‘The Vicious Intent: a Review of Jesse Ball’s “How to Set a Fire and Why”’, by Chris Somerville



I have a friend who releases almost a book a year, sometimes two. Whenever we talk about writing this becomes an issue. I’m a slow worker. I put things off, or say I want to think things over, and I have been writing a second book for almost four years now. If I get defensive I tell this friend that they rush things, and they chastise me for being slow.

Of course I’m jealous of this person, who presents novels like they’re something that just came to them, like a beautiful vision from a dream. I know I’m too hesitant, and will spend hours writing and re-writing a sentence only to delete it, or come at something again and again, each time trying to get it right.

This is not a problem that seems to afflict the American writer Jesse Ball. Although How to Set a Fire and Why is the first Ball I have read, his last two novels, 2015’s A Cure For Suicide and 2014’s Silence Once Begun, have both been locally released, and from what I can tell he’s published nine other works, including poetry collections, a series of illustrated works, a dystopian verse novel, and two other novels.1 He has another book due this year, written in collaboration with Brian Evenson, and apparently eight other books in progress, though the source for this information is anecdotal.

People have been describing How to Set a Fire and Why as Ball’s ‘breakthrough’ novel, which usually means that this one is easier to read than the others. I’d never have the guts to ask my friend who publishes a lot of books if they are also searching for a breakthrough novel; that is, if they throw enough ideas out there, eventually something will catch on. Is this something to strive for with your writing? Is it wrong to do that? We don’t discuss this with each other.

I’ve heard that the American writer Joy Williams never writes first drafts, she sits down and types out a story and then it’s done, though the person who told me this didn’t stipulate how long she spends on a story, if it’s a few days or a week. I’ve heard that Ball wrote A Cure For Suicide in six days. That he claims it’s a hangover from our puritan past that we feel books we sweat and toil over are going to be better than ones that come quickly. A friend told me this after seeing him read. I don’t know how accurate a statement this is either.

How to Set a Fire and Why is a novel filled with lists, and plans, and asides. It’s narrated by a teenage genius delinquent named Lucia Stanton who has just stabbed a classmate in the neck with a pencil for touching her lighter. Lucia lives with her aunt in a garage and in poverty. Her father is dead and her mother has had some kind of breakdown and now resides in a mental institution. The reason for this breakdown is only hinted at, and we spend a lot of the novel waiting for Lucia to reveal information to us (she is highly conscious that she’s writing a book and we’re reading it) and by extension, herself.

Much of the pleasure of reading How to Set a Fire and Why is in trying to work out what’s going on. Lucia spends a lot of the book telling us things while also telling us nothing. It’s a trick, but a very good trick. For example, one early chapter starts:

About owning things. If you try to own things, but you don’t have many things, then you can get in trouble. Because you might have to trade in some of the things that you have in order to get the money to get part of something new, but then you run out of things you have to trade to get money to give to finish getting the thing that is something new, then you have no money to finish getting that thing—the new thing, and then someone comes and takes the new thing, and then somehow, you have nothing, even though you did start with a bunch of things (however shitty they may have been—they still were yours).

Only after this does she give us the example of her aunt’s car being repossessed.

The novel is also filled with tests, first at Lucia’s new school, where she, pointedly, tells us she has no interest in fitting in, and then later when she tries to gain entry into both an Arson Club, a group responsible for burning down empty buildings, and a school for the gifted called Hausmann. Here she is asked to answer an essay question that asks ‘Why Hitler?’ and is put in front of a camera and ordered to tell a joke. This is what she says:

‘Okay so this is a true story. There is a golden eagle that was being observed by scientists, and it found a spot on top of this cathedral where it could nest. It liked that spot pretty well. I think there ended up being two of them—which means it somehow convinced the other one the spot was good, but that isn’t part of the story.’

The story she tells us eventually is about the singular eagle going around and killing people’s dogs for food, while wearing a knitted party hat that one of the dogs (a beagle) was wearing. The joke is that for two months afterwards there were people walking their dogs, looking out for an eagle in a hat.

These long, information filled sleight of hands make up the bulk of the book, and eventually this makes you wonder what, exactly, is Lucia failing to tell us, and how much of this failure is part of the author’s intent? Not that the book’s main drive is in the solving of mysteries, but you want to know why this was written, what is Ball trying to say here?

Tension does arise, in part, from Lucia’s predictions for the immediate future (sections marked WHAT WILL HAPPEN) that are followed by what actually happened. Since we only have the one narrator we have to take Lucia’s word for it, but of course we can’t trust every word she says. There’s a sex scene in the middle that passes like a dream. There’s a party at an abandoned water park that doesn’t feel real.

There’s also this: How do you best articulate the growing affection you feel for a book weeks after being convinced that you don’t like it? Whatever Ball’s intention with How to Set a Fire and Why, it’s a work I’ve been coming back to often, wondering how much of it was intended or how much of it was stumbled upon by accident; wondering if that even makes a difference; wondering if much of what Lucia tells us actually happened or if I’ve been duped. Wondering, finally, if this is the exact response Ball wanted to create, and he’s playing us all for chumps. The mind can love a puzzle.

Chris Somerville is a writer who lives in Melbourne. His first book, a collection of short stories, is called We Are Not The Same Anymore.

1. He published a novella in The Paris Review called The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr, which I love and is available to read online.