fractured and woven into cinematic scenes, populated with complex characters that demand our attention in exchange for access, The Incendiaries is at times reminiscent of a Haruki Murakami novel. Alongside Kwon’s persistent, driven prose is a narrative of personal and interpersonal unraveling. Kwon cultivates a palpable emptiness, a space to feel the growing sense of loss that progressively saturates these pages.
The Incendiaries is also a fantastically timely read. Kwon begs the questions: How far will we go to rediscover what we’ve lost? What is the line between devotion and obsession, faith and fanaticism? What is the marker of the divine, grotesque, real, dream, memory, or happenstance? And what are we willing to do to maintain our grasp on even a sliver of hope, even if this hope may not be real or whole?
Just like Phoebe, Will, and John Leal, we are mired in a personal and socio-political crisis of confidence. We have lost faith in old institutions and designations of what is good and right. We were products of these institutions. And, we have not yet been able to restore that which has been destroyed—love, goodness, hope—nor have we found anything to take their place, some new answer to chase.
But we’ll keep looking, keep going, refusing to believe it may not exist.
Perhaps this is the only way to survive.
Don’t miss a special Rumpus signed book giveaway of The Incendiaries and Letter in the Mail from R.O. Kwon, available through July 31! Details here.