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.