Society is Rigged: A review of ‘How to Set a Fire and Why’ by Jesse Ball
originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books
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The book jacket design of Jesse Ball’s new novel, How to Set a Fire and Why, mimics an oversized matchbox and doubles as a kind of advertisement for arson. Bigger-than-life match tips peek from the box’s upper lid, which is left tantalizingly ajar, and bolded sans-serif titles float above the cartoonish image of a hand holding a lit match, together evoking an imaginary era that encompasses the world of the book’s singular narrator.
Lucia Stanton is a gifted yet wayward teenage girl raised on the outskirts of a nameless American city by three “dyed-in-the-wool anarchists.” When we first meet her, a mysterious incident has just passed, and her life is tragically upset: her father is dead, her mother is in a psychiatric ward, and she lives with her aunt in the garage outside the old family house. The specifics about this event — when it happened, what exactly transpired — are never fully revealed, a decision that underscores Lucia’s innocence in the wake of catastrophe and imbues the narrative with the feeling of parable.
Lucia is also between schools, following an incident in which she stabbed a star basketball player in the neck with a pencil. (In her defense, he disobeyed Lucia’s commands not to touch the Zippo lighter that used to belong to her father, a precious keepsake from her past life that she guards closely.) Just before Lucia begins her new semester at a high school called Whistler, she breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader: “You may be wondering why I am giving you this account. Well, I don’t know, really. A bunch of things happened, and I am just putting them in order. I’m doing it for myself. You are just a construction — you’re helping me to put things in order.”
While many kids spend their adolescence drifting among artifacts that may point them toward a more authentic life, Lucia tries to compile a new creed, and her first stroke of inspiration arrives during detention, when a pamphlet is secretly shuffled beneath her desk. The introduction states, “All over the United States, the lower class is fed up with being used.” Young people are awakening to the perils of “a system that demoralizes and brutalizes the majority of living people.” The implied consensus is that those “who own a great number of things […] who use the reins of power to manipulate others […] forfeit their right to be treated like a person.” According to the pamphlet, arson clubs are sprouting up at high schools across the country, and students are emboldened with the moral license to “burn the machinery of the rich,” destroying “[everything] that cannot be shared.”
The ideology obviously rings true to Lucia, whose internal monologue often exhibits an uncanny resemblance to the teachings of Karl Marx. When a fellow student asks if she will be trying out for any athletic teams, Lucia apathetically explains that sports are “part of the spectacle” that “the ruling class” uses to control people. She befriends the school janitors and security guards, partly because she hates “the way most people talk,” including her spoiled classmates whose “speech is just television speech. [They don’t] speak like a person with a real mind.”
No recent fires have occurred in the vicinity surrounding Lucia’s home, and although she remains skeptical about a so-called revolution that she cannot see or touch, she almost immediately begins plotting out her own strategy for overhauling the manifesto. Lucia wants her pamphlet to be less academic, focused on the symbolism and “joy” of fire as “the visible aspect of man’s wit and cunning,” equipping readers with a more practical breakdown of methods and tactics for igniting a fire of one’s own.
The enticing draw of socially conscious arson is countered by a more conventional path that opens up for Lucia during her time at Whistler. Rather than wallow away her periodic detentions, she uses the time to practice a kind of self-directed education, reading a collection of randomly obtained yet conveniently themed books. From the library shelves, she reads Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a story that mirrors what little we know about Lucia, a child who woke up one day to find her life instantly disfigured. From a church bin, she reads books by French author Alfred Jarry, a proto-Surrealist writer who coined the term “pataphysics” for the science of “imaginary solutions.” From a community library box, she finds a novel by John Dos Passos, in which protagonist Mac’s wayward journey through the American socialist movement of the early 1900s mirrors Lucia’s own adventurous and philosophical bent.
These readings culminate in a research paper, maybe the only academic assignment that Lucia completes at Whistler, which she pens during a single detention period and submits ahead of deadline. The piece, structured around a self-assigned topic, is an investigation into why peasants in late-imperial Russia started burning down their houses, and she deduces that “the burning is a result of the ignorance forced upon the peasants by their masters, and by the imposition of a religious framework that fails to prepare them to weather the calamity of their daily lives.”
Lucia’s teacher, Mr. Beekman, is deeply inspired by the sophistication of her essay, and he boasts about her newfound prowess to other faculty members and administrators, calling on Lucia to read passages aloud in front of the class. He is one of the few people to develop an authentic relationship with Lucia, and he learns enough about her to know that Whistler is not the best place for her to thrive. He suggests that she apply for admission into the Hausmann Program, an artsy-looking alternative school that allows time for students to rock climb and conduct math lessons while skeet shooting.
This tension surrounding the question of which future Lucia will pursue drives the novel’s overarching narrative: books or fire, creation or destruction, Hausmann Program or Arson Club, confronting conventional wisdom or burning down the infrastructure of society altogether. As Lucia teeters between these opposing paths, her internal monologue is both brooding and delightfully sardonic, cycling through countless rhetorical gags and biting observations that are often revelatory in their recognition of society’s endless absurdities.
Lucia’s first-person perspective is particularly obsessed with the logic and outcomes of various games and systems, a matter she studies so intensely that she regularly pauses her narration to expound upon how a particular scenario will inevitably play out. Walking around the empty warehouses in a dilapidated part of town, she joins a group of men who are playing the dice game “CEE-LO” and explains how the odds of winning are significantly better or worse depending on a person’s “turn” in the order of play. Lucia and her aunt routinely enjoy a game of cribbage in the evening, which involves a “giant board [that] makes it more fun when you win and less fun when you lose.”
