A while back, I read a very strange interview with Jesse Ball where he and the interviewer couldn’t seem to agree on much of anything—sometimes not even the basic premises of the questions. Several times Ball dismisses a question immediately, or half answers, or answers indirectly. This plays out with funny and awkward results. Like this moment, for example:
INTERVIEWER: I also wonder if there was a moment where you became comfortable calling yourself a “writer.” Did it have to do with finishing work, getting published, winning awards, or accumulating degrees? Or did you always know and have that confidence?
BALL: Being a writer is unimportant. Much more important to have something specific to say.
Ball’s answer is both true and a little rude. I don’t think he was trying to be impolite, but that’s the kind of writer Jesse Ball is—a truth-speaker and an uncommon thinker. Ball’s fiction takes an unorthodox approach to plot, character, and everything else most writers take as axioms of the craft—even the conventional dilemma of when a writer can identify as “a writer”.
In certain ways, Ball’s writing and his writing process undermine the established approach to fiction. His books are both bizarre and excellent; they rely on stories within stories, disorienting perspective jumps, fictional primary source material, fictionalized versions of Ball himself, and other conceits most writers steer away from, which is what makes his most recent project, How to Set a Fire and Why, so unexpected: it’s a traditional novel—voice-driven, character based, linear. This wouldn’t be news coming from most writers, but for Ball it’s bizarre.
How to Set a Fire and Why centers on a teenage orphan with a spartan lifestyle named Lucia. She wears the same clothes every day (black jeans and hoodie), lives in a converted garage with her aging aunt, and steals licorice from the grocery store. Every week Lucia takes the bus to visit her mother, who is a patient in a mental hospital, and afterward she gets drunk with an older woman who works at a bowling alley. She is constantly in trouble. This is partially because Lucia lives by a code:
The first rule is, Don’t do things you aren’t proud of. Just don’t do those things.…Rule two is: don’t believe nonsense, and don’t behave like a robot.
At first these seem like good rules for anyone, but when followed rigidly, the results can be extreme. As the book opens, for example, Lucia is getting kicked out of school for stabbing a bully in the neck with a pencil. An act she feels was entirely justified—he tried to take her lighter, the only thing she has left of her deceased father.
At her new school, Lucia learns of a secret organization called the Sonar Club (SONAR = ARSON), a group for “people who are fed up with wealth and property and want to burn everything down.” As Lucia gradually makes her way deeper into this organization, she sets off a chain of events that will push her rigid code to its breaking point.
Ball constructs How to Set a Fire and Why entirely as entries in Lucia’s private journal. In this way, though Lucia’s public persona might be unyielding and prickly, Ball gives the reader access to her interiority, which makes it difficult not to feel for her. At the start of the second chapter, for example, she addresses her imagined reader directly:
I appreciate you very much… You might think that I am some sort of hard case. I am just a quiet person who minds her own business. Going to school is terrible and it frightens any right thinking individual.
Lucia’s journal entries range in tone from silly to instructive to deeply sad. Her writing is precise and oddly funny. Take, for example, the way she describes receiving a container of applesauce from an orderly at the mental hospital where her mother is a patient:
The orderly came back and he gave me an applesauce. I think his idea was that I could give it to my mom. It was nice of him—and probably just about the limit of his resources there as an orderly, this applesauce gift, but I wanted nothing to do with it.
The novel’s instructional title is no accident; Lucia is often concerned with teaching the reader, and she presents the basic stuff of her life in tutorial ways. She explains, among other things, how to care for a Zippo lighter, how to win at craps, how to ride the city bus and, of course, how to set a fire and why (and when and where and how to not get caught).
Like Ball himself, Lucia carries a clear and slightly unorthodox sense of what is correct and what is incorrect:
Another rule is: Don’t pay attention to property, but be mindful of people’s investment in things…There is a rule also about being considerate, which is basically just making sure to have empathy.
Though Lucia isn’t usually outspoken, she is not afraid to thumb her nose at what is socially acceptable if it means following her own code. Above all things, Lucia aims to be true to herself—a cliché, maybe but, as Ball demonstrates, no small task when approached with dedication
In all of his novels, Ball creates protagonists who seek to undo deception, even though they may be immersed or complicit in it. This unraveling of what is false, fake, phony and insincere seems to be one of Ball’s main objectives as a writer—a heady goal for fiction, given that novels are, themselves, contrivances.
But unlike Ball’s usual protagonists who tend to behave like detectives or journalists—observing, recording and calculating—Lucia burns through conventional wisdom, bureaucracy, and other forms of social and institutional manipulation like, well, fire. Even in the book’s darkest moments, her self-assured moxie is powerfully uplifting. Lucia does not spare anyone’s feelings, she is not polite, she speaks her mind, and when the situation calls for it she is brave. May the same be said about each one of us.