October 2014

Vanessa Willoughby


The Arsonist's Song Has Nothing to Do with Fire by Allison Titus

How do broken, weathered, lonely people find each other? The Arsonist's Song Has Nothing to Do with Fire is a sharp