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The Incendiaries: A Novel

The Incendiaries: A Novel

by R. O. Kwon

Narrated by Keong Sim

Unabridged — 5 hours, 12 minutes

R. O. Kwon
The Incendiaries: A Novel

The Incendiaries: A Novel

by R. O. Kwon

Narrated by Keong Sim

Unabridged — 5 hours, 12 minutes

R. O. Kwon

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A powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Written in dazzling, spare prose, Kwon’s debut tells the fractured story of three young people looking for something to believe in while attending the prestigious Edwards University. There’s Will Kendall, a one-time “kid evangelist” who transferred from a Bible college after losing his faith in God. He soon meets—and falls in love with—Pheobe Lin, a Korean-American pianist wrestling with the death of her mother in an accident for which she blames herself. And then there’s John Leal, a charismatic cult leader and former Edwards student who claims to have been held captive in North Korea; he offers Phoebe the supposedly noble cause she craves. Will watches in horror as Phoebe joins Leal’s so-called Jejah, a circle of quasi-religious radicals that soon sinks into right-wing terrorism targeting abortion clinics. Phoebe disappears following a fatal accident involving members of her group, leaving Will to untangle Leal’s web of deceit and find out what happened to Phoebe. Kwon’s novel expertly addresses questions of faith and identity while managing to be formally inventive in its construction (the stream-of-consciousness style, complete with leaps between characters, amplifies the subject matter). In this intriguing cult story, Kwon thoroughly explores her characters’ motivations, making for an urgent and disarming debut. (July)

From the Publisher

ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Buzzfeed, The Today Show, NPR, The Atlantic, LitHub, Electric Lit, PBS Books, Nylon, Bustle, Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, Real Simple, Newsweek, BBC

“Kwon is a writer of many talents, and The Incendiaries is a debut of dark, startling beauty.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Disarmingly propulsive.” —Vogue

“A singular version of the campus novel … a story about spiritual uncertainty and about the fierce and undisciplined desire of [Kwon’s] young characters to find something luminous to light their way through their lives.” —NPR’s “Fresh Air”

“Scintillating... Kwon writes dazzlingly about the bewilderment of desire.” —O, the Oprah Magazine

“If you only read one book this summer, make it this complex and searing debut novel." —Southern Living

“[With] a fairy-tale quality reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History … [The Incendiaries is] the rare depiction of belief that doesn’t kill the thing it aspires to by trying too hard. It makes a space, and then steps away to let the mystery in.” —The New Yorker

“A juicy look at campus mores…Kwon delivers a poignant and powerful look into the millenial mindset.” —NPR Books

“Certain literary circles have been buzzing about R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries for months. And this slim, intense novel is the rare book that lives up to its pre-publication hype.” —Los Angeles Times

“One of those slim novels that contains multitudes, R.O. Kwon’s debut novel shows how unreliable we are as narrators when we’re trying to invent — and reinvent — ourselves." —Vulture

“If you haven't had a chance to pick up one of the buzziest novels of summer, take Emma Roberts' — and my — word for it: you can't miss The Incendiaries.” —Bustle

“In R.O. Kwon’s terrific new novel The Incendiaries, a cultist looks for meaning in tragedy. Kwon’s debut is a shiningly ambitious look at how human beings try to fill the holes in their lives.” —Vox

“Kwon’s lush imaginative project … [is to expose] the reactionary impulses that run through American life…[creating] an impression of the mysterious social forces and private agonies that might drive a person to extremes.” —The New Republic

“The main attraction and reward of this book is Kwon’s prose. Spiky, restless and nervously perceptive, it exhales spiritual unease.” —Wall Street Journal

“Kwon’s multi-faceted narrative portrays America’s dark, radical strain, exploring the lure of fundamentalism, our ability to be manipulated, and what can happen when we’re willing to do anything for a cause.” —

"Deeply engrossing."—PBS Books

“Remarkable…Every page blooms with sensuous language…These are characters in quiet crisis, burning, above all, to know themselves, and Kwon leads them, confidently, to an enthralling end.”—Paris Review

 “A God-haunted, willful, strange book written with a kind of savage elegance. I've said it before, but now I'll shout it from the rooftops: R. O. Kwon is the real deal.”
Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies and Florida

“Every explosive requires a fuse. That’s R. O. Kwon’s novel, a straight, slow-burning fuse. To read her novel is to follow an inexorable flame coming closer and closer to the object it will detonate—the characters, the crime, the story, and, ultimately, the reader.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer and The Refugees

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.”
Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You 

"Absolutely electric, something new in the firmament. Everyone should read this book."
Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You

“A swift, sensual novel about the unraveling of a collegiate relationship and its aftermath. Kwon writes gracefully about the spiritual insecurities of millennials.”
Karan Mahajan, author of The Association of Small Bombs

