How to Set a Fire and Why We Watch It Burn

Jesse Ball has created a character who stands as one of the great angst-ridden misfit teenagers in contemporary American lit

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Summoning the literary spirits of Salinger, Alcott, and Twain, Jesse Ball, in his sixth and best novel, How to Set a Fire and Why, creates a literary figure who stands as one of the great angst-ridden and misfit teenagers in contemporary American literature. She is callous and destructive. She is loving and sentimental. She’s a contradiction of impossibilities, simultaneously exploding with boldness and hiding in fear. While she could just as easily be referred to as Holden Jo Finn, Ball names his mesmerizingly misanthropic protagonist Lucia Stanton.

Lucia Stanton is not a good person. Wait, I take that back. The truth is that Lucia actually is a fairly decent human being. She just has an odd way in presenting herself. When readers first encounter Lucia, it’s inside her high school’s principal’s office. Yes, Lucia is that girl. The reason she’s there: she tried to kill the school’s “little prince basketball hero” because he touched her dead dad’s zippo lighter. What Ball quickly informs his readers of is that Lucia, before stabbing her pompous classmate in the neck with a pencil, cautioned him: “Don’t touch this lighter or I will kill you.” Is it really bad that she attempts to follow through on her threat?

Lucia is a teenager teetering on the edge of a cliff that oversees two vastly different valleys.

Lucia’s not the kind of girl who can join the everyday teenage brigade and simply “hang out.” She’s too adult for such trivial nonsense. And Lucia certainly isn’t the kind of person to become entangled in the addicting, fantastical world of teenage consumerism. In fact, she’s rather immune to any ploys of materialism. She only really cares about her lighter, licorice, and books. Lucia is a teenager teetering on the edge of a cliff that oversees two vastly different valleys — one of total destruction and the other of learned responsibility. Like I said, she’s a contradiction.

Much of Ball’s novel’s plot unfolds around Lucia trying to find something — anything really — in which she can invest her time and energy. With a dead father, a mother who is so emotionally and mentally damaged that she can’t remember her daughter, an aunt who is failing to recover from a stroke, and zero friends, Lucia is totally lost until she stumbles across her ultimate savior: an arsonist club.

Lucia, the “quiet person who minds her own business,” finds her calling in the destruction that fire promises: “With this little lick of flame in your pocket, with this little gift of Prometheus, you can reduce everyone to a sort of grim equality.” She discovers personal satisfaction in the deluded fantasy of destroying those around her who deem themselves as superiors. This is a girl whose top rule is not to do things that she isn’t proud of. Confidently, she enters her new world determined to right the wrongs she’s witnessed.

With a renewed interest in life and a promise of connecting with others through fire, Lucia gradually finds her path. And her new trail seems possibly even more troubling than when she was totally directionless. Lucia declares philosophical wisdom: “We’re just not permanent at all, not the way we want to be” and “You should believe in inevitable things. Anything else is frippery.” She prepares a pamphlet about how to set fires for others like her — those lost and seeking a way to connect. At least for now, Lucia, nihilistically, believes that her way is the right one.

We can fade into Lucia’s life and see her struggling, but we are never in one scene long enough to truly get angry with her or to give up on her.

Ball constructs How to Set a Fire and Why in short chapters that rarely exceed a couple of pages. This segmented orchestration allows readers to fall into Lucia’s world, but it also prevents us from seeing too much of it. We can fade into Lucia’s life and see her struggling, but we are never in one scene long enough to truly get angry with her or to give up on her.

Ball’s portrait of a helplessly reckless teenager is beautiful to behold. Amidst all of her fury and her detachment to reality, Lucia maintains a likeability that can’t fade. Perhaps it is her will to survive for herself — and really only herself. Maybe it’s her ordinary (and tragic) luck. It could even be her deep down and hidden sentimentally toward her father’s lighter. Why it is that we can’t help but want Lucia to succeed lies in the sole, meticulous hands of Ball, who gives his icy protagonist a dimensionality that transcends teenage angst or even new adult curiosity.

There’s a feeling of defeat in How to Set a Fire and Why that feels oddly comforting. It serves as a reminder that life isn’t always good, and the future might be worse than the present. Lucia admits, “When I thing 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.” And there’s always another fire on the horizon.

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