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Among the Extremists on Campus

R.O. Kwon’s novel “The Incendiaries” imagines the lives of students pulled into a violent cult.

Smeeta Mahanti

Campus novels have always been about much more than university life. When in 1954 Kingsley Amis published Lucky Jim—perhaps the most widely read contribution to the genre—conventional wisdom held that the campus was a place of intellectual pretensions and retrograde hierarchies. Amis narrated and satirized the tribulations of a haphazard lecturer, but his true target was the vicious class hierarchies that lingered in postwar Britain despite the nation’s promise to democratize. The university was not a closed system but a sandbox in which students and faculty played out social troubles that were roiling the country.

Riverhead Books, 224 pp., $26.00

R.O. Kwon’s debut, The Incendiaries, squats subversively in this tradition. The novel begins with a disaster near Edwards University, its fictional East Coast school: “The Phipps building fell,” recounts Will Kendall, its student narrator. “Smoke plumed, the breath of God. Silence followed, then the group’s shouts of triumph.” The group is a cult of Christian fanatics, and they have bombed an abortion clinic. Among them is Will’s college love, Phoebe Haejin Lin, who has left him after a relationship defined by his obsession and violence. Against the notion that college today is a hotbed of left-wing radicalism disconnected from the real world, Kwon tells a story of right-wing extremism embedded in a patriarchal order.

How has Phoebe become a zealot? “You once told me I hadn’t even tried to understand,” Will imagines saying to her. “So, here I am, trying.” Bound by his own worldview, he never quite manages. Kwon’s lush imaginative project is to help us understand for him. With the needle of her prose, she plucks at the fabric of the university, exposing the reactionary impulses that run through American life.

A “juvenile born-again” who has lost his faith, Will arrives at Edwards by way of bible college with his soul a gaping void. There he gravitates toward the old-boys network. He pledges Phi Epsilon and works internships at financial institutions, lying about his modest background and his side job waiting tables (“I wanted a new life, so I invented it”). But all this comes second to his dramas with Phoebe, a Korean-American student he meets in his first term, and John Leal, the leader of the cult. They fill the “God-shaped hole” in him.

The abiding sense of purpose Will finds in Phoebe quickly tips into infatuation and controlling behavior when she proves elusive. Not knowing what he has “the right to ask” her, Will indulges lurid fantasies in passages like “I imagined Phoebe’s sidling hips, the fist-sized breasts” and “I bit her lips. I licked fingers; I grabbed fistfuls of made-up skin until, sometimes, when I saw the girl in the flesh, she looked as implausible as all the Phoebes I’d dreamed into being.” These dorm-room images—the aggressive porno-poetry of fists and biting and grabbing—establish the push and pull of their relationship. Having “claimed each inch of Phoebe’s skin” is not enough. He rifles through the notes in her books, seeking to channel the “shining, inmost psyche” she withholds from him. His desire is wholesale possession.

Kwon weaves this power dynamic into the fabric of the novel itself, allowing Will to speak in Phoebe’s voice. What often sounds like her first-person account is in fact Will ventriloquizing. Through him, we learn she was a sheltered child pianist who quit when she discovered her limits (“I hoped I’d be a piano genius”). She’s wracked with guilt and grief at her mother’s recent death, which resulted when she crashed their car during an argument. She’s “broken, desperate for healing.” But trust Will like you trust Charles Kinbote, the self-deceiving narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s kaleidoscopic campus novel Pale Fire—which is to say don’t trust him at all. In truth, we have no idea what of Phoebe is “real” and what’s a figment that he has “dreamed into being.”

Will and Phoebe haven’t been together long when the mysterious John Leal, a former Edwards student, strides barefoot into the narrative. An incursion from the outside world, he serves as Will’s double and rival. Where Will wants Phoebe’s mind and body, John wants her soul. Where Will has lost a God, John has lately gained one—an outcome, he claims, of time he spent imprisoned in a North Korean gulag for his role in shuttling refugees from that country into China. He knows Phoebe’s father, from whom she’s estranged. He too has lost a mother. No matter that his story never quite adds up. “If you can find delight in this lack as you did with presence, you’ll gain what you think is lost,” he says, in one of his typical spiritual riddles. The promise he offers is relief from suffering. But it has its costs.

Part of The Incendiaries’s power lies in the way Kwon contrasts this campus with stereotypes of American campus culture today. When, for example, a friend of Phoebe’s accuses another student of rape, she’s met with immediate doubt and backlash, even as Phoebe defends her. It’s easy to decry student appeals for “safe spaces” on campus, but harder to remember that, for certain students, neither campus nor the world that surrounds it is reliably safe.

