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How to Set a Fire and Why
By Jesse Ball
Pantheon, 2016. 304 pages
Lucia Stanton is a hoodie-hidden teenager in a bombed out and existential universe, or as close to oneas Jessie Ball can concoct from the project wilds of an imagined American city. Her father is dead, her mentally ill mother lives in a home, and she lives with her penniless aunt. It's a perfectly fringe life. So what to do to make sense of such a senseless existence? Outcast Lucia chooses arson as Black Block-style lip service to anti-capitalism ("We must convince the wealthy that they cannot have more than they need.") Arson is mellifluent affirmation ("Arson, arson — how it rolls from the tongue!") Arson is education. "Each fire is a small thing. I am just beginning a long process. I am coming into a kind of inheritance."
But Ball wrestles with his liquorice-loving Lucia. On the one hand she's down and out, on the other she's shrewd and brilliant, an adult mind in the body of a terrorist teen. It's often unclear whether Lucia is a Holden Caulfield poster child for adolescent alienation or a metaphor for some larger and more insidious urban ruin. She's a "Fight Club" character without a persuasive supporting cast. Her purpose is no purpose, which lighting things up illuminates.
This is a quietly unsettling story without a hint of sentiment. It makes futility into an accomplishment, thus defeating the conventional concept of life promise. After setting her final fire, Lucia sees herself as absconding with a friend "to some corner of the earth where we can survive what we are, what we've done, what's been done to us," a place she's convinced will "probably be … a lot like this one." Teenage wasteland is grim indeed.
Reviewed by Book Staff