Books

Jesse Ball
How to Set a Fire and Why

“You might think that I am some sort of hard case,” writes Lucia, our teenaged guide through the world of this novel, not long after we meet her. Our assumption would be reasonable: she has just been expelled after a violent incident, and is nervous about fitting in at the new school the next town over. But, “I am just a quiet person who minds her own business,” she tells us. “Going to school is terrible and it frightens any right-thinking individual.”

Lucia’s bold voice, alternately smooth or ragged, is the main driver of Jesse Ball’s sixth novel. She has a good pretence-detector, which makes her a likeable guide to the American high school; dumb older boys at parties who like to flirt with young girls don’t get very far with her. But coming from a rough, recent past, and a precarious present (dead father, damaged mother, primary caregiver dangerously ageing), she also carries an enormous amount of suspicion and anger.

This is the reason she seeks out the school’s “arson club”, whose treatise she reads and finds wanting, leading her, eventually, to write her own book-within-a-book which shares a title with the novel proper. This is just one of many formal constraints Lucia (and her author) offer the reader. “You are just a construction – ” she tells us early on, “you’re helping me to put things in order. You are my fictional audience, and as such I appreciate you very much.” In other words, she’s a Holden Caulfield for a post-cultural studies generation; her rage at the world’s phoneys is complicated by her understanding of how that rage is performed and presented. She sounds, more than anything, like particularly sharp LiveJournal: a little wrongheaded, like many right-thinking teens, with a jumpy needle in her moral compass, but one that draws her uncomfortably close to many very dark adult concepts. 

None of it ends well, which I did not quite believe; I felt Lucia was too resourceful. But perhaps Ball has just created a character I cared enough about to want to see happy. When a teacher asks Lucia to use parenthetical citation, she replies, “I said footnotes are fine. She failed to present a cogent argument about why her way is better”, and she speaks to the small part of every reader who spent high school aggrieved and underestimated, and who knew that something bright and uncommon was kindling, unseen, inside them.  CR

Text, 304pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2016 as "Jesse Ball, How to Set a Fire and Why". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CR