We never lose faith. We only misplace it. This notion sounds like a bell—sometimes faint and tinny, at others clanging as an alarm—throughout The Incendiaries, the masterful debut from novelist R.O. Kwon.
From the opening pages, Kwon’s characters crash into each other like waves on the shore. The magnetic Phoebe meets the more circumspect Will at a college party and they are soon drawn into a relationship with the starry eyes of lovers and the scar tissue that comes from religious wounds. The two complement each other, filling up what the other lacks.
As Phoebe and Will learn to share their love, and labor to love themselves, a strange figure takes up increased space in their lives. The exotic, messianic John Leal appears offering a length of spiritual rope, first to Phoebe, then to Will. Eros and misshapen agape bob and weave around one another, as Will and Leal wage an unspoken battle for Phoebe’s soul.
Filling the Void of God’s Silence
Kwon spins the narrative forward with glimpses from each character’s point-of-view. Like an auteur, she cross-cuts these scenes, causing readers to question whether the ground beneath their feet is indeed holy or about to crack and quake.
Kwon cultivates an exquisite tension, composing gorgeous sentences while maintaining the high stakes of her story. She finds miracles in the curve of a woman’s spine, the dizzy warmth of alcohol, the sacrament of bread wherever it is broken and received. Each delight exists against a growing sense of dread, however, the ephemeral facing threats from the eternal.
Kwon introduces Phoebe as a variation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But with each revolution of her hips and confession on her tongue, we learn the volume of her life aims to drown out the throb of tragedy. She and Will struggle under the weight of expectations, Phoebe acutely aware of the demands unique to her Asian-American experience. She emerges from the pressure diamond-shaped, but gashed and bruised.
Though they’ve managed to wriggle free of their religious upbringings, the pair possesses more faith than they realize. Will asks Phoebe into his heart as lord and savior, yet finds his thoughts haunted by the presence of a God he keeps trying to kill.
“I’d left Phoebe with the impression I was hostile to Christians,” Will notes. “But what I hadn’t explained was that, if I went on a jog, I still heard Leviticus like a song to beat out the rhythm of each stride. If I walked out to a bare street, I panicked—afraid again, until I relearned not to be, that the God in whom I’d stopped believing had lifted His faithful up to His side, leaving the rest of us, who’d declined His pledge to die . . . I inked the Word in flesh; I tattooed atrial muscles. It stained the calls, His print indelible.”
Phoebe wants to return Will’s devotion, but craves deeper certainty, an order to things always just beyond her fingertips. “From the start to the finish, Phoebe’s want of Christ had been based in logic,” Will explains. “She wished upon God’s attested promises: the dead alive, a past repealed. This flawed world would pass, yielding to a place of undivided light. Since she lacked real belief, she might have resolved to match His pledge with action, proving the faith she craved.”
Leal speaks into God’s silence and becomes the surest voice in Phoebe’s life. His religion has but one doctrine, a more menacing take on “God helps those who help themselves.”
“They’d pledged to fight in the service of the living God, and he’d learned to accept that faith is not a gift,” Kwon writes of Leal and his disciples. “It is not the object you receive intact, at once, by putting out a hand. Though long streamers of sunlight might fawn at his feet, faith came as the hard-won reward, battle spoils he wrested from the heaped debris.”
Leal’s brand of self-righteousness produces self-destruction, originating in the hearts of Phoebe and her fellow would-be true believers, radiating out to a catastrophic end. Will wants to be the hero of Phoebe’s story but winds up equally wrecked—albeit in less obvious ways.
The Persistence of Faith
It’s been weeks since I turned the last page and I miss Phoebe and Will. Rather than mere figments of Kwon’s fertile imagination, they move and sound like people I know.
In my experience, remaining in the twenty-first-century American church bears no resemblance to the exceptionalism often paraded by culturally Christian narratives. It comes with a sensation more like survivor’s guilt. Remembering and reflecting on the Phoebes and Wills I know, all I think about is how similar we are. And I wonder, “Why am I still here? Is God stubborn or am I?”
Some have left the church, middle fingers raised high. Others bear the stigmata of their newfound humanism. Like Phoebe, some run aground, unable to discern the difference between a rock and hard place. Others just keep running. Real-life Wills make softer retreats from faith, quietly beset by the whispers of hymns, the tingle of a phantom limb.
In bold print, Kwon spells out what I’ve only read between the lines of other lives. There is a grammar to faith. It knows no passive verbs, only active ones. It desperately seeks an object for every sentence.
The faith within the lover holds as tightly and beats with the same strength as the faith of someone bound to Jesus. Faith persists, because it begins within us. It is written in the DNA, not superimposed on our lives by any culture, church, would-be prophet or priest.
Phoebe, Will, and John Leal know the truth that everyone eventually discovers. Faith’s legs are stronger and more tireless than our own. Even as we run hard, seeking something to believe in, faith will always chase us down.
Cover image by Jeremy Lapak