What I Did and Didn't Learn in "The Incendiaries"
"People with no experience of God tend to think that leaving the faith would be a liberation, a flight from guilt, rules, but what I couldn't forget was the joy I'd known, loving Him." - R.O. Kwon, The Incendiaries
I picked up The Incendiaries as an act of desperation. Like most other 15-year-old girls, I was in search of belonging, for someone out there that was feeling what I was feeling, for something to believe in. Freshly fallen from what I believed to be my anchor, my belief in God, I longed for someone else's advice, understanding, but most importantly, comfort. Author R.O. Kwon had grown up Christian and had lost her faith in adolescence. I had never met anybody who cared as much about faith and the loss of it other than still-believing-Christians who had never actually gone through it themselves. I was desperate for answers, for insights and revelations in such a deserted place. How does life go on when it has seemingly ended?
The Incendiaries takes place at a fictional college campus based off of real-life Ivy League schools. The narration shifts from three perspectives: that of Will's, former-Christian, Bible college transfer and scholarship kid, Phoebe, campus it-girl and former piano prodigy, and finally John Leal, North-Korea-escapee, fervent religious leader. All three hold secrets that are never fully revealed to each other or the reader. All three lives are held together by the same things: loss and desperation. Will gets drawn to Phoebe and Phoebe gets drawn to John Leal’s campus cult. Throughout the book, each character’s emptiness guides them to do terrible things.
I approached the book expecting new perspectives onto my situation (Would Will find his faith again? Would he find something better?) This was my mistake. I expected to find something new, something that I hadn’t seen before. I expected insights, a success story. I expected to escape from my current reality but instead ran head straight back to myself. But I had felt and seen everything before. Every last part. It was Cindy overlapped onto Cindy stuck in a very bad trap of Cindy. From Will’s statements on the vacancy that believing in God had left in him (“the God-shaped hole”) to the overly-poetic and dramaticized descriptions of everyday life (“Intact families sat in the blue wash of television light, tranquil, like drowned statues”). I could feel every single word and space, the sentimental yet vacant world the prose presented. Instead of feeling liberated from the mind I was stuck in, I came face to face with it in all its woes, detachments, and follies. Will wouldn’t fill his God-shaped hole, but would watch as everything he tries to put in falls straight back out again. Phoebe wouldn’t resolve her always looming guilt. Each would perform horrendous actions out of their emptinesses. When I read the book, all I could see was EMPTY EMPTY EMPTY.
However, the book’s merit does not come from whether or not it offered me clarity on my own situation, but from the universally comforting conclusion that I wasn't alone. When I tell people about my faith I always get the feeling that they’re thinking “NO ONE CARES” the whole entire time. I expect them to remind me that others are starving, that it doesn’t matter whether or not there’s a “Big Ghost Daddy” in the sky, that there are bigger fish to fry. The Incendiaries opposes these ideas with unrelenting ferocity. The characters and their griefs are made real to the reader in a deep metaphysical way. It is an honest token of the desperation many use religion and love to fill. It is a work that exists as emptiness. It is honest in every way.