The font in “The Incendiaries” by R.O. Kwon is just short of recognizable. It’s spindlier and taller than most, and the lines are spaced far apart with wide side margins, so that the pages appear almost white if you squint. The effect is almost ascetic, echoing the teachings of the cult that intoxicates the book’s main characters. The less there is, the purer.
The book is narrated primarily by two characters, Will and Phoebe. Will is a former evangelical Christian who transferred from Bible college after losing his faith, and Phoebe is a Korean-American former piano star whose mother died the summer before she began school. In short, they meet, fall in love, move in together, and join an extremist (and, ultimately, terrorist) cult. The university Will and Phoebe attend, called Edwards, resembles Yale (the author’s alma mater) in that the characters live in suites and eat in various different dining halls, but could pass as almost any Northeastern university. (It’s located in the fictional town of Noxhurst, New York.) If someone told me they had class in any one of the invented buildings, with names like Wyeth and Platt Hall, I wouldn’t blink an eye.
In interludes, it is a college novel, with the requisite descriptions of pulsing music and intricate gates. But “The Incendiaries” is largely remarkable for its fantastical vision of college life, and not its grounding in real institutions. At the university Will and Phoebe attend, classes seem to fill the role that doing laundry does for most students: occasional, recommended and largely impersonal, performed because of a vague expectation that largely exists more for one’s own good than anyone else’s. The fraternities are dignified and friendly. Wine is frequently dispensed into wine glasses, and rarely into plastic cups. At no point does anyone bang on a printer until the display works or sacrifice two dollars’ worth of quarters to a broken laundry machine.
What the characters do instead, besides being in the cult, is live and think as serious adults. While we attempt to construct TV stands out of old doors and try to remember which sponge is the toilet sponge and which one is the utensil sponge, they are existing out in the world, assembling their identities without a trace of doubt or hesitation. While we fantasize about taking a religion class and becoming worldly before realizing the section meets at 9 a.m., they give ritual confessions to cult leaders. While we collect overpriced sweatshirts from the bookstore, they “pull on a white pashmina,” looking out “through its soft folds.” They go to nightclubs in Berlin and New York and Hong Kong on a whim. It’s college as we dreamed it when we sent in the application, college as taken absolutely seriously, entirely devoid of comedy or mishaps.
Will’s and Phoebe’s mistakes are on as grand a scale as their triumphs. When the cult goes too far, it’s not YPD who comes, it’s the FBI. The intensity of their college lives is matched by the reaction from the outside world. What feels grand and important to them is grand and important. They don’t play-act real life—they live it.
It’s clear that Kwon has no intention of conveying the everyday reality of life in college, but she turns it beautiful in a way that is appealing and heartening to those of us who are just starting out. “Punch-stained red cups split underfoot, opening into plastic petals,” she writes of a party, glamorizing possibly the least glamorous aspect of human existence.
The night before I moved in here, I was sure I was going to bed for the last time between the two extremes of existence. I felt that from there on out, I would exist only as a heap of misery or a column of pure joy, depending on the night maybe, or if I picked my classes right. There would be no more room for moderation or detachment. What has surprised me most about college is how level it has been. It’s neither a disaster nor an unambiguous success. I am only myself, in a vastly different place, with a wide variety of different people. The truth is, I wouldn’t have joined a cult at home and I haven’t joined one here. What makes “The Incendiaries” so remarkable is that it suggests this didn’t have to be the case. Maybe there are Phoebes and Wills hidden among us, eating one table over at the dining hall or using the dryer we just took our clothes out of. Maybe for them, Berlin is only a weekend away, and red cups are roses on the ground.
Noa Rosinplotz | email@example.com