North Korean refugees, among other refugees, have been sharing their stories of high-stakes escapes. American university students, among other women, have been rallying around the powerful slogan of #MeToo. R. O. Kwon’s debut novel, The Incendiaries, brings together these two equally pressing, but entirely distinct, contemporary phenomena. Moreover, she does so in ways that completely defamiliarize each. Unlike North Korean defector narratives that seek to demystify the inner workings of the so-called Hermit Kingdom, The Incendiaries purposefully leaves “North Korea” clouded in an impenetrable haze. And, whereas university sexual harassment allegations have drawn their efficacy from the testimonial form, Kwon’s novel dramatizes the difficulty of speaking out. Both of these idiosyncrasies, the unresolved North Korea and the unspoken testimony, are formally particular to The Incendiaries. They reflect the particular perspective that this novel takes: that of a well-intentioned white man.
Although the focus of the chapters in The Incendiaries cycles through three different characters, we primarily view the world through the eyes of Will Kendall. These are sympathetic eyes. Will is a poor, hardworking scholarship student at the fictional Edwards University. Will has just transferred to Edwards from a small Bible college after losing God, among other luxuries. At Edwards, he secretly holds down a restaurant job several miles from campus and fabricates a Los Angeles childhood of swimming pools and suburban insouciance. While others party, Will skips meals, sleep, and a social life to support himself and his suicidal mother.
Will is naive, virginal, sacrificial, heroic, and even loving. These are precisely the traits that instill him with an unshakable belief in his own innocence. They make him incapable of recognizing sexual assault or rape as such, and, as a result, they exempt him from any sense of accountability.
The novel’s central plot line, to quote the striving and selfless Will, can be summed up as “the girl I loved was in a cult.” The girl in question is Phoebe Haejin Lin, a South Korean college student. Despite the fact that Will is the novel’s primary narrator, Phoebe is arguably its protagonist, for she is central to the plot’s unfolding. Phoebe’s centrality, however, is accentuated by her inaccessibility. The fact that Phoebe is never the narrator of her own story is both the novel’s key formal feature and what I took to be its overriding political message. Her chapters are entirely filtered through Will’s perspective as he speculatively recreates her “confessions” to the aforementioned cult.
The cult is headed by John Leal, the novel’s third main character, whose chapters are narrated in the third person. Leal, who is half Korean, purports to have been a humanitarian worker in North Korea. While imprisoned within the country’s notorious gulags, Leal is inspired rather than distressed upon seeing how the “poor fools” in his midst could believe in a dictatorial leader “as one might believe in Jesus Christ.” Upon his release, Leal decides to exploit this pathetic, plebian desire for faith. He founds a quasi-Christian, quasi-totalitarian terrorist organization made up of Edwards college students whose “privileged childhoods” and “life-long habit of achieving” made them ideal disciples in both a spiritual and an ideological sense.
Phoebe is one such student. As a child, Phoebe had been a prototypical “model minority.” A “piano genius,” she decided to quit in high school after listening to an album that led her to believe that she “wouldn’t add to what leading pianists … had [already] achieved.” Once in college, Phoebe becomes a dedicated socialite. She solicits the company of men, not for the physical pleasure but for the “postcoital talks, the truths told in bed.” She is the college student who knows everyone but whom no one knows. This includes her boyfriend Will as well as us, the readers.
When Phoebe cozies up to Leal and his organization, Will attributes sole responsibility—and agency—to Leal. It was Leal who had misled and exploited Phoebe, his innocent girlfriend. Will’s suspicions about Leal’s cult and its shadowy North Korean backstory are embedded in his imagined reconstruction of Phoebe. He finds it impossible to believe that his beloved Phoebe had gone willingly, whether to Leal, to God, or to her Korean roots, just as he is aghast at learning about the string of men who had been with Phoebe before him. His insistence on Phoebe’s victimization is predicated on a deeper-seated personal myth: that he, Will, knows and understands Phoebe better than anyone else.
Through Will, The Incendiaries casts the task of reading for Phoebe as its implicit challenge. Trying to derive a sense of who Phoebe was and what she intended based on the slim pickings of what she “confesses” is both Will’s way and our way of navigating a world in which Phoebe herself is ultimately absent. The first time I read Kwon’s novel, I believed Will to be an empathetic narrator. Later, in returning to the opening pages, I found him utterly creepy.
