The Arsonist’s Song Has Nothing To Do With Fire by Allison Titus. Etruscan Press, $15.
Reviewed by Brynne Rebele-Henry
Alison Titus’s devastating debut novel The Arsonist’s Song Has Nothing To Do With Fire is a harshly illuminated lament: the prose forms a death chant for life itself. The novel emerges as a gorgeous planet of melancholy, its language spiraling in deep space, as its three protagonists, haunted by loss, become satellites of isolation in their orbits of town and home and body. Their collective orbit begins in a small stretch of town illuminated by the flash of Titus’s lyrical prose. Titus gathers her words like stones that she spreads out on a riverbank. Sometimes the words roll like a new, extra-terrestrial language:
A skirt of flame, smoke plumes petticoating wide, roaming, layer after layer of fire trembling the dark forest, a floating furnace that illuminated the dead pinetops then felled them in swift collapse. The smoke coarsened room, coarsened lung, and mapped over the dwindling hours with embers and ash. … Morning was an ugly country no one dared to name.
The novel’s central character, Vivian Foster, is a neurotic house sitter who has a ritual in which she tries to find the names closest to hers in newspaper obituaries every morning. In an attempt to divine the day and method of her death, she tallies the letters in the names to score points, “the fewer points the better.” She lives in a premature funeral with no guests, “submitting to the idea of death in all its terrible versions,” and she writes obituaries for herself as well:
Much later Vivian stared at the guest room ceiling, thinking about it. If she died in this city, it would be from drowning. ... She closed her eyes, held her breath and tried to imagine it. The pitch black, the thick water that pulled through her clothes, pummeled her arms her legs her face and burned sharp as it flooded her nose, mouth, throat, lungs—she’d choke hard before blacking out, which she knew would be painful but she wasn’t sure how, exactly…
After moving to a small town to watch the house for a woman whose husband has disappeared, Vivian meets Ronny, an arsonist, and they become romantically involved. Ronny takes a job as a janitor at a hospital, where he meets a renowned plastic surgeon trying to build the first human wings. The surgeon asks Ronny to serve as his test subject, but before Ronny can decide, Vivian’s mother dies, so they drive to Nebraska together. The trip is a disaster from the outset, but Titus’s prose is a stunning incantation:
The sky, splayed so keenly white and threshed to an invisible zenith, deleted every minor thing: the field assembled with its vast epiphany of barren land; a couple trees; a crow; the car with Ronny and Vivian in it. Hard to tell, way out, what was sky and what wasn’t, how it settled over the world out there as an uninterrupted sheet of clabbered white.
She could almost forget she had a brother, since they hadn’t been in touch for years. He was obscured, he was part time, he was in hiding. He was a mime. He was no forwarding address/no longer at this address/undeliverable. He was a postcard back in March that said I am an exhibit at the state fair. They were twins, but that didn’t mean much that Vivian could vouch for. They weren’t psychically connected. Vivian and Seth weren’t aligned in some intrinsic, magical twin way and never had been.