Not yet 40, Jesse Ball has published six novels, three collections of poetry and prose, a book of drawings, and a pedagogical monograph, Notes on My Dunce Cap, in which he introduces courses he has given at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on lying, lucid dreaming, and the Brothers Grimm. His novels and stories tend to be set in nameless cities and villages in an indeterminate past. The ambience of conspiratorial menace, together with the accumulation of gently antiquated details—a river traversed by old bridges, propeller planes, “heavy shawls made from the cloth that was the village’s trade,” winding footpaths, a large park populated by gnarled oak trees, a carousel in a common square, a hilltop graveyard encircled by a heavy wrought-iron gate, a crooked avenue “where the pavement was a bit uncertain”—suggest a mittel-European burg of a century or so ago. His prose style borrows from the works of writers of that geography and time, Franz Kafka and Robert Walser in particular, though Isak Dinesen, Kobo Abe, and Nikolay Gogol surface in his archly formal tone and his generous sense of the bizarre. A man opens a package containing a rubber mask of his own face. A young girl watches a puppet show depicting, in meticulous detail, the story of her life. In a parade, a small child dressed up like a mule rides a mule.
Like Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, most of Ball’s characters are a mystery to themselves, sometimes quite literally: The Way Through Doors (2009) and A Cure for Suicide (2015) are both about amnesiac characters who awake without memory of their former identity. His plots have the dark glimmer of medieval allegory. They are filled with games and riddles, and the narratives are themselves riddles that gradually reveal their logic in the manner of a counterintuitive chess opening: Ball’s Gambit. As his body of work has expanded, what might have at first resembled pastiche has differentiated into a peculiar vision all his own. Few contemporary American writers can match Ball’s commitment to a singular style. His isolated towns and villages, we now can see, belong to a rich, vast landscape—a nation-state, a continent, a world.
How to Set a Fire and Why, Ball’s new novel, adds to this world an unexpected dimension. It is set, for one, in the present day, in a recognizably American town. The characters do not have names like “the claimant,” Jesse Ball, or Jurgen Hollar. They’re called Hal, Jan, Lana. They use cellphones. Our narrator is Lucia Stanton, an adolescent girl in the wised-up Holden Caulfield tradition. She speaks in an informal, occasionally profane, deadpan register that would be jarringly out of place in any of Ball’s previous novels. She is defiantly unsentimental: “The whole thing about people living on in memory is a crock of shit.” Lucia is too smart for her teachers and guidance counselors—for everyone except the kind, wry old aunt who is her guardian. She reads Antonin Artaud, Alfred Jarry, Benjamin Franklin, Zbigniew Herbert. When the high-school psychologist, during an impromptu therapy session, begins to recite a poem by Rumi (“There is a candle in your heart …”), Lucia bursts out laughing.
I said, you small-minded bitch, you think that is poetry? Of all Rumi’s goddamned poems, you pick that one? Did you find it in some psych-nonsense anthology? That has to be his worst poem, and it isn’t even translated well. How does it feel to wade around in life so hopelessly? You are just mired in shit. You’re so limited …
I laughed some more. Of all the poems, that one.
She was looking at me in shock. I think she was actually speechless, so I gave her some more.
Whoever’s calm and sensible is insane.
I said, that’s Rumi. Or didn’t you know?
The girl has style. The line about the quality of the translation is especially good, and her choice of Rumi quotation reassures us that, despite the change of scenery, the spirit of Ball’s earlier work is alive.
One of the triumphs of the novel is the delicacy with which Ball opens his narrator’s smart-aleck voice just wide enough to admit a sincere measure of wonder and dread. In the novel’s opening passage, Lucia describes her most treasured keepsake, her deceased father’s Zippo lighter. It is all that remains of him. She protects it jealously because “every time someone touches it there is less of him on it. His corpse is actually on it—I mean, not his death corpse, but his regular one, the body that falls off us all the time.” To read Ball is to be reminded of our steadily vanishing lives and marvel that we exist in the first place. “We’re just not permanent at all,” Lucia says, “not the way we want to be.”
