By Roxanne Fequiere
In addition to reading one book a week this year, I’ve been reading two additional titles each month in my capacity as a member of two book clubs. Ideally, one or both clubs would choose books from time to time that overlap with my monthly theme—therefore cutting down the amount of reading I have to do—but so far, it’s only happened once. That I keep carving out the time to read these additional titles is a testament to how much I genuinely enjoy attending book club.
From what I’ve heard, book club can be an especially fraught gathering. Before I joined, I heard stories from folks who’d been forced to quit for various reasons—cliques run amok, book choices that were too lengthy, too frivolous, too high-minded, too popular. There are New York Times articles describing these exact qualms: “Book clubs can also be the epicenter of fierce friendships and enmity; a breeding ground for resentments large and small.”
I signed up hesitantly, not sure if I’d stick around, and found that I was enamored of my fellow readers, eager to be in their company each month. It’s a lovely feeling to sit down with fellow readers and rejoice—or grimace—at the shared experience of navigating a freshly-read story. Even better, though, is the illuminating discussions that arise when it seems as if every person interpreted the book in a way that’s completely different from the way you approached it.
All this to say: I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my fellow book clubbers for the ways in which they shed light on R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries. I listened to the first half of the book while darting back and forth across the city, read the second half in the comfort of my own home, and arrived with mixed feelings. By the time I left, I’d considered the story from several viewpoints, reevaluated narrative devices, challenged my own assessments of the story. The whole thing reminded me of some of my favorite college courses.
The Incendiaries features three central characters, if only one narrator: Phoebe, John, and Will. Phoebe and Will are a pair of star-crossed lovers, college students with dark pasts and a variety of poor coping mechanisms. Phoebe, mourning the death of her mother, is popular among her peers and prone to partying, drinking, and indiscriminate flings. Will, a one-time evangelist who continues to mourn the loss of his faith, does his best to fit in on campus, and appears to view Phoebe as the answer to his problems. John—his story is a bit more hazy—claims to have spent some time in a North Korean prison camp, having witnessed atrocities there that changed him in some fundamental way. Now he lingers around campus, recruiting what appear to be disciples in a nebulous, Christian-tinged cult of sorts.
Will is rightly disturbed by John’s antics, having been a man of God himself not long ago, and even more so when the itinerant preacher sets his sights on Phoebe. For a long time, Will tries to extract Phoebe from John’s clutches, but her faith continues to grow more fervent, a conviction that results in extreme violence. As the sole narrator, Will puts himself in Phoebe and John’s shoes for portions of the novel, speaking as if he were them, trying to piece together the why and how of the ways in which these horrific events came to pass. As the story continues to unfold, however, it becomes clear that even his own account is potentially rife with unreliability.
It’s clear that that The Incendiaries is a meditation on faith, grief, and memory, and more importantly, their intense subjectivity. Less clear is the many ways in which gender, race, class, and culture factor into the story. Kwon is at turns direct and evasive on these subjects. Phoebe and John’s Korean heritage are laid out explicitly, while Will’s is never revealed. At book club, my peers and I scoured our memories to see if we’d filled in our own assumptions about his race; if those assumptions had in turn affected the way we viewed his character, his narration.
All throughout, the prose is exceptionally beautiful, an element that lulled some of us into overlooking these framing details. By meeting’s end, we’d come to the conclusion that the details we’d seen and hadn’t seen, the way that we’d interpreted the story was a litmus test of sorts. Like Phoebe, there were elements of our own perspectives that weren’t readily available for collective consumption. Unlike Phoebe, we made a conscious decision to peel back some of the layers and let each other in. It’s a concession that I’m grateful for—it took a book that I felt lukewarm about and turned it into one that I’m eager to revisit.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.