Burn It Down: How to Set a Fire and Why Makes Teenage Angst Literal

In Jesse Ball’s new novel, an angry young narrator adds to the pantheon of tortured but brilliant protagonists.

Random House

If fire is a metaphor for man’s primal nature, it can also describes a child’s innocence: Only kids stare directly at the sun, or try to touch a candle’s flame, because they don’t know any better. The narrator of Jesse Ball’s latest novel, How To Set A Fire And Why, is a young woman named Lucia for whom fire signifies both naiveté and power. She’s a high schooler who suddenly loses her parents, rendering her hapless and vengeful; she also has pyromaniacal tendencies. As Lucia confesses partway through the book: “When I think about what my future holds, it is a bit like looking into the sun. I flinch away, or I don’t and my eyes get burned down a bit, like candles, and then I can’t see for a while.”

In How To Set A Fire And Why, Ball is once again experimenting with bold characters. But in making Lucia an arsonist, he possibly extends the metaphor too far. Yes, Lucia has been burned, but her impulse to set fire to everything in response feels too literal, making her yet another destructive, impossibly precocious teenager in literature. Writers have long used young narrators—especially brilliant, angry, or misunderstood ones like Lucia—to offer surprising insights, and to comment on the flaws of the adult world. But How To Set A Fire And Why deliberately keeps Lucia at a distance from readers, and the result is that she sometimes feels more like a too-clever trope than a person.

Like some of Ball’s earlier and equally creative works (Silence Once Begun, The Way Through Doors), the novel is told in first person. This approach should make it easier for Lucia to establish a rapport with the audience, but she’s brusque from the opening pages: “I live with my aunt—dad = dead, mom in lunatic house.” As Ball explained in an interview with The Paris Review two years ago, “I think a book is often an account, or a series of accounts, that create a world that is sort of half of the world. There are references to a world, and then the reader supplies the other 50 percent.”

But Lucia’s abrupt tone makes it challenging for the reader to create a larger context for her behavior—or to supply “the other 50 percent.” Her father has died suddenly, though it isn’t clear why; her mother lives in a mental asylum. There’s Helen, Lucia’s babysitter-turned-bartender, who makes Lucia cocktails after she has visited her mother, and then drives her underage drunken charge home. It seems that the one anchor in Lucia’s life—and ours, as readers—is her aunt, Lucy, whose relative maturity, stability, and humor help readers better understand the girl telling the story.

For most of the book, Lucy is the only adult who shows any kind of understanding and patience for Lucia. She, in turn, connects with her aunt’s loneliness and peculiar gardening habits:

The garden is poorly kept. The garden is full of dead things. The garden does not get as much sun as it should. When you are in the garden you can still occasionally hear noise from the street. The garden is inexpert. It appears abandoned.

In sum: the garden has excellent character, and it knows all the right people.

How To Set A Fire And Why opens with a “pretty ugly scene” in the principal’s office—the first of many—where Lucia is expelled for biting a student after he steals her lighter. When she does finally connect with a teacher at her next school, he recommends that she apply to an exclusive higher-education program. Not surprisingly, she delivers on the IQ test, the oral interview, and the essay. Because underneath all of Lucia’s rage is—of course—a smart, attentive young woman.

Young narrators like Lucia can be vehicles for powerful, honest stories—they can get away with holding innocent beliefs, or making hugely ambitious decisions. In Moby Dick, only Ishmael can discover the grand meaning of life while at sea. Only Proust the child can confess just how much he wanted his mother to kiss him goodnight. Only the Compson children can grieve over their family crises with such searing language in Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury.

Many of Ball’s young characters in How To Set A Fire And Why possess this energy: Lucia’s rowdy classmates, the orderly who looks after her mother, the members of the arson club she joins three days after starting her new school. Lucia explains that “there are clubs forming all over the country … for people who want to set fires, for people who are fed up with wealth and property, and want to burn everything down.” Whether or not every high school is a gathering place for arsonists, Lucia quickly meets other students who are restless to destroy property and leave their mark—a universe of restless youth too smart for their own good.

At their best, young narrators reflect on aspects of the human experience—childhood, growing up, self-discovery—that analytically minded adults often overlook. Though Lucia has striking moments of clarity (like her aforementioned looking-into-the-sun line), these instances are distributed too widely across the nearly-300 page book to have a lasting impact. Readers learn about her love for reading through the titles she mentions—Barbarian in the Garden by Zbigniew Herbert, the French surrealists Antonin Artaud and Alfred Jarry, and Rumi’s poetry—but her name-dropping often feels like a juvenile attempt to signal an inquisitive mind. Like any teenager, Lucia is searching for answers. But she doesn’t like to ask questions; instead, she acts. She doesn’t ask what happened to her mother, even for her readers’ benefit; she simply visits her every week. She doesn’t talk about her father, instead she keeps him in her pocket, in the form of his old Zippo that she can light on command and bring to life.

Ball argues that building a story is a shared duty. But it’s an impossible task if the characters refuse to meet their readers halfway. Perhaps he wants readers to struggle to connect with an arsonist teenager, even if she is fictional, and even if she controls the narrative, but it doesn’t always make for gratifying reading. To Ball’s credit, Lucia at least subverts the angry young man trope by being female. But for all of the author’s earlier literary triumphs, keeping pace with Lucia is frustrating, especially when she seems to be laughing at readers’ attempts to do so. In her own snarky words, “I have no intention of entering the sweet land of fiction, wherever that is.”

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