Do you know who you are? A review of 'How to Set a Fire and Why' by Jesse Ball

Knopf Doubleday/Pantheon

Knopf Doubleday/Pantheon

Jesse Ball’s follow-up to 2015’s A Cure for Suicide continues to toy with the difficulties surrounding the formation of one’s identity within the boundaries of modern existentialism. In How to Set a Fire and Why, Ball revisits this theme, adding sharp dialogue and characters who continue to question the reasons behind human action, the existence of individualism and free will, and the implications that these have on the shaping of one’s self.

Lucia Stanton has lived through the unimaginable. After the mysterious murder of her father, which then causes her mother’s mental deterioration, she begins to question where she fits in a world that has so deeply altered who she thought that she was, and what she had planned for her future.

Raised by parents who encouraged Lucia to question the idea of private ownership, property, capitalism, and the importance (or, unimportance) of wealth, she is determined to show her disdain for and overt rejection of societal norms, assuring herself that she will never break her most important self-imposed rule—to never become a robot.

Though Lucia is extremely intelligent and is consistently praised for her academic accomplishments (when she bothers to go to school at all) she is uninterested in pursuing higher education, does not respect those who are traditionally thought of as her superiors (teachers, elders), and purposely disregards the rules that they, and democratic, capitalist society have set for her.

How to Set a Fire and Why portrays secular antidisestablishmentarianism through fiction in such a profound way that has not been done since Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Ball’s novel successfully explores the dichotomizing question—can we, as humans, accept a world devoid of purpose and meaning, or do we have to assign categories to all that exists? For Lucia, the answer is clear; she must consistently refuse to follow the path that others have created for her, and instead, seek to burn—figuratively and literally—down what is, in her opinion, holding society back from its true potential. How to Set a Fire and Why begs the question: Who will you be, when you aren’t what everyone thought you were?