Lucia’s mother is alive, but her mind is gone. She lives in a “lunatic house,” where she gurgles and soils herself and stares vacantly at a fish pond. “She isn’t actually anyone I know,” Lucia says, “and I’m not anyone that she knows.” But Lucia does not skip a visit. She faces life with grim determination and black humor. Her previous high school kicked her out for stabbing a boy with a pencil, and she has few friends. Things begin looking up, however, when she hears rumors about the existence of a national network of Arson Clubs “for people who are fed up with wealth and property, and want to burn everything down.” This idea, as Lucia might put it, suits her right down to the ground.
How to Set a Fire and Why has the mood of a thriller but the plot of a coming-of-age novel. Although Lucia’s efforts to join her local Arson Club, and later to get revenge on an evil landlord, give structure to the narrative, much of the novel is devoted to Lucia’s thoughts about morality and “the false parade of garbage that characterizes modern life.” Ball calls himself a fabulist but he is also a deeply moral writer, with a fine sense of tragedy. His view of the world might be described as tender nihilism. James Sim in Samedi the Deafness (2007) speaks for most of Ball’s characters, and perhaps for Ball himself, when he says:
I know … that the world is complicated. I know there are problems. I just … I’ve never tried to think, How can they be solved? I feel instinctively that they can’t be. I don’t believe we are moving towards any eventual philosophical end. I don’t think anything will be perfected. The world has always been chaotic. Suffering is a fact …
There’s only this: if everyone acts quietly, compassionately, things will go a little better than they would have otherwise. But people will still suffer.
Lucia echoes this sentiment in fewer words: “I’m not sure that there’s any reason for building anything other than huts. Can’t we just live in huts and be kind to each other?” But because she knows that we can’t, that certain people cannot be brought to reason or compassion, Lucia figures she might as well do her best to stop them.
Ball’s novels, despite their gamesmanship, eerie mysteries, and senseless acts of violence, are ultimately celebrations of compassion—our best hedge against suffering. In How to Set a Fire and Why, Lucia reaches the same conclusions as her fictional predecessors about the world’s callousness and random malice, but we are no longer in a shadow Europe, or fantastical versions of New York City or Sakai, Japan (The Way Through Doors and 2014’s Silence Once Begun, respectively). Her concerns are immediate, contemporary, American. She opines about mass surveillance, the brainlessness of personal technology, economic inequality, celebrity culture. “I was thinking: how goddamned Manichaean this country is. Isn’t it obvious that the world is a meaningless place where there is a faint impression you can leave on each other by being compassionate, but not more than that?” Because the novel is written from the (unreliable) perspective of a teenager, readers might be tempted to discount Lucia’s polemics as a symptom of adolescent rage—the rage of a girl who has lost both parents and, after her aunt dies, her guardian and best friend. But don’t be so sure. In a personal manifesto directed to aspiring arsonists, Lucia writes: “We want merely to have that which is necessary and least.” What’s so irrational about that?
Ball’s fiction carries within it an implicit criticism of the way we live today. It is not exactly sentimental (more often it is bleak, tragic), nor is it nostalgic—the places he writes about did not ever exist. He poses an alternative vision of reality, filled with grand conspiracies united against oppressive systems of rule, Byzantine puzzles that can be solved with ingenuity, and romantic acts of heroism. His fiction is suffused with a melancholy that derives from the knowledge that the real world is indifferent to such elegant fantasies.
Arson may be one way to fight back, but it has its risks. It places the arsonist in great danger of capture and punishment. The only way to avoid that fate, Lucia concludes, is to remake one’s identity entirely. After blowing up the home of her penniless aunt’s landlord, she plans to flee across the country. She will begin again, under a new name. This idea, of “a new life … disconnected from the life that you have hitherto led,” recurs frequently in Ball’s work. It is an attractive idea—an American idea—and not entirely utopian. We read literature, after all, with the same motivation: to escape what we know for a foreign world that is as beautiful as it is strange.
Ball invites his readers to join a secret confederacy that rejects modern life’s false parade of garbage. It is a confederacy that accepts the implacable demands of entropy and death but nevertheless seeks comfort in puzzle-solving, the exhilaration of a caper, and selfless acts of compassion. “Each fire is a small thing,” says Lucia, as she braces herself for what she must do. “I am coming into a kind of inheritance. I can’t be the only one. There must be thousands like me.” There are.