ANDREA PLATE WRITES—Otto Warmbier, an American student captured by North Koreans, died, comatose, just days after his release to the US. But even to survive an insane North Korean gulag may also portend tragedy. So suggests Korean-American author R. O. Kwon in her recently released novel, The Incendiaries. For a debut novel, Ms. Kwon looks to be one of the most promising new authors of the year.
This adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco – and National Endowment for the Arts Fellow – weaves a sordid tale in short, tersely written chapters interweaving her three main characters’ points of view. What lost souls! John Leal, a college drop-out and one-time Chinese activist for North Korean refugees, once detained in a North Korean gulag, now a crazed, Christian alt-right cultist living on U.S. soil. Phoebe, a deeply confused, Korean-American college student who falls under Leal’s spell and into the arms of his cult. And Will, a homegrown Southern Californian college student, once a missionary in Beijing, now a fallen Christian who loves Phoebe, hates the messianic Leal and endeavors to free his lady love from the grip of this Satanic cult.
Alas, the all-American boy’s plan fails. Leal’s messianic madness proves stronger than Will’s love. And Phoebe, Leal’s “God-struck” protégé, suffers a miserable demise when incited to commit violence in the name of his domestic terrorist group “Jejah” (translation: “woman” in Akkadian, an ancient Eastern Semitic language).
This book is a fast, short read. But for insight on the psychopathology of cult leaders and their disciples—think Branch Davidian David Koresh, or even Charles Manson—The Incendiaries digs deep. Author Kwon poses a unique question: If cult cultures are cemented by needy, emotionally troubled individuals, can mental health treatment break them apart? Kwon’s Will thinks so. But her Phoebe, a Korean-American immigrant like Kwon, insists otherwise: “Immigrants don’t believe in therapists. The Koreans I’ve known would judge it to be a failure of will, the kind of thing that happens to other ethnicities: it’s like being lazy, or unfilial…I don’t see the point.”
In this brief but blistering novel (published by Riverhead Books, Penguin New York), neither love nor psychotherapy conquers all. The true victor is author Kwon, whose clear, precise prose and psychological insights shed new light on the plight of Korean-Americans caught between two cultures— and a cult.
Reviewer Andrea Plate, author of ‘Pretty Babies’ and ‘Secret Police,’ is a part-time professor at Loyola Marymount University’s Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, and a consultant to Asia Media International. She was an English major at UC Berkeley, and has a masters degree in journalism from USC, as well as a masters in social work from UCLA.