One of this year’s highly anticipated new novels is Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why, forthcoming from Pantheon in July, about an intelligent and troubled teenage girl who takes an interest in arson. A standalone excerpt in Granta this week, titled “Lucia Series,” gives us a small taste that involves no fire, but is combustible all the same.
My aunt was awake when I came in, or I thought she was, but she was kind of frozen in her chair. It is hard for me to describe it, but her body was really weird and stuck. In my head, I heard a voice I hadn’t heard before, some voice of knowledge say in a slow clear way, she has had a stroke.
The narrator, Lucia, lives with her aunt. Her father is dead and her mother is institutionalized. When Lucia finds her aunt, it’s in the early hours of the morning and she has just hitchhiked home, drunk, which doesn’t seem to be an unusual occurrence. Ball’s spare and measured prose captures Lucia’s teenage voice in the turns of phrase, the “kind ofs” and the “reallys,” while also relaying her troubled brilliance. We get a sense of tensely controlled emotion as the story dips toward sentiment and then immediately pulls back or changes course.
when I was crying at the hospital, they took me up to her room, and I thought, definitely she isn’t in there, because I could see the bed and it looked empty, but when we got over to it, I could see she was there. With the hospital clothes she just looked really small. She was asleep and the nurse gave a sign that meant – don’t wake your goddamned aunt because she almost died.
But the most remarkable thing about “Lucia Series,” what makes it a must-read, is that it’s not your typical hospital narrative. It’s not sentimental, but most of all, it’s not about death—or rather, it’s about a different kind of death than the physical one. In Lucia’s aunt’s stroke, in her mother’s mental illness, even in the artifacts of her aunt’s previous life that Lucia finds in the house while she’s hospitalized, “Lucia Series” is concerned with how the mind creates reality, how memory makes personality.
I was sort of pretending that I would be able to see my aunt again, that I would go back to the hospital and she would be there in her body. But, obviously, there was no guarantee of that. My mom is an example of this – one day she left her body and I have never seen her again.
When I say that, I don’t mean that she actually went somewhere else. What I mean is: the shitty little cells that cluster together to muster up in sum total the person I used to know are now clustering in some inferior way and the person I know cannot ever be found.
In “Lucia Series,” Ball deftly pries at questions of mind and memory: what makes us who we are, and what, by the same power, can unmake us completely. If the rest of How to Set a Fire and Why continues in this vein, it should be a novel to watch out for, indeed.