Arts

Book Review

Striking debut weaves love, faith, and fanaticism on a college campus

“The Incendiaries’’ opens with an explosion, watched from a rooftop by revelers who are drinking wine and singing a psalm. It’s darkly intentional, we gather, though it’s also a kind of fireworks show: “Smoke plumed, the breath of God.” 

The intertwined currents of violence and beauty run through the novel, a striking debut by R.O. Kwon that deals with faith, extremism, love, and loss. The rest of the novel is a kind of attempt to explain and understand that opening scene.

The person seeking answers is Will Kendall, a former “kid evangelist’’ who has transferred from a Bible college to Edwards, an elite Northeastern school. Will is poorer than most of his classmates, often out of place at Edwards, struggling to balance classes and a job at a local Italian restaurant. At a party, he meets Phoebe Lin, an alluring and well-liked young woman who can’t walk down the street without being stopped by friends. They dance; they kiss; they fall in love, and their lives become entangled. 

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Despite being on the cusp of new lives, both Will and Phoebe have suffered losses of enormous magnitude. Phoebe, once a pianist, has lost her love of playing music. She has lost her mother in a car accident for which she blames herself, and grief comes to her in dreams. Will’s father left. Will has also lost his faith in God, an absence that has set him adrift. As they reach for each other, Will begins to feel whole.

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But Phoebe, it is clear, is lacking something. She meets John Leal, a compelling and strange leader of a religious group called Jejah. She starts going to meetings. First comes Bible study, then the group begins a series of confessions. Soon, so quickly that Will barely perceives it at first, Jejah becomes increasingly extreme. Members target abortion clinics. Phoebe is drawn into it.

The novel toggles between the perspectives of Will, Phoebe, and Leal, though it is Will we come to know best. Leal’s chapters, short and oblique and written in biblical language, feel sometimes disconnected from the others. 

Kwon’s prose sizzles. Her sentences are deft, short, crackling. Her portrait of undergraduate life at Edwards is masterful. She captures the constant haze of alcohol, the courtyards and costume parties and clubs with drinking rules, the push and pull of attraction. She writes the erotic well, the particular fumblings of not-quite-casual hookups and early love. Sexual violence, too, is present on this campus. A friend of Phoebe’s accuses the son of a powerful man of rape. Details of the night come out and are debated; not everyone believes her. Will keeps his distance from the accused. Kwon’s depiction  feels messy, menacing, and deeply contemporary.

At times, though, the writing can be overwrought. There are moments of exposition where omission might have worked better. In an early chapter, Phoebe’s mother is cutting a peach for her. When a peach reappears later, at a picnic with Will, it is a thrill. “I had no practice slicing fruit because my mother had always done it,” Phoebe reminds us, and the spell is broken. Moments like this mar the otherwise well-crafted novel.

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The book is propulsive, especially in later chapters, and I read with dread and hunger. Phoebe slips further from Will and us, even in her narration, which becomes filled with talk of God. Will tries to reach her. In some ways, their fights feel like the normal squabblings of a college couple, about distance, about time spent apart, about deceptions. At the end of one fight, Will thinks, “She asked if I heard how I sounded. When had she lied to me? Well, all right, I thought, as the kettle pinged.” But the constant, creeping presence of Leal lends them a different kind of urgency. There is something about him, from the beginning, that is sinister, mystical, and dangerous.

The explosion is not the only violent act we try, as readers, to comprehend. There is another moment late in the book, when Will does something that is perhaps unforgivable, caught up in his attempts to keep Phoebe. It is subtle and also sickening, and we are left wondering about the limits of sympathy. What should we try to understand?

This novel is overrun with collisions of all kinds: of faith and doubt, of loss and love, of Will’s yearning and Phoebe’s resistance. In Kwon’s luminous prose, these collisions are not quiet. They are explosive.

THE INCENDIARIES

By R.O. Kwon

Riverhead, 214 pp., $26

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Sophie Haigney is a freelance writer who has covered arts and culture for The New York Times, The Economist, The San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. She currently lives in Brooklyn.