“I’ll ask you what I’ve asked myself, late at night, as I wait upon His spirit: if the likes of you and I won’t be radical for God, who will?”
John Leal according to Will Kendall, The Incendiaries, p. 136
Growing up in a Baptist household, my white, lower class parents told me a common tale that I truly believe they believed: that God loved me, and that he always would. But then I grew up loving boys as well as girls. I grew up transgender, and I just so happened to come out in a time when Donald J. Trump was becoming president and instituting his first attempt to ban trans people from the military with a single, midnight tweet. My faltering faith, shaken already by years of decay from various sources, disappeared in a wash of social media hate, threats to my life on Facebook pages like Franklin Graham’s, and the cold stares of identity politics that deem me the deviant “freak,” ready to strike in bathrooms at any moment. When I became the enemy to a large section of my faith community, I severed my ties and it broke my heart. I literally stopped feeling a God and started seeing an illness in others. Something sick that created hate and indifference. Reading R.O. Kwon’s first novel about both the elation and fanaticism of faith gave me the first profound relief I’ve felt in the absence of my maker, and perhaps the first chance for me to let go and respect the spirit in others.
Kwon grew up very religious; even seeing organized religion as a possible future until she personally lost her own faith (PBS Books video insert). She offers the opinion that it happens gradually, over a great expanse of time, followed by an eventual moment where the disconnect happens over an accelerated event. This breakdown is explored through all of her characters in searing fashion, page after page, intricate events weaving the kind of turmoil in which someone’s good intentions turn into radicalism. Kwon brings balance and beauty to this horror; her text simultaneously conveying the beauty of that moment one falls in love with a religion and finds their place. The blur of intentions is also muddled in The Incendiaries, complicated by the selective nature of memory and impression. This is a story about a woman and her path, but it is told by a male lover with conflated notions and a talent for descriptive emotions that paint memories practically by number, and many of Phoebe’s actions are remembered through a male gaze. This is no accident it turns out.
R.O. Kwon says that she felt it was difficult for her personally to go the length of the entire novel in the mindset of someone like Phoebe who’s going through “so very much” (PBS Books video insert). I believe this point of view allows us to feel the mystery of Phoebe’s process and to be in awe of her fall into the cult, Jejah. As a character who is at the side of a charismatic, clouded leader like John Leal, Phoebe is also best examined from the shadows, around the corner. As a reader I found it exhilarating to be shown the actions but not to feel the connections that made the cause. We can guess that some of what Will tells us is true; that Phoebe feels the overwhelming guilt of not saving her mother who died trying to save her, and that her tapping to join a cult was an obvious next step for her to attempt erasure and pain relief. But anyone who knows religious experiences can attest that they don’t simply happen because you think they will. There are many thousands of emotions and thoughts that preclude the belief that an invisible force guides your destiny. Religious feelings are “felt,” not contrived. So, the novel infers that John Leal is a great creator who can make the circumstances erupt that lead to cult conditions. But Phoebe would still have had a complicated list of triggers to end up so misled.
Within the personal path to God that Phoebe is on, there is always John Leal (shoeless, who claims to be South Korean, born in India, kidnapped by North Korean soldiers and forced to live in a gulag camp where they routinely hung children for stealing, and kicked babies from the bellies of pregnant women). In these moments the book is leaving us crumbs to follow. We began by knowing that a group has bombed something. We gather quickly that it is abortion clinics and that lives have been lost. As a cult with plans for destruction, John Leal convinces Phoebe to let her inheritance go to others, “also in pain” (p.133), and the story shows us the organized side of cultism with these moments where the members all “pay their dues” to the guru or guide. Will tries to gain entry only to be rebuffed after a short time and we cannot maintain close contact with our lead character. She is raped by Will in a shocking twist of male dominance and obsession, and we lose Phoebe to the tight confines of cult life.
“He asked me what I thought while I hit the keys. I told him that sound was trapped in the piano. I had to let it out.”
Phoebe Lin according to Will Kendall, The Incendiaries p. 174
Music also draws me to this novel. Even with the clever use of some invention, the pages seem to generate soundtrack moments like trickling piano keys as the tension builds. Putting music and the complexity of musical talent at the root of Phoebe’s experience say many things about the creative mind of the character. It’s no surprise to me as the story arcs to showcase possible scenarios where Phoebe was instigator to a terrorist plot, because we get strong hints that she may have been the origin of a beautiful creation: a plan to save lives, based in her ability to masterfully manipulate instruments. In my opinion, however, the emptiness of a religious promise-believed is the root of this decay, and Phoebe’s intentions to “save the babies” quickly turns to a violent destruction of life and innocence simply because destruction does not bring forth life, but only loss.
I don’t believe for a minute that R.O. Kwon was writing a violent book about violent people, insisting that religion is the root of evil and terrorism. Quite the contrary. I think this book is the reflection of the pain of losing God, and the devices of the plot merely reflections of the poor interpretations of groups who hide behind something beautiful like faith with something as ugly as their hate. I think it’s also a statement that can be read through a feminist lens regarding autonomy and female choice, asking us to confront what we still stand behind that causes women to suffer. Maybe it’s a statement about what place women deserve in the religious spheres of the world. Or, perhaps, it’s just an amazing woman telling of her own loss, from the illusions of memory and the convenience of invention, and watching the pages burn as she forges peace with the past.
“At the bottom of everything, there is a hallelujah.”
Clarice Lispector, Agua Viva, epigraph in The Incendiaries