“A classic love triangle between two tormented college students and God. The Incendiaries brings us, page by page, from quiet reckonings with shame and intimacy to a violent, grand tragedy. In a conflagration of lyrical prose, R. O. Kwon skillfully evokes the inherent extremism of young love."
Tony Tulathimutte, author of Private Citizens

“An impressive, assured debut about the hope for personal and political revolution and all the unexpected ways it flickers out. Kwon has vital things to say about the fraught times we live in.”
Jenny Offill, author of Dept. of Speculation
“A profound, intricate exploration of how grief and lost faith and the vulnerable storm of youth can drive people to irrevocable extremes, told with a taut intensity that kept me up all night. R.O. Kwon is a thrilling writer, and her splendid debut is unsettled, irresistible company.” 
Laura van den Berg, author of The Isle of Youth and Find Me

Library Journal

Having won numerous awards (Yaddo, Breadloaf), Kwon gets a chance at full-scale fiction. Will, a Bible school transfer to a prestigious university, loves glamorous Phoebe, guilty over her mother's death and attracted to a cult whose leader has an obscure connection to North Korea and Phoebe's Korean American family. Then the cult bombs several buildings.

Product Details

BN ID: 2940172052941
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication date: 07/31/2018
Edition description: Unabridged

Read an Excerpt



They’d have gathered on a rooftop in Noxhurst to watch the ­explosion. Platt Hall, I think, eleven floors up: I know his ego, and he’d have picked the tallest point he could. So often, I’ve imagined how they felt, waiting. With six minutes left, the slant light of dusk reddened the high old spiresof the college, the level gables of its surrounding town. They poured festive wine into big-bellied glasses. Hands shaking, they laughed. She would sit apart from this reveling group, cross-legged on the roof’s west ledge. Three minutes to go, two, one.

The Phipps building fell. Smoke plumed, the breath of God. Silence followed, then the group’s shouts of triumph. Wine glasses clashed together, flashing martial light. He sang the first bars of a Jejah psalm. Others soon joined in. Carillon bells chimed, distant birds blowing white, strewn, like dandelion tufts, an outsize wish. It must have been then that John Leal came to her side. In his bare feet, he closed his arm around her shoulders. She flinched, looking up at him. I can imagine how he’d have tightened his hold, telling her she’d done well, though before long, it would be time to act again, to do a little more—

But this is where I start having trouble, Phoebe. Buildings fell. People died. You once told me I hadn’t even tried to understand. So, here I am, trying.


John Leal

Once John Leal left Noxhurst, halfway through his last term of college, he drifted until he ended up in Yanji, China. In this city, adjacent to North Korea, he began working with an activist group that smuggled Korean refugees toward asylum in Seoul. He’d found his life’s work, he thought.

Instead, he was kidnapped by North Korean agents, spirited across the border, and thrown into a prison camp outside of Pyongyang. In the stories he later told the group, he said the gulag brutalities were bad enough, but at least they’d been expected. What astonished him was the allegiance his fellow inmates showed toward the lunatic despot whose policies had installed them in their cells. They’d been jailed because, oh, they’d splashed a drop of tea on his newsprint portrait. A ­neighbor claimed to have overheard them whistling a South ­Korean pop song. Punished for absurdities, they still maintained that the beloved sovereign, a divine being, couldn’t be to blame. At first, he assumed this was lip service, the prisoners afraid to say otherwise. But then, he thought of the refugees he’d met in Yanji, how they talked of loving the god they’d fled. They attributed the regime’s troubles to anyone but the sole person in charge.

A month into John Leal’s time in the gulag, prison guards held an optional foot race, the prize a framed icon of the despot. In the confusion, those who fell were trampled. One child died of a broken spine. Through howls of pain, he shouted hosannahs for his lord. They weren’t lying, the poor fools. They believed in the man as one might believe in Jesus Christ. Some people needed leading. In or out of the gulag, they craved faith. But think if the tyrant had been as upright as his disciples trusted him to be. The heights he’d have achieved, if he loved them—if, John Leal thought, until his idea began.



I hoped I’d be a piano genius, Phoebe told the group, in the first Jejah confession she tried giving. She’d have sat in the circle, holding a kidskin journal. Though I’d driven Phoebe here, I was outside, going home. It’s a mistake. I should have stayed, but I didn’t. Instead, I’ll add what details I can. The full lips, spit-­polished. She licked them, tense. I’m striving to picture it: Phoebe, talking. The thin, long-fingered hands folded tight. She looked down, inhaled.