Through Lucia’s eyes, the world is seemingly filled with intentionally rigged games, many of them responsible for the very functioning of society, like the card game President, a popular drinking game played by American college students that simultaneously expands the advantages of the winner and exacerbates the handicaps of the loser with each passing round. Satirical novelist Kurt Vonnegut once said that “high school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of,” and when Lucia observes the spectacle of Whistler’s hallways, she can’t help but dwell on the “wealthy and popular” and the unjust bubble that surrounds them: “whatever they do, they win.” Helping her aunt weather the financial difficulties of life after her parents’ tragedy, Lucia learns one major lesson: “If you try to own things, but you don’t have very many things, then you can get in trouble.”
The structure of the novel echoes Lucia’s fascination with the machinations of gameplay. Many sections juxtapose Lucia’s “PREDICTION” for how things might go followed by a more literal retelling of “WHAT HAPPENED.” The book’s most emotional passages combine this conceit with one of Lucia’s rare personal interactions, such as the cross-town, double-transfer, public transit trip she makes to see her mother; on the way there, Lucia fantasizes that her mother might finally wake up again to the world, only to face the depressing reality of her catatonic state and their stunted relationship. Eventually, we begin to see that Lucia’s obsession with predicting the future is a direct result of her calamitous past; her intense forecasting is a subconscious attempt to compensate for some perceived failure, a desperate longing to never again be so blindsided by something she might have anticipated.
Lucia’s unabridged treatise on the philosophy of gameplay and its social implications springs from an inherited framework — her family’s skepticism of modern society, wealth, and private ownership, which has left her with a narrative that she actively seeks out through new conduits like the Arson Club. Questions of fairness dominate the text and subtext of the narrative, and the dramatic tension underlying several key scenes flows from a disproportionate balance of power between two characters. Lucia’s ingrained sense of integrity inspires precision in the way she processes and describes the world, such as when she creates a text-based sketch of the lot surrounding her family’s old house and includes a long line of X’s to mark the edge of the diagram, insisting that “it’s important to let people know where the map ends.”
Capitalism-loving readers may gripe about Lucia’s failure to address the positive aspects of their system, which empowers each person to pursue his or her own path, raises the quality of life for so many around the world, and assuages barbaric motives enough that commercially intertwined nations choose not to enter into major armed conflicts with each other. But Lucia’s lefty admonishments also point to more fundamental questions about how the capitalist system unfolds. If the free market is explicitly structured as a game, isn’t it inevitably prone to manipulation by the winners? Can any kind of “game” with winners and losers ever be equally fair to all involved players?
Ball’s novel is, in this way, timely: the United States is in the midst of a tumultuous presidential election, fueled by an unprecedented wave of anti-establishment sentiment that vaulted a proto-fascist billionaire and self-professed democratic socialist onto the main political stage. The election addresses decades of legislation that have steadily inched us toward a winner-take-all economy. Inequality has become a topic of global importance, and the idea of a rigged system is at the core of every major campaign promise that is resonating with voters, decrying as corrupt and broken all of our current modes of politics, business, trade, and national security.
Lucia’s own brand of skepticism leads her to the biggest issues about the constitution of society: how do people decide what is good or bad or appropriate, and how do those differences change over time? Lucia likes to start these hazy conversations with random people on public transit, like when she asks one bus passenger about poison: “many things are poisonous, but only some of them are poisons,” and so “who gets to decide that cutoff point?” At Whistler, when a fellow classmate and arsonist shows her a video of Pakistani soldiers beating a cow to death, she thinks about “how large the world is,” how the same thing happens in the United States, except the dead cows are repurposed into “neat cardboard packaging with tasty sauces.”
The use of Whistler as a central setting for the book enables these questions about society to play out in classrooms and principal’s offices and exam centers and family living rooms after school. Everyone has an idea about how exactly one should “better” themselves, and Lucia deplores the entire high school system as a “vulgar facsimile of something useful […] one that does no good,” like “a beehive that doesn’t make honey.” She stands by the values of her aunt, who taught her that “it’s not [your] job to improve anybody.”
Such humility is an important correction to overzealous tendencies, but it can also devolve into an existential kind of dread. Lucia’s childhood is filled with reckless memories, like the time her mom stole a truck full of Christmas trees from a diner parking lot and drove it into a ditch, Lucia and her father laughing from the back seat. Always lingering in the peripheries of Lucia’s headspace are reminders of our inherent mortality, the recognition that “we’re just not permanent at all, not the way we want to be.” Late at night, she likes to escape to laundromats and cemeteries, “places where people go when they don’t know anyone.” Pessimism sweeps over her and she perceives that, “[e]verything is falling apart all the time.”
Still, Lucia is not consigned to defeatism: she believes that not only can the world change, but she might know a way forward. She is writing her own pamphlet — titled “HOW TO START A FIRE AND WHY” — that will incite people to rebel against the systems that contain them. Her manifesto will empower new converts with tactics for starting fires of their own, enabling them to form a new class, “the class of those who subsist gladly and meagerly.”
“This is just a beginning,” Lucia says to herself in the final pages of the novel, as she inches closer toward one of the two paths before her, just before committing the decisive act. She repeats, “I am just beginning a long process […] I can’t be the only one. There must be thousands like me.”