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The Incendiaries Reader’s Guide

By R. O. Kwon

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

READERS GUIDE

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Of her own beliefs, the author has said, “I grew up so freakishly Christian that my life plan was to become a missionary. I use the word ‘freak’ as a direct quotation, since that’s what I called myself, with pride: a Jesus freak. Then, in high school, I lost the faith. I can’t really overstate how painful it was — I used to think it would have been less hard to lose my parents than to lose the God I loved. . . . Rigorously agnostic though I now am, actively progressive though I strive to be, I can’t forget the God-crazed girl I once was, the fanatic who believed that life starts at conception. Who, believing this, could have prioritized the rights of unborn fetuses over those of living women.” Did reading The Incendiaries challenge your existing beliefs or make you feel more empathetic toward those with whom you might fundamentally disagree?

2. Obsessive love, obsessive faith, and the attendant consequences are driving forces throughout The Incendiaries. In what ways are these two kinds of obsessions similar? Does one feel more dangerous? How do they speak to the title itself? What does it mean to be incendiary?

3. The concept of a cult plays a major role in The Incendiaries. What attributes of Jejah, the cult in the novel, are attractive to its members? What do you think makes someone particularly susceptible to a cult’s influence?

4. Early on in the novel, Will says, about what he remembers, “It’s possible these are just the details I’ve saved. It could be grief’s narrowed vision: I’ve noticed what I’ve lacked.” Do you consider Will to be an unreliable narrator? What does it mean to be a reliable narrator?

5. Will fantasizes about Phoebe from the moment he meets her, noting, “The fact that I still hadn’t slept with Phoebe, or anyone, didn’t preclude these scenarios. If anything, it helped. . . . [S]ometimes, when I saw the girl in the flesh, she looked as implausible as all the Phoebes I’d dreamed into being.” Does Will’s sexualizing of Phoebe affect the way that we as readers think of Will?

6. In the opening chapters, Will says of Phoebe and her initial reluctance to reveal too much personal information, “If, at times . . . I felt a slight resistance, I pushed through.” Shortly after, he prods her into calling John Leal after Leal slips Phoebe a note containing startlingly accurate details about her life. “I’ll help,” Will says. “I could see him with you.” To what extent is Will a catalyst for events in the novel? How do you construe his actions? In what ways do they foreshadow the turns Will and Phoebe’s relationship later takes?

7. Each of our three main characters is hiding something, and both Will and Phoebe are grieving something catastrophic. How does that motivate each of them? Influence their worldviews? Push them toward or away from religion? Toward or away from other people?

8. The language of The Incendiaries has been described as “savagely elegant,” “dazzlingly acrobatic,” “seductive,” “diamond-cut.” How does the prose style contribute to the overall reading experience? What might it reveal about the characters themselves?

9. Why do you think the author chose to center Jejah’s act of terrorism around an abortion clinic, a health-care clinic? Do you think the members of Jejah truly believed what they were doing was justified? Why has reproductive rights become such a flashpoint for extremists? How else do we see religious extremism on display in the United States?

10. Discuss your own religious upbringing—what beliefs were you raised with? Do you still retain them? Do you think it’s possible to bridge the gap between believers and nonbelievers? What would that look like?

 
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