Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon is her debut novel, released by Riverhead Books in 2018. It is an examination of the cross section of the mindsets and practices of religion and cult.
The central figures (who become a pair at the fictional Edwards University) are representative of two extremes: Will Kendall is a poor, logical, former Christian whose loss of faith launched him out of California onto the campus of Edwards (a fictional university near New York, probably based on an Ivy League school in New England). Will is everything that Phoebe is not: disciplined, poor, and atheist.
Phoebe (who becomes Will's girlfriend after the two meet at a party) was raised relatively privileged. She is half-Korean, half-American, but has not been back to Korea since childhood. Phoebe was a gifted pianist, and her skill was cultivated to the extreme by her mother. When Phoebe's mother dies in an automobile accident that might have been caused by Phoebe's driving, Phoebe is traumatized—and (as the latter part of the novel discloses) rich.
John Leal, a half-Korean former Edwards student, uses his shared cultural heritage with Phoebe (as well as his incidental acquaintance with her father, a preacher back in California) to draw in her slowly to a cult. At the beginning of the novel, Leal is seen as an outsider who (presumably, as the novel is sparse in its accounts of non-major characters) surreptitiously recruits several other college students like Phoebe by hanging around campus. He discusses his time in a gulag in Pyongyang, North Korea.
The novel showcases the transformation of Phoebe from the outgoing, attractive, academically lazy but typical college student as whom she begins her sophomore year at Edwards to a reclusive, quiet, withdrawn, and religiously zealous girl who attends a pro-life rally with Leal and his other cult members in Manhattan. Though Will tries to infiltrate the cult in order to save her, he is especially frustrated to watch her fall victim to the John Leal's religious ravings, as Will himself knows the allure of religion (and throughout the novel, admits to missing the joy it affords). Phoebe eventually loses touch with Will and he finds out of her bombing a women's clinic (which she calls a "killing mill"). A passerby who identified Phoebe claims to have seen her commit suicide, and, though evidence points to the fact that she is dead, Will fantasizes about seeing her in New York.
Leal uses the language of God to inspire his cult, and he houses them in a fairly well-appointed home off campus. Will (the primary narrator), precisely because of his religious background, almost immediately sees Leal for what he is: a cult leader who uses people's source of insecurity (such as Phoebe's guilt over her mother's death) to recruit and victimize them.
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