Lucia, the teenage protagonist of Jesse Ball’s new novel How to Set a Fire and Why, is, like so many of us were around that age, alienated, lonely, and interested in destroying massive amounts of property. She attains that interest by finding out that her new school has an arson club. She wants to be one of them, badly, and mainly because she doesn’t like rich people. Her targets of accumulated wealth are, thus, real estate. However, once she joins the arson club, she finds the arson gratifying but their motives silly—she ends up rebelling against the supposed rebels. She’s alone. She burns things for her own reasons.
She’s the universal teenage malcontent, with slightly loftier goals. Like Holden Caulfield, the character with whom she will be inevitably compared, she’s compelled by an idea of rebellion that isn’t totally thought-out yet. She’s the kind of kid we all wanted to be—an unappreciated but slightly unhinged genius. And, as in Catcher in the Rye, Lucia’s depiction is saved from being obnoxious by an excellent prose style.
Ball puts a very intriguing voice in her head. Her speech is kind of a cross between a character from Mean Girls and a John Ashbery poem. It’s littered with modifiers like “awesome,” “shitty,” and “totally,” but it also gets loopy and mannered, as when she writes, “We have when we see people prevented from having what is necessary and least” in an arsonist’s manifesto.
Perhaps rooting for her comes from the recognition that her world is odd. It’s sort of our world, but not. It’s stylized and minimal. Social media, which are the current primary motor of all teenage life, are totally absent. So is the Internet as a whole. People are occasionally described as being “on their phones,” but this is just a little dash of verisimilitude. It impacts nothing. There’s no news of the world beyond Lucia’s life.
In fact, much else is mysterious. Also omitted are the basic facts of Lucia’s life. Her mother is in a mental hospital, but we never find out why. Nor do we find out how her father died. We never find out why her father’s Zippo is so precious that Lucia stabs a fellow student with a pencil for touching it.
This ultra-minimalism is in keeping with Ball’s previous novels. His settings are dark, sketchy, and unrealistic by dint of what’s held back. His gorgeous first novel, Samedi the Deafness, is a conspiracy story that takes place in a world where, somehow, the conspirators manage to commit suicide on the White House lawn every day without the Secret Service figuring out how to stop it. In another novel, The Curfew, the hero is a man in an unnamed, war-torn country who makes a living by writing epitaphs.
Ball is clearly interested in omission—he likes cultivating a haze around his fiction. There’s menace, but it’s not clear how exactly the menace got there, or what it wants. Strangely, this ends up making the menace feel more real than reality.
This is the way How To Set a Fire and Why operates—Lucia is a chatty, palpable protagonist operating under a linguistic spotlight in a world of shadows. It’s a lovely portrait of teenage rebellion that’s all the more complete for containing few details of the teenage world. If Ball, instead of building his own landscape, had imported more ready-made signifiers that we’re familiar with—like having Lucia using Tumblr or Twitter, or having her trumpeting the virtues of the Weather Underground rather than inventing her own anarchic philosophy, that would water things down. When you include the Internet in fiction, you automatically bring in a sprawl of connotations and involuntarily commentary. This can enrich but also distract.