R.O. Kwon’s debut novel, The Incendiaries, begins with a domestic terrorist attack. The novel’s narrator, former Bible college student Will Kendall, imagines the bombing — committed by his former girlfriend and cult member, Phoebe Lin. "…This is where I start having trouble, Phoebe," Will muses, addressing his thoughts directly to his ex-girlfriend. “Buildings fell. People died. You told me once I hadn’t even tried to understand. So, here I am, trying.” The rest of The Incendiaries is spent trying to understand.
Out on July 31, The Incendiaries landed Kwon a mention in the New York Times’ “Four Writers To Watch This Summer” list. It’s a fierce and clobbering debut, telling the stories of not only Will and Phoebe, but of a man named John Leal as well — the leader of the Jejah cult that Phoebe and Will each join in turn, for different reasons — who recruits his members from the campus of an elite university. Leal and his followers are fundamentalist Christians, the cult itself has ties to North Korea. Before The Incendiaries' end, the cult will have committed a deadly bombing in the name of their faith.
“I was at my most joyful when I was most religious,” says Kwon, in a recent interview with Bustle. The debut novelist has previously written about her own former-devotion and subsequent loss of faith. “I’ve never since felt that kind of persistent, unadulterated joy, a joy unshadowed by the knowledge of its eventual loss. I wasn’t in a cult, but I did get pretty fanatical, and, at my most fanatical, I felt so certain.”
There is certainly something about unwavering devotion — and cults in particular — that seems to inspire an almost-voyeuristic fascination in people. Maybe even, dare I say, a longing? One only has to look to the books about Jonestown and the Manson Family that are still being published; things like the obsession over Emma Cline’s novel The Girls, Katherine Dunn’s sustained following, the recent buzz about the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country.
"I’ve never since felt that kind of persistent, unadulterated joy, a joy unshadowed by the knowledge of its eventual loss."
“I’ve often noticed in myself, and in other formerly religious people, an allergy to certainty,” says Kwon, when I ask her where she thinks the cultural fascination with cults comes from, where her own interest in exploring a cult in her writing originated. “I’m deeply suspicious of certainties in almost any form — I’m not even sure I’m right to be suspicious of certainty! But, of course, certainty can feel magnificent, and wonderfully, terribly calming; meanwhile, certainty can be hard to find. I think a lot of a line from Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, that ‘to be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity.’ Cults tend to offer absolute truths.”
This is, in many ways, at the heart of what The Incendiaries is wrestling with — the certainty of faith, the heartbreak of the fall. Both Will and Phoebe experience devastating loss of, and a subsequent replacement of, faith. When readers meet Will, he has left his conventional religion and Bible college, only to become just as in love with Phoebe as he was with Christianity — before losing her as well. Phoebe seeks to heal the loss of her mother by joining the Jejah cult. Their losses of faith, paralleled by the losses of great loves in their lives, leave behind an ache that all readers can relate to.
"I think a lot of a line from Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, that ‘to be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity.’ Cults tend to offer absolute truths."
“I grew up Catholic, but, at my most God-struck, I veered into evangelical Protestantism. My life plan, for a while, was to become a missionary or a preacher, but I still had enough Catholicism in me to fantasize about becoming a recluse,” Kwon says. “I thought it would be wonderful to just, you know, sit in silence for the rest of my life, contemplating a glorious Lord.”
“As for the ache of that loss — goodness, yes. I feel the pain of that absence every day," she says. "This doesn’t mean I’m sad all the time — I’m often joyful, too! I love joy. I seek it out. But His absence is an ongoing presence, as omnipresent as I used to believe He was. I can’t stop longing for what I’ve lost, and sometimes it feels as though I’ve had to learn to shape my entire life around the vast hole of His nonbeing.”
The faith-based obsessions of Kwon’s characters — Will’s to Phoebe and Phoebe’s to the Jejah cult — lead both characters to commit acts of violence. While Phoebe suffers some consequences for her actions, Will never has to formally atone for his. I ask Kwon about Phoebe's violence — committed in the name of faith — and whether that frantic devotion is, perhaps, more relatable than most of us would like to admit?
"I love joy. I seek it out. But His absence is an ongoing presence, as omnipresent as I used to believe He was."
“People who commit acts of terror in the name of religion are often thought of as being monsters, as brainwashed fiends existing beyond comprehension. But the Jejah cult considers itself to be Christian, and, of course, the Bible’s a big, capacious, self-contradicting text,” she says. “It contains what can be interpreted as fairly radical language about what people should be willing to do for God. In addition, I believe almost all of us are capable of violence, if sufficiently provoked. Not that I’m saying the novel’s characters are justified in any violence they commit, not at all! But they’re also not, I think, incomprehensible monsters. They all, in various ways, at least in the moment, imagine they’re acting with love.”
