Jesse Ball is one of the novelists working at the moment who is really pushing the art form in interesting directions. His previous novel, A Cure for Suicide, was equally entrancing. However, the whole ambiguity-as-climax technique is getting a little tired, though it is nowhere near as on the nose as the ending of Inception, for example. Ambiguity in literature gives life and tension to the work, but to repeatedly structure a story to arrive at that particular conclusion is to run the risk of M. Night Shyamalan-ing oneself.
And it’s not just Ball’s style that seems familiar. At one point about a third of the way through, How to Set a Fire and Why really started to feel (a lot) like The Catcher in the Rye updated for the twenty-first century. The main character, Lucia Stanton, started sounding a lot like Holden Caulfield. Intelligent, yet disaffected, and at that particularly teenage stage of viewing morality in terms of high contrast. Both are full of moral pronouncements tailored to scenarios far more specific than actually encountered.
Like Holden, Lucia is also going through this stage of maturation without guidance and direction. This lack of direction obscures their foresight leaving them at the mercy of impulse, particularly when the impulses are simply too far removed from the theoretical scenarios for them to rely upon their own inchoate moral sensibility.
Ball is a talented and inventive writer who is (gently) pushing narrative boundaries and providing us with some amazing sentences. Ball’s style tends to the dreamlike anyways, which may be painting him into a corner as far as the search for an authentic ending is concerned. A climax which is too concrete might just disrupt the whole delicate house of cards that he has constructed. Both novels that were mentioned are delightful and invigorating reads that, despite themselves, don’t seem to satisfy. How to Set a Fire and Why is a blistering, yet ultimately ephemeral, read.