Fittingly, the strongest bond in the book forms between the men who represent this lack of safety. It’s unlikely that Will, who studies finance, reads gender theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s seminal work on male “homosocial” desire during his time at Edwards. But, if he did, he might notice the classic “erotic triangle” that his relationship with John and Phoebe constitutes. Whether friends or rivals, the men’s power struggle serves to uphold a toxic status quo. “In any male-dominated society,” Sedgwick argued, “there is a special relationship between male homosocial (including homosexual) desire and the structures for maintaining and transmitting patriarchal power.” This kind of stuff got Sedgwick maligned by conservative academics as a
“tenured radical.” But she wasn’t wrong.

You can see how this works in practice when Will and Phoebe visit the cult house. By the end of the night, John has thrust his hand creepily into Phoebe’s purse while she holds it open for him: “He dipped his fingers into the bag’s opal slit. The bright satin lining showed. I’d have liked to stop him, but she let it happen. The bag might as well have been his.” Will looks on in horror at this intimate usurpation. In moments like this, Kwon signals to the reader in Freudian dream-terms just what’s at stake between these men. Their tactics are different, but their claims are the same.

Gradually, the power balance shifts. Phoebe immerses herself in faith, and Will loses his grip on her. The cult Kwon has imagined is into pretty standard stuff, but their confession rituals and absolution rites escalate to flagellation and anti-abortion violence. Here’s that reactionary strain. “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?” says John Leal to a crowd of demonstrators outside a clinic.

As Will retreats from the cult, he tries to understand why Phoebe tolerates this call to violence, or at least to simulate understanding for the gentle reader:

This situation, well, it was a crisis. The girl I loved was in a cult—and that’s what it is, I thought, a cult. It was a problem, but I’d solve it, because I was intelligent. The sun’s heat intensified. Disquiet thawed until, tranquil, awash, I almost sympathized with these people. If I were convinced that abortion killed, I, too, might think I had to stop the licit holocaust. It wasn’t so long ago that I’d believed as they did. In fact, I pitied them.

Pity, of course, can be its own form of cruelty. And all this comes before Will commits his final, awful act of domination. “I kept seeing the point in time, and choice, when I pressed Phoebe down against the floorboards,” he reflects. “She’d flinched with pain, then surprise. I’d found it satisfying: I enjoyed frightening the girl I loved.” Admire the matter-of-factness with which Kwon, in both of these passages, invokes the phrase “the girl I loved.”

If nothing else, it helps illuminate why it feels not just wrong but malicious when commentators dismiss college as a kind of four-year escape from reality, where left-wing professors indulge spoiled students’ frivolous identity explorations and demands for safety. The truth is that the campus is the exact opposite of an escape. It’s a place that confronts kids who are barely out of adolescence with the most distressing and complicated realities of American life: the cultural claims of love that routinely justify violence, the limits on autonomy for whole classes of people, the protections afforded to some and not others, the social systems that underwrite it all. It requires that students, in a very short time, make real and serious decisions about who they are, what they value, and how they’ll respond if they find themselves implicated. Who wouldn’t seek reassurance?

There are moments when Kwon’s novel verges on didactic. She sometimes puts lessons in her characters’ mouths that they’re ill-suited to deliver, as when Will’s boss, a tough-talking fraud, fires back at Will for questioning him: “If you’re hoping to wipe down that soul of yours, do it on your own time.” There are other odd bits of reader wish-fulfillment as Will leaves the campus and Kwon brings the novel to an uneasy close.

In the same way The Incendiaries isn’t about religion or the “culture wars” or abortion, it also doesn’t try to create a believable world of college kids or, really, a believable world at all. Instead, it’s an impression of the mysterious social forces and private agonies that might drive a person to extremes. Losing faith is painful because it sends you grasping in all sorts of directions for the “illusion of love,” as Will’s boss puts it, that everyone else is seeking. But gaining faith can be painful, too. For the disempowered, it might mean a further loss of agency. Phoebe escapes Will’s narrative, but Kwon offers no easy answers.

What lingers is a sense of understanding, a rare bit of actual wisdom from the cult. “I often thought about what John Leal liked saying,” Phoebe says, “that if we could believe all people existed in their minds as much as we did in our own, the rest followed. To love, he said, is but to imagine well.” Imagining what others experience, even if those people are loathsome and violent, is as much a literary task as a spiritual one. It’s not a solution to extremism, but it’s a beginning.