on How To Set a Fire and Why, a novel by Jesse Ball (Pantheon)
Jesse Ball’s novels clarify their unconventional premises and intentions according to their own natures. As a genre-shuffler, Ball draws you in through mastery of voice and context – strangely valid accounts of strangely familiar worlds. His processes demand as much recognition as his plots; his characters collude in gratifying the demand. Just as Samedi the Deafness (1997), his first novel, exposes the spy story, his sixth novel, How To Set A Fire and Why, tampers with young adult fiction.
The new book is a diaristic text spoken by Lucia Stanton, a precocious, embittered yet candidly principled teenager living at the poverty line with her ailing but devoted aunt in a converted garage. Her father is dead, her disturbed mother is institutionalized nearby. As the story opens, Lucia describes a meeting with her school’s principal: she had attacked a boy named Joe Schott because he had touched her cigarette lighter, a prized inheritance from her father. An apology to the boy and his parents would have settled things but -- “That’s when I said, your little prince basketball hero shouldn’t have touched my lighter. Then I wouldn’t have put a pencil in his neck. Well, they didn’t like that. Joe Schott is very admired in these parts, the town darling. There’s a burger named after him at the diner …”
The reader is put on notice, too: “You are my fictional audience, and as such I appreciate you very much. I figure when I finish, I will throw this out. Don’t think that I believe you are any less terrible than anyone else. That’s on you – if you want to behave like a decent person, do so. Those of us who aren’t miserable fools will probably recognize it.”
As with young adult fiction, the opposing forces and moral dilemmas are spelled out early, apparently ripe for resolution. Allegiances are established: Ball swiftly aligns us with Lucia who gets picked on at her new school for wearing the same clothes every day. She visits her demented mother regularly. She skips detention, then gets a week of detention as punishment: ‘They don’t understand – I can just read a book. It doesn’t matter where I am.” An autodidact, she alludes to Trakl, Zbigniew Herbert, Kafka, Satie, Artaud, Jarry, Dos Passos and more along the way. Here is her take on detention:
Do you want to know how detention works? You go to a classroom and there, voila, all the other shitty little fucks produce themselves like rabbits out of a hat. Then you are supposed to sit together doing nothing as punishment for not obeying. Maybe you can see from this that I am quite familiar with being in detention. Matter of fact, I feel like I have always been in detention. I am an old veteran of detention, like one of Napoleon’s soldiers limping back from the battle of Moscow. No, not like them – they were chumps. More like – one of the girls who died in the Triangle Fire looking out the window and realizing it is too far to jump, then jumping.
There is a muffled sententiousness to Ball’s work – an ambition to prove to readers of conventional fiction that they are capable of appreciating singular forms and sounds, and to readers of post-modern fiction that story, ideas, and emotion still matter. How To Set A Fire and Why swirls unabashedly around overt moral concerns. In this nameless American town, what exactly constitutes “a decent person”? Perhaps it’s someone like Lucia who takes the time to wonder and state what’s going on. She often speaks aphoristically:
“Going to school is terrible and it frightens any right-thinking individual.”
“History is just people behaving badly.”
“Most people can’t keep all the lies straight – and they end up believing everything.”
“If a guy is a pariah, there is no reason to every talk to him, societally. But if a girl is a pariah, there is still one reason. How fucked-up is that?”
“Whoever’s calm and sensible is insane.”
Here, a decent person may be someone considered indecent by the mainstream, stuck without agency in straitened circumstances, and open to alternative positions. Lucia has a few friends but she stands alone. And then, there is the Arson Club. But Lucia does nothing without assessing her attitude:
To sum up, let me tell you: I’m not one of those nihilistic types who thinks there is no meaning. I guess, I don’t think there’s meaning; there’s definitely no meaning, but not in a nihilistic way. I don’t find it exciting the way they do. I think you could as well be a bug or a sparrow or part of an antler, or the back of someone’s pocketknife.
Going further by way of explanation, Lucia writes a pamphlet titled “How To Set a Fire and Why,” the text within the text. Her introduction states, “The world is ludicrous. It is famished. It is greedy and adulterous. It is a wild lace we inhabit, surely you agree?” The main part of the pamphlet is a manifesto, a cry of the destitute and rejected in the land of the rich. Lucia’s arson is something like Jean Genet’s celebration of crime – he wasn’t much of a criminal and neither is Lucia. But as Genet said, there are criminals everywhere but very few meaningful crimes. Perhaps Lucia is sharp enough to dismiss the criminals (“I don’t find it exciting the way they do”) and both desperate and angry enough to commit a more meaningful act of destruction.
Jesse Ball has given us a novel that expresses the psychological density of Lucia’s existence. He does so inventively and seems to share her joy of expression and nose-tweaking. With humor and acerbic vision, Lucia embraces us as attentive listeners. Are we decent? Rather helplessly, we abet her actions.
[Published July 5, 2016. 304 pages, $29.95 hardcover]