The Incendiaries

The Incendiaries

by R. O. Kwon


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"In dazzlingly acrobatic prose, R. O. Kwon explores the lines between faith and fanaticism, passion and violence, the rational and the unknowable." —Celeste Ng,New York Times bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere

A powerful, darkly glittering novel about violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young Korean American woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea.

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn't tell anyone she blames herself for her mother's recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe's Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he's tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735213890
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/31/2018
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.42(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.83(d)

About the Author

R. O. Kwon is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing is published or forthcoming in The Guardian, Vice, Buzzfeed, Time, Noon, Electric Literature, Playboy, and elsewhere. She has received awards from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, Omi International, the Steinbeck Center, and the Norman Mailer Writers' Colony. Born in South Korea, she has lived most of her life in the United States.

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What People are Saying About This

author of Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You - Celeste Ng

The Incendiaries probes the seductive and dangerous places to which we drift when loss unmoors us. In dazzlingly acrobatic prose, R. O. Kwon explores the lines between faith and fanaticism, passion and violence, the rational and the unknowable.

Reading Group Guide

1. Of her own beliefs, the author has said, “I grew up so freakishly Christian that my life plan was to become a missionary. I use the word ‘freak’ as a direct quotation, since that’s what I called myself, with pride: a Jesus freak. Then, in high school, I lost the faith. I can’t really overstate how painful it was — I used to think it would have been less hard to lose my parents than to lose the God I loved. . . . Rigorously agnostic though I now am, actively progressive though I strive to be, I can’t forget the God-crazed girl I once was, the fanatic who believed that life starts at conception. Who, believing this, could have prioritized the rights of unborn fetuses over those of living women.” Did reading The Incendiaries challenge your existing beliefs or make you feel more empathetic toward those with whom you might fundamentally disagree?

2. Obsessive love, obsessive faith, and the attendant consequences are driving forces throughout The Incendiaries. In what ways are these two kinds of obsessions similar? Does one feel more dangerous? How do they speak to the title itself? What does it mean to be incendiary?

3. The concept of a cult plays a major role in The Incendiaries. What attributes of Jejah, the cult in the novel, are attractive to its members? What do you think makes someone particularly susceptible to a cult’s influence?

4. Early on in the novel, Will says, about what he remembers, “It’s possible these are just the details I’ve saved. It could be grief’s narrowed vision: I’ve noticed what I’ve lacked.” Do you consider Will to be an unreliable narrator? What does it mean to be a reliable narrator?

5. Will fantasizes about Phoebe from the moment he meets her, noting, “The fact that I still hadn’t slept with Phoebe, or anyone, didn’t preclude these scenarios. If anything, it helped. . . . [S]ometimes, when I saw the girl in the flesh, she looked as implausible as all the Phoebes I’d dreamed into being.” Does Will’s sexualizing of Phoebe affect the way that we as readers think of Will?

6. In the opening chapters, Will says of Phoebe and her initial reluctance to reveal too much personal information, “If, at times . . . I felt a slight resistance, I pushed through.” Shortly after, he prods her into calling John Leal after Leal slips Phoebe a note containing startlingly accurate details about her life. “I’ll help,” Will says. “I could see him with you.” To what extent is Will a catalyst for events in the novel? How do you construe his actions? In what ways do they foreshadow the turns Will and Phoebe’s relationship later takes?

7. Each of our three main characters is hiding something, and both Will and Phoebe are grieving something catastrophic. How does that motivate each of them? Influence their worldviews? Push them toward or away from religion? Toward or away from other people?

8. The language of The Incendiaries has been described as “savagely elegant,” “dazzlingly acrobatic,” “seductive,” “diamond-cut.” How does the prose style contribute to the overall reading experience? What might it reveal about the characters themselves?

9. Why do you think the author chose to center Jejah’s act of terrorism around an abortion clinic, a health-care clinic? Do you think the members of Jejah truly believed what they were doing was justified? Why has reproductive rights become such a flashpoint for extremists? How else do we see religious extremism on display in the United States?

10. Discuss your own religious upbringing—what beliefs were you raised with? Do you still retain them? Do you think it’s possible to bridge the gap between believers and nonbelievers? What would that look like?

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