A very truncated version of my review of Jesse Ball’s brilliant novel How to Set a Fire and Why appeared on Philly.com on Sunday, November 6th, alongside its publication in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s print edition. If you’d like to read the full version, here ’tis:
HOW TO SET A FIRE AND WHY
by Jesse Ball (Pantheon)
Teenage Lucia lives in an apartment over a garage with her old and very broke aunt, who takes her to the park for hot dogs and reads Faust in German. They have cribbage championships, too, and the only house rule is: “Don’t do things you aren’t proud of.” If this sounds like a perfect life to you (and why wouldn’t it?) it isn’t, quite: We know from the beginning that Lucia’s recent past has been very bad. She was thrown out of her last school for stabbing a mean kid with a pencil; her father was killed in some terrible accident and her mother is in a loony bin. We don’t get too many more details than that, but we don’t need them. We can see for ourselves that Lucia is an unusual person in a number of ways.
For one thing, she is very smart. For another, she’s what you might call anti-social, though she insists she’s very nice to people, which might also be true. We spend time with her as she negotiates her new school, hangs out with her aunt in their little garden, and reads books about the Russian peasantry. She’s intensely likable, going around in the same old hoodie every day and eating licorice she stole from the fancy supermarket. She rides the bus and enjoys it. I defy you to not fall in love with her.
Lucia also visits her mother at the mental hospital, but the woman doesn’t recognize her and can no longer communicate. She just makes sounds with her mouth. Lucia takes a typically philosophical attitude toward this very sad and distressing situation: “I thought about how easy it was to think it meant something—the gurgling—but it was actually just like leaves or gravel or layers of skin. I mean to say—it isn’t meaningful, it isn’t meaningless. Things just don’t really apply to us in particular, even though we want them to.”
But her sophisticated philosophies and emotional reserve are hiding something passionate and enraged. And it is around this time that she overhears some kids at school talking about the Sonar Club.
“Sonar” is a rearrangement of the word arson; these kids like to set fires. Or at least they aspire to: There is a secret society in the school and beyond comprised of people who want to dismantle social injustice by burning down buildings owned by the ruling class. This makes good sense to Lucia, who begins trying to join the club at the same time that a teacher who has taken an interest in her writing encourages her to apply to a prestigious alternative school. Author Ball lays this all out in front of us, but it’s never entirely clear which would be the better option.
The great pleasure of his book is in keeping up with Lucia’s challenging and amusing trains of thought, and in measuring the distance between her intelligence and your own. There’s a frisson of excited discomfort you’ll feel when you realize you haven’t even heard of some of the books she’s expecting you to have read. She is, of course, not as smart as she thinks she is—she’s 17 years old, after all. Much of the book is arranged into her “predictions” followed by a description of “what happened,” and needless to say, she cannot always predict the future. This serves as a nice reminder that life is nothing if not exciting. (But it might also be nothing.)
Though it takes place now, the novel has a weird sort of timelessness that all the best fiction has. Lucia’s knowledge of Russian peasants and her interest in arson and anarchy blend with her descriptions of her classmates playing with their cell phones in a heady, past-present-future sort of way. The injustice of the world has no beginning and no end.
This whole thing—the circumstances of Lucia’s life, her mordant insights, her startling political awakening—is a meditation on the idea of nothingness. The girl may be a nihilist, but you can’t say she’s unhappy about the pointlessness of it all. If anything, she burns extra bright.