fb-pixel Skip to main content
book review

A witty, troubled teen embraces justice through arson

ANTHONY RUSSO for the boston globe

Jesse Ball’s novels tend to center around two questions, one philosophical and one metafictional: What does it mean to be a self, and why do we tell stories? But Ball’s angle of approach to these questions varies from book to book.

Sometimes, you hear the ghost of Kazuo Ishiguro’s flat, chilly style. At other times, as in “A Cure for Suicide’’ (2015), Borges-like parable cross-pollinates with Margaret Atwood-style dystopia. Ball’s works combine the visual and the textual, including photographs and playing with margins, asking us to consider how a page’s appearance might inform its meaning. Ball is an experimental writer in the truest sense: Each of his previous five novels seemed a provisional project, a testing of formal and generic boundaries.


At first glance, Ball’s latest novel, “How to Set a Fire and Why,’’ seems of a piece with his previous efforts. Like them, it fits in by not fitting in; it’s typical in its atypicality. Once again, Ball plays with form, manipulating font and occasionally printing the text vertically rather than horizontally. And once again, Ball uses such techniques to hunt big game: the purpose of writing (“A person writes down what has happened in order to know it”) and the discontinuities of selfhood.

But the most remarkable difference from Ball’s previous work, and the most remarkable achievement of this novel, is its narrative voice. It belongs to Lucia Stanton, the novel’s disaffected, Holden Caulfield-style young narrator and heroine. Lucia is a marvelous creation and the richness of her voice — its intelligence, its casual precision — is felt on the very first page. There, Lucia describes a lighter that once belonged to her now-dead father: “every time someone touches it there is less of him on it. His corpse is actually on it — I mean, not his death corpse, but his regular one, the body that falls off us all the time.”


That’s the kind of observation we expect from a realist novel, not an experimental one. “How to Set a Fire and Why’’ is studded with such dashes of realism, as when Lucia notices “that adult thing where he pretended to laugh but didn’t really laugh,” or when she remarks, “It is just that people have so little acumen these days — they don’t even know what dignity looks like.” “Acumen” is slightly off there — and, in its stiltedness, it perfectly renders the speech of a precocious high schooler.

Lucia is smart and witty, but she’s also troubled. When the novel opens, her father has died, and her mother has been institutionalized. She now lives in poverty with her loving and eccentric aunt, a former “dyed-in-the-wool’’ anarchist who tends a garden, scrounges to get enough to eat, and teaches Lucia about property’s fictional nature: “there is no stealing because you can’t own anything, so stealing isn’t stealing, it’s just taking something that you can use.”

The novel’s action is easily summarized. Lucia has been moved to a new school (location unspecified) for stabbing a rich classmate in the neck with a pencil. Soon after, she falls in with a secret arson club and writes a pamphlet called “How to Set a Fire and Why.” In it, she lays out the aesthetic delights of fire-setting (“Fire is the all-color that dwells before color”) and proclaims the arsonist’s political intentions. “We must convince the wealthy that they cannot have more than they need” — the best way to do this, of course, is to burn them out. Lucia’s marginalized position allows her to see capitalism as an exploitative system — and, in seeing this, to desire the system’s fiery death.


Lucia is attracted to arson for its righteous rage, at points getting downright Nabokovian in her joy: “Arson, arson — how it rolls from the tongue!” Lucia’s life has been full of pain; capitalism is built upon cruelty. Why not burn it all to the ground and start “a new life,” one “disconnected from the life that you have hitherto led”?

What makes “How to Set a Fire and Why’’ so radical, though, isn’t its politics. At least within Ball’s career, the novel is radical because of how traditional — how voice- and character-driven — it all feels. (I mean that as a compliment.) To deeply inhabit a character’s perspective and voice, Ball suggests, can be its own form of rigorous experimentation.Pantheon, 283 pp., $24.95


By Jesse Ball

Anthony Domestico, an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, has a book on poetry and theology forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.