But I didn’t just wait, she said. I expected, no, I wanted to work for it. I spilled time into the piano as I’d have put cash in a bank. I saw full concert halls in the future, solo recitals. Front-page plaudits. I practiced Liszt while imagined spotlights gilded the living room. Recollection is half invention, but it feels as though I spent my entire childhood training to prove I was the significant pianist I believed I’d be.

So, I piled up trophies. It wasn’t enough. The teacher flicked my hands with a rod each time I didn’t hit the right note, but I didn’t mind. My ambition outstripped his. Let my hands swell. I could use the extra span. Bright-knuckled, I tried again. The months ticked past, then years. I kept lists of rivals; I indexed others’ exploits by age. Kiehl, at five, had given his first recital to the Danish king. Ohri, eleven, debuted at Carnegie Hall; Liu, fifteen. One night, my teacher called Libich’s Étude no. 5 the most challenging piece a soloist might attempt. It’s eluded the finest pianists, he said. I rushed to find the étude’s score. I learned it alone, in secret. I memorized Libich’s high trills. I flailed through wild ostinatos.


Once, at the table, my mother asked what I was smiling about. Haejin, she said.

I blinked, Libich vibrating in my head. I, I don’t—

She laughed. It’s all right, she said. I ate while she peeled a white peach. The skin dropped in a single coil. She picked it up, holding it to the light. Such a rich hue, she said. It flushed pink, backlit; I nodded, then she put it down. I could tell she wished to talk, but I was lost in trills. I pushed a last peach slice in my mouth, and I went back to the piano.


Until then, nothing I played had evoked the orphic singing I knew to be possible. It was an ideal I lacked the skill to bring to life. Each first-place prize marked a point when I’d let the music down. With Libich, I failed less. His étude asked so much of me that, at times, I’d forget I had an I. I should have learned, from this, that playing had to be birthed in a place without ego, in which I didn’t exist except as the living conduit, Libich’s medium. But then, when I showed the teacher what I could do, he was astonished. I’d achieved more than he’d hoped, he said. He switched the piece in for the next competition, a city-level open. I was driven to the recital hall. The sun fell on my hands as I practiced Libich again, fingers dancing across my legs. Spotlit, I listened to the traffic sing my name. The lax blue of L.A., heat-rippled, veiled the horizon. Like curtains, I thought, poised to rise.



I first met Phoebe in a house full of strangers, five weeks into the Edwards fall term. I was new to the Noxhurst school, but a sophomore, a late arrival. I’d transferred in from the Bible college I’d had to leave, and I was often on my own. Then, one night, while I was taking a walk alone, I noticed a loud throng of students turning into a gate. It was left propped open; I followed them in. Hip-hop pulsed, rolled. Pale limbs shone. I’d learned that the alcohol table was the one place where I could stand without looking too isolated, and I was idling at my usual station, finishing a third drink, when a girl in a striped dress tripped. She spilled cold liquid down my leg.

She shouted apologies, then a name: Phoebe Lin. Will Kendall, I said, also in a shout. We tried talking, but I kept mishearing what she said. Phoebe started tilting her pelvis from side to side. Life as a juvenile born-again hadn’t put me on a lot of dance floors; uncertain, I followed the girl’s lead. She swayed left, right, bare shoulders sliding. Others writhed to the frenzied tempo, but Phoebe’s hips beat out a slowed-down song. Punch-stained red cups split underfoot, opening into plastic petals. Palms open, she levitated both hands. The room clattered into motion, rising to spin. She dipped, glided along its tilt, and still she moved to the calm rhythm she’d found, dragging the beat until my pulse joined hers.

She kept dancing, so I did, too. By the time she stopped, she looked flushed, out of breath. She lifted black, long hair into a makeshift ponytail. We shouted again, and I watched a drop of sweat trickle from Phoebe’s hairline toward the clavicle niche, where it might pool, I thought, to be lapped up. Thick bangs, damp at the tips, parted to expose her forehead. I wanted to kiss that spot, its sudden openness: I leaned down. She pulled close.

Since then, three weeks ago, we talked; we kissed, but that was all. I didn’t know what I had the right to ask. I waited, while the rest of Edwards played musical beds. Late at night, if I walked to the bathroom, I crossed paths with still more girls listing tipsily down the hall in oversized, borrowed polo shirts. They flashed smiles, then swerved back into my suitemates’ rooms. I returned to mine, but I could still hear the squeals, the high-pitched cries. In no time, a pretty girl might zigzag into my bed, and if it hadn’t happened yet, it was excitingly attainable—if I said the right words, reached for the right girl—

Instead, on the nights I couldn’t sleep, I imagined Phoebe’s sidling hips, the fist-sized breasts. She flailed and squirmed. With an arched back, rosebud ass soaring up, she starred in solo fantasies. The fact that I still hadn’t slept with Phoebe, or anyone, didn’t preclude these scenarios. If anything, it helped. Irritation absolved me of the guilt I might have felt about the uses to which I put the spectral mouth and breasts. Each time this ghost Phoebe jumped in my lap, 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.