When Will first meets Phoebe, he watches her sweat trickle “toward the clavicle niche, where it might pool . . . to be lapped up.” He describes “fist-sized breasts.” From the start, we can hardly view Phoebe without seeing the imposition of Will’s body. And yet, The Incendiaries is as much about how Phoebe eludes Will—and us—as it is about Will’s smothering narration. When Will secretly peruses the marginal notes in Phoebe’s books, hoping to find “a coded map, directions to Phoebe’s shining, inmost psyche,” he is confronted instead with a “visible opacity.” When Will probes for answers in person, Phoebe deflects: “No, let’s talk about you.”
What Will and Phoebe share is a desire for belief. Belief appears in The Incendiaries as a “God-shaped hole.” Phoebe’s confessions suggest that she is driven by a desire for belief after the death of her mother. Her turn to Leal—perhaps like her turn to music, sex, and other passing obsessions—is premised on an “idea that longing should be allowed the chance to find its object.” Will, previously a devout Christian, lives with not only the loss of God but also the near death of his mother and the desertion of his father.
The fact that Phoebe is never the narrator of her own story is both the novel’s key formal feature and its overriding political message.
Then Phoebe abandons him for Leal’s cult. Phoebe’s and Will’s respective losses intensify rather than mitigate their relation to belief. Both read the world for signs—of a departed parent, of an unrequited love, and, of course, of an absent god. These manifestations of a God-shaped hole recall what Amy Hungerford has termed “meaninglessness,” a kind of “belief without content,” which is proximate to a “belief in form for the sake of form.”1
Kwon, however, also plays with the racializing of belief and draws on its imperial history. Though Will constantly queries the truth of Leal’s dramatic story of escape from North Korea, the basic premise of this story connects contemporary humanitarian efforts with the long-running legacy of Euro-American evangelical work in the heathen hinterlands. (In fact, Leal the humanitarian worker is the child of missionary parents.) As Leal puts it, “No one was more spiritual than Koreans could be; no believers, more devoted. It was a land of purists.”
In making a link between the fanatically disciplined South Korean “model minority” and the fanatically servile North Korean laborer, Leal hearkens to 19th-century missionaries who, as Hyaeweol Choi and others have shown, celebrated the Korean people’s exceptional capacity for belief over and against the relative resistance of the Chinese and Japanese to proselytization.2 Leal’s assumptions also pick up on a more contemporary strain of modernization discourse that touts the Korean Christian faith as the driving force behind South Korean capitalist success.
Finally, belief in Kwon’s novel is the formal principle—the hole—that guides how we read. It gives us Phoebe’s shape rather than her content. Especially when Phoebe disappears from Edwards, Will begins anxiously to read for “signs” of her intentions and feelings. A silk wrap left behind signals a “promise of return.” A look in a security camera suggests defiance. These details that “accrue, taking on a living shape,” make for an obvious parallel to Will’s prior religiosity, when a glint of ice or a stir of the wind served as “coded messages, dispatches from a loving Lord.” In The Incendiaries, signs promise “relevance” and “shape” without providing proof.
As a reader, the signs that I found myself looking for were the subtle—but, I believe, coded and purposeful—instances when seemingly harmless fun carried more than a whiff of violence. Most overtly, a student named Liesl commits suicide after she levels a controversial accusation of rape against the New York governor’s son, an Edwards sailing recruit. We also encounter a student who maneuvers his hand up a girl’s shirt; a girl who wails for help as someone slings her across his back; a waitress who tolerates misogynistic jokes at work; a stumbling girl in the streets of Manhattan who draws a crowd of probing eyes; and, finally, numerous “incidents” involving Will and Phoebe. As a narrator, Will registers each occurrence. Sometimes, he is a bystander; on other occasions, his crime isn’t one of omission.
Reading Kwon’s novel through these seemingly commonplace occurrences that simmer at the surface but never come to a boil reminds us of the too many occasions when someone doesn’t speak out on the assumption that doing so would seem unmerited or unmotivated. For Will, belief transforms possible signs of violence into probable evidence of a meaningless romp or meaningful love. His point of view shows how being good and claiming love keep in suspension a world built on the innocence of belief.
To see the violence in this world seems to require something beyond an impressionistic shape; it seems to require comprehensive content and unqualified conviction. Based on this metric of certainty, would the inclusion of Phoebe’s first-person account have mattered? In the end, Will may not be unlike the countless accused men who have denied culpability while diplomatically endorsing women “coming out and being able to have a voice.”3 He sees the wavering line between pleasure and assault. But the evidence always seems circumstantial. He looks up and moves on.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.
- Amy Hungerford, Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960 (Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 137. ↩
- Hyaeweol Choi, Gender and Mission Encounters in Korea: New Women, Old Ways (University of California Press, 2009). ↩
- See Giovanni Russonello, “James Franco Denies Sexual Misconduct Accusations on Stephen Colbert’s ‘Late Show,’” New York Times, January 10, 2018. ↩