R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries is an interesting one. The story of Phoebe, the book’s main female character, is not told from her own perspective, but from the perspective of narrator Will. The story revolves around Phoebe. And yet, what we see and know of her comes only from Will, who may or not be skewing the truth at any time. One might think it would be hard to assign an archetype to a character like this, and the archetype I give her may not be accurate to Phoebe herself, only Will’s imagining of her. But considering what that archetype is, that may be just right.
It’s Written on Her Face
Phoebe, at least Will’s image of her, is The Mirror. Her purpose (again, at least in Will’s mind) is to reflect the man who is looking at her.
“Faces lit up if I walked into a room, the liking a light I could refract, giving it back. Phoebe, oh, I love that girl, people said, but it’s possible they all just loved the reflected selves.” (Kwon, 68)
What is so interesting about this book is that there are chapters from Phoebe and John Leal’s “points of view” with Will remaining the narrator. In Phoebe’s chapters that take place without Will there, we are only seeing what Will imagines happened. The “dialogue” is completely imagined. Will sees Phoebe as a mirror, reflecting himself back out of her face, and so that is what she herself thinks in his imaginings of her. The quote above is from a Phoebe chapter, in which “Phoebe” talks about her party-girl past. We also see Phoebe reflecting John Leal, parroting his beliefs. Will believes that this is the case because it is easier to think of Phoebe as just blindly following along with John’s plans, instead of coming up with them herself. He’d rather believe that the bombing of abortion clinics was John Leal acting through Phoebe, than believe that Phoebe came up with the idea herself. He removes her agency, seeing her as an idealized version of herself, someone who can only reflect back what a man wants to see.
One Last Thought
Sometimes, while reading this novel, I went back and forth between wishing for a companion book from Phoebe’s perspective and thinking that a book like that might cheapen what Kwon has created here. From an interview with Kwon:
“But it was always still Will telling the story, more or less, and trying to piece together what had happened. I’m so interested in how incomplete our knowledge of one another can be.”
It’s this more than anything else that makes me understand why it was so important to have Will narrate the whole story. We really don’t ever have a complete knowledge of someone else, and Will’s lack of knowing what is going on in Phoebe’s life as she falls deeper into John Leal’s cult shows just how deeply she has fallen in.