I pushed through a revolving door into the Colonial: a private club, college-affiliated. She’d invited me to have a drink. One last date, I’d resolved. With Phoebe, I kept spending time I didn’t have. I rushed from classes to Michelangelo’s, an Italian restaurant fifteen miles from Noxhurst’s town limits—distant enough, I hoped, that no fellow students would walk in. I took the bus. I waited tables; I relied on staff meals. I filched apples from the Edwards dining hall. I received scholarship funding, but not enough. I told no one.

She was sitting alone at the bar, back facing out. I touched the girl’s waist, and she slipped down from the stool. Phoebe’s smile, angling up, floated toward me. She asked the bow-tied barkeep, Bix, to bring me a gimlet.

You’ll love it, Will, she said. Bix makes, no joke, the world’s best gimlets. He puts something extra in. I’ve asked, but he won’t tell me what it is.

If it was my recipe to give, I would, he said.

I believed him. It was obvious he liked Phoebe. She asked how I was, and I said I’d passed a man playing the fiddle while I walked here. I’d paused, to listen. I had no small bills, so I’d put quarters in his upside-down hat. Oh, ho, he said. It’s high-­rolling time. It’s like jingle bells tonight.

He threw out the coins, I said, to Phoebe. I forced a smile, but I hadn’t told the story well. I’d tried to help him, all to be mocked. If I could just tell him as a gag, I’d forget his ridicule. But then, as though she heard the version I intended, Phoebe obliged me, and laughed. She asked what I’d said next. I rattled along. I was pleased; unsettled, too. It was odd, how well she listened. It made me anxious I’d reveal more than I should. When I could, I turned the questions: an old evangelist’s trick. In general, people love talking about themselves. If, at times, with Phoebe, I felt a slight resistance, I pushed through.

It’s my first time in the Colonial, I said. I asked if she came here often. She explained the club’s rituals and traditions, its complicated drinking-cup rules. A ghost-white candle stub guttered between us. I kept asking questions. I liked watching Phoebe talk. She halted, circled the point. Lit up with her own stories, she laughed in big gusts that blew out the candle flame. Bix relit it; before long, she put it out again.

You pass the cup around until it’s finished, she said. The last person to drink upends it on his head. He spins it while people sing—

She fell silent, gaze fixed to my left. I turned, but I noticed nothing unusual. Lilies splayed open on the windowsill, wilting stars. A tall man waited at the stoplight.

I thought I saw him again, she said.


His name’s John Leal—do you know him?

I don’t think so.

No, it’s nothing, she said. I just, I keep thinking I’ve spotted him, but—

Who is this?

Flustered, she tried to explain. Bix lit the candle, and she thanked him. It took a few tries, but, at last, I gathered she’d gone to a club the other night, downtown. She stepped outside, phone in hand, to call a taxi. Someone else was also there, leaning against the wall. When she hung up, he hailed Phoebe by name. She didn’t recognize him, but figured she was to blame. They’d met. She’d forgotten. To be polite, she played along, as if she knew him, but he ignored the act. I’m John Leal, he said. You’re Phoebe. I hoped I’d run into you. I thought of how to set it up, and look, here you are.

Then, he listed small facts about her life. Trivial details, but nothing he should have known. He handed a folded note to Phoebe. I’d love to see you again, he said. It’s up to you, though. Call me when you’re tired of wasting this life.

When you’re tired of—huh, I said.

Isn’t it strange? Phoebe said. Oh, also, he had no shoes on. I thought, at first, that friends might be playing a practical joke on me. But it’s not much of a joke.

She lifted a glass to Bix. From the level above us, male voices united in song, a capella. I asked if she intended to get in touch with this John Leal. No, but she wished she’d asked how he knew what he did. She’d kept the note, she said, pulling a slip from her wallet. It was a plain, lined, ripping along the fold. In block letters, he’d printed his name. John Leal. I suggested she give him a call.


It’s bothering you, I said. If you want, I’ll help. I could see him with you.

Just then, a large man popped up behind Phoebe, sliding his hands across her eyes. Guess who, he said. He raised his arms. A full lilac robe spilled out from beneath his peacoat, a priest’s white band at his throat. No, don’t get up, he said. I’ve left Liesl outside in the cold, and I told her I wouldn’t be a minute but hello, Phoebe, don’t you look tip-top. Tell me if you like this outfit. One of Liesl’s friends is hosting a themed night: come as you aren’t.

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