CUTBANK REVIEWS: How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball

How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball  (2016)

Review by Bryn Agnew

Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why is a novel of loss and destructive redemption. Told with his narrator’s searing wit, How to Set a Fire and Why is both a work of fiction and a timely treatise on injustice and resistance.

Ball’s teenage narrator, Lucia Stanton, deservingly takes her place among fiction’s most captivating and radical characters. Reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, Lucia is introduced to readers as she is being kicked out of her most recent high school for an incident involving a pencil and the neck of the town’s young basketball darling. Her father dead, her mother in a mental institution, and her impoverished guardian aunt barely scraping by, Lucia has seemingly lost everything. Yet driven by a will to tell the important truths, she becomes involved with a secret arson club and sets out to burn down representations of hypocrisy and injustice.

Fragmented into short chapters, the novel’s prose is accessible, inviting, heartfelt, and honest. The language proves that simplicity, clarity, and subtlety carry great power when each paragraph, sentence, and word build to the totality of the author’s intent. Lucia and Ball present us with clear and painful truths, but also talismans to cling to. In a pamphlet on arson, Lucia writes, “The world is ludicrous. It is famished. It is greedy and adulterous. It is a wild place we inhabit, surely you agree? Well, then we shall have to try to make some sense of it. That is part of the reason why I have made this pamphlet. It is a kind of grip that you can have on the world.  You can hold on to this, and find your way forward. That’s what I’m promising you.”

In many ways, How to Set a Fire and Why seeks to prepare all of us for the fires we must set—the work we must do. The novel begs our minds and hearts to see the truth and burn away the cruelty and greed of our world. Lucia tells us, “Do not be in a hurry. Remember—there is all of your life prior to the great fire you will set, and all of your life thereafter. That transition will require grace, thoroughness, and a deep compassion that stiffens into an unbreakable resolve. If it takes you some years to become the person who can burn a building, so be it. Carry your matches in your pocket, look at the faces of those who surround you in the crowd. Are we not all the same? Do we not all strive to simply have enough?”


Jesse Ball (1978–) was born in New York and is the author of fourteen books, including The Curfew, The Way Through Doors, Samedi the Deafness, Silence Once Begun, A Cure for Suicide, and How to Set a Fire and Why. His works have been published to acclaim in many parts of the world and translated into more than a dozen languages. He is on the faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, won the 2008 Paris Review Plimpton Prize, was long-listed for the National Book Award, and has been a fellow of the NEA, Creative Capital, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Bryn Agnew is an MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of Montana and a bookseller at Missoula's Fact & Fiction. His stories and essays have appeared in Mid-American Review and North Texas Review. He received an MA and BA in creative writing from the University of North Texas. 


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