It’s been said, in one variation or another, throughout history, that one person’s terrorist is another person’s revolutionary — and it’s an idea we’re largely uncomfortable with as a country, leading to the kinds of questions we don’t want to answer, the kind of empathy we don’t want to feel. The Incendiaries does both — asks the questions, explores the empathy.
“I think frequently about something a mentor of mine used to say, that a lot of people end the day thinking, ‘I did the best I could,’” says Kwon. “I find that to be so moving, the idea that we tend to be compelled to try to justify our actions to ourselves, that we want to believe ourselves to be doing good. The extremists in The Incendiaries aren’t setting off bombs in the spirit of comic-book villainy. They think they have excellent reasons for doing so. It’s just that the reasons aren’t defensible, not to the rest of us. I don’t know where that line blurs or where the answer lies, but exploring that boundary is something The Incendiaries tries to do.”
While Kwon wrote The Incendiaries well before the current dynamics between the White House administration and North Korea unfolded, I do wonder if she considers her novel a political one — if she’s at all surprised by how adeptly it speaks to our current moment, how relevant North Korea would become in the minds of Americans as her debut was landing on bookstore shelves? But she is quick to note the novel isn’t intended to be a didactic one.
"The extremists in The Incendiaries aren’t setting off bombs in the spirit of comic-book villainy. They think they have excellent reasons for doing so. It’s just that the reasons aren’t defensible, not to the rest of us."
“Going back to the idea of certainty, it was important to me that the novel avoid offering false conclusions,” Kwon says. “It would have felt like lying to tie everything up neatly, for one thing; in addition, I didn’t want to lay claim to having any especial knowledge of the real-world North Korea. For personal reasons, because parts of my family originate from what’s now North Korea, I’d read what I could find about the area, but of course what I could learn was, and is, incomplete. So, when North Korea started showing up in my novel, I hoped to portray that unknowing itself.”
However, she does pose The Incendiaries as an alternative to the kind of rhetoric constantly flowing from the White House podium and POTUS Twitter feed. “The 45th U.S. President often peddles in certainties — I try not to say his name. I near-fanatically love almost all English words, but I hate his name; I don’t want it polluting my mouth,” says Kwon. “He just says sh*t, outrageous, hateful things, that he gilds with false confidence, and I think that’s appealing to a lot of people. I love what Socrates said, that he could only consider himself relatively wise insofar as he didn’t fancy he knew what he didn’t know. I wanted my novel to come from a place of wondering: I wished it to exist on the side of ambiguity, of complexity, of not offering or even really seeking tidy answers. In that sense — and others — I think politics are very much at play in my novel, yes, maybe especially nowadays. There are also ways in which, or so I hope, the novel is feminist to its core.”
"I wanted my novel to come from a place of wondering: I wished it to exist on the side of ambiguity, of complexity, of not offering or even really seeking tidy answers."
The Incendiaries is also, in so many ways, a story about the way we tell stories — to ourselves, to others, as a country and a people and a world. Kwon utilizes her characters voices in interesting ways: much of The Incendiaries is presented through a first person Will, who seems to be speaking the story directly to Phoebe. Readers only hear Phoebe’s voice through the personal confessions she's obligated to make to the Jejah cult. John Leal is presented in third person. Kwon explains: “By fracturing the narrative, I discovered that I could try to explore the gaps between different points of views, the cracks in between,” she says. “In The Incendiaries, I wanted to traverse divides between more or less rational and more or less fanatic world views. I hoped to show how people not wholly unlike you and me could bring themselves to turn violent in God’s name.”
Through the novel, the narratives characters tell often change — the confessions Phoebe makes to the cult aren’t always the same stories she’s shared with Will. Will, for his part, finds John Leal’s personal history (one of being imprisoned in and then released from North Korea, where he was first radicalized) suspect as well. “I often don’t think anyone’s all that reliable of a narrator — no matter what, in any story, truths get distorted, details are left out, and the whole story’s impossible to retrieve,” Kwon says. “I’m fascinated by the necessarily incomplete stories we tell one another about who we are, and by the stories we tell ourselves.”
"I often don’t think anyone’s all that reliable of a narrator — no matter what, in any story, truths get distorted, details are left out, and the whole story’s impossible to retrieve."
Appropriately titled, the story Kwon is telling in The Incendiaries is an incendiary one — leading readers to question the things they’re devoted to, the ways they enact their devotion, if we’re all really so different from one another in our desire to hear the call of something greater, higher, more powerful. “As is probably clear by now, it’s important to me that, with my writing, I resist simplifying,” Kwon says. “So, I love the richness of the word ‘incendiaries’: how it has to do with physical bombs, and with starting fires, but also with plain excitement. It also has to do with inciting others toward action. I was thinking, too, of how Christians often say they’re on fire for God. I used to be on fire like that, blazing with what I imagined to be divine love. I miss it so much, but I’ve left the garden. There’s no going back.”