The Incendiaries and a Layered Perspective

Reading Like a Writer with Allison Wyss

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon is about a college student (Phoebe) who becomes enmeshed in a violent religious cult, while her boyfriend (Will, the narrator) grapples with his own discarded faith in God. Here's where we first get Phoebe's voice:

   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. 

What kind of perspective is this? I want to call it an omniscient first person, but it acknowledges not knowing. It's closer to what I call a layered first person, but it somehow knows more than it should. It's one character relating not just the quoted words but the perspective of another character, even though he admits to not being present in the moment described. It requires careful filtering, as well as precision with the subjunctive mood. And with all this going on, Kwon manages not to be too awkward about it. I've talked to readers who didn't even notice the slide of one perspective into another.

Still, it's tricky. Instead of the challenging construction that lets us know Will is imagining what Phoebe might have said, Kwon could have skipped the filtering and just given us Phoebe's voice directly. Whenever a writer makes an a difficult choice, I wonder why.

First, I'm mesmerized by the way we move from certainty into mystery. We start with the word "I" and no quotation marks. So it feels like a regular first-person perspective. Not only that, but the voice is telling something internal, something we can't witness from the outside: hope. These are the first words of a section titled "Phoebe" and it's only the third section we've seen so far. This early, we haven't yet learned whether or not the perspective will shift between narrators. So for just those few words, it seems likely we're getting a new first-person voice.

So it first seems like an "I" speaking of herself, until the words "Phoebe told the group." Then we know it's a quote. (At this point we may remember or realize this book doesn't use quotation marks.) And we have no reason not to trust that Phoebe really says the words. But that certainty is stripped away when we learn that the person reporting the words didn't hear them firsthand. Phrases like "she'd have sat" make it clear the narrator is not present in the scene. We might assume that he has heard the story of what she said, either from her or elsewhere, and is merely embellishing. "I'm striving to picture it" doesn't confirm that the whole scene is made up, but it does imply an imagination at work. However, later in the book, there's confirmation that Will has not heard much of Phoebe's Jejah confessions at all. He's imagining this scene and others. 

It's a smart way to make a mystery work, not by hiding facts, but by giving them, and then eroding our trust in them. Even though we know to doubt Phoebe's words and gestures, they have been made to exist in our brains. So we don't have fact, but we have something more important: we have an image.

In a broader sense, the layering of perspective creates mystery in away that also holds back nothing. We get everything Will believes about Phoebe and even all that he imagines, including those vivid details. But he is not her and he doesn't have full access to her journey from student to terrorist. So there are certainly things we don't get to know. However, it's not a frustrating withholding of information, because the narrator doesn't know it either. 

The novel is told in short sections, headed by the name of the character whose thoughts (real or imagined) are centered. The first section of the novel is a simple first-person, from Will's perspective. On first read of the second section, we might think it's a third-person limited voice, aligned with John Leal, the cult leader. However, once it becomes clear that Will creates and imagines a first-person voice for Phoebe, we probably re-think that John Leal section, wondering if it's Will imagining John Leal's inner life and mental workings. 

So again, we have this movement from certainty to mystery. And again, even as the facts are made uncertain, we keep the images.

For this to work so well, we must get concrete, bodily details within the admitted speculation: the kidskin journal, spit-polished lips, Phoebe's distinct gestures, long-fingered hands. These are the details that put us solidly into the room with Phoebe. That's much different than being plunked into a dark room! Even if we don't trust the details, they help us into the story. 

But with the details made up, can we know Phoebe in any true sense? How can she be a real character if what we learn of her is filtered through a voice that imagines scenes? 

The liberties Will takes with Phoebe's voice, putting his own made-up ideas of her in place of her actual words, can't be separated, in my mind, from the sexual fantasies he has about her.  

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 with 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 don't want to fault a person for fantasies. But I can't help seeing Will's treatment of Phoebe's imagined body as in line with his invention of her words and gestures, hopes and motivations. In both cases, he makes things up vividly, in flashier colors, maybe even trying to overwrite the real Phoebe.  

And yet to say that Phoebe doesn't have voice would be absurd. Phoebe as a character is vivid and strong and strange. We know just what she looks like and how she acts and we do trust Will, because the story he tells is compelling, even as we know we can't trust him at all.

One way Phoebe's real self comes through is when she slips away. There are scenes with her and Will, when she won't answer his questions or tell her story. And when he seriously hurts her, she leaves. Though what we're learning is "nothing," she feels like a fully formed person in her decision to resist him—more than when he has his hand stuck up her back making her mouth move. We know her agency when she alludes us as well as him.

In so many ways—the illumination of mystery, the slipping away of self—the  layering of perspective mimics and illuminates the central questions of the book.


Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Moon City ReviewYemasseeBoothLunch TicketJellyfish Review, and (less recently) elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthly column she writes for the Loft's blog. She tweets, often about writing, as @allisonwyss and here's her website: