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How to Set a Fire and Why: A Novel
By Jesse Ball
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
I raked Jesse Ball over the coals earlier this year, on account of the eerie similarities between his second-most-recent novel, A Cure for Suicide and his first, Samedi the Deafness. So I went into this one with some trepidation, not sure whether I'd get another fascinatingly off-the-rails mystery or a weaksauce retreat of a fascinatingly off-the-rails mystery. Turns out I got neither. Matter of fact, I'm pleased to report that Ball's sixth and most recent novel is a dark-humored and socially engaged twist on the coming-of-age story, and if I'm not mistaken, a pretty radical break from what Jesse Ball has established.
Of course, Jesse Ball being Jesse Ball, there's still a secret organization at play. That would be the Arson Club, a group of teenagers who set fires for political reasons. When protagonist Lucia hears of this club, she decides to sign up, which throws her whole routine for a loop, sets her on a course she didn't expect, and gives her something to care about again. She has a certain attachment to fire, as her lighter is her only memento of her dead father. Her mother, whom she visits constantly, lives in a mental institution. The process of raising her is left to her aunt, who lives in a garage. What's more, Lucia's cynicism, eccentric habits and appearance make her an outcast. Lucia is a much different type of protagonist than I've read from Ball before. Don't get me wrong, I love the guy's prose style, surrealism and winding conspiracies-vs.-counter-conspiracies plots, but he's not known as a writer of fleshed-out characters. Yet Lucia promises to change this, as her cynicism is undercut by a deep empathy, a sense of social justice, a deep disappointment in those around her, and above all, a real need to belong. You could almost say she's a twenty-first century Holden Caulfield who knows a thing or two about Marx. If that makes her sound like hell printed on paper, I wouldn't recommend reading this book. If you're intrigued, pick it up.
Now, I won't go too far with Catcher in the Rye comparisons, since that's a book that makes some readers want to claw their own eyes out. What I will say instead is Ball really stretched himself here. Plot - as in both "conspiracy" and "the series of events that make up a story" - was the driving energy behind the other two Ball novels I've read, whereas this one seems more driven by Lucia's voice and her character development. Whereas all this man's work that I've read thus far is written in a more emotionally stoic voice, here he lets Lucia do the talking, and she establishes a clear and strident voice from the first chapter, with lines like "don't touch this lighter or I will kill you" and "The secretary is also the gym teacher, and I hate him two, so basically, apart from my aunt, a room full of enemies." It's also fascinating to see where her developing social conscience takes her. Not to give away too much, except to say that fires are of course involved; suffice it to say that Ball hits the right balance of changing some of Lucia's traits and keeping others consistent. Yet it still feels like Jesse Ball, using stylistic hallmarks such as short chapters and unexpected formal changes, among them a pamphlet on fire-starting written by Lucia herself. In that regard, it might be his best novel yet.
Out of 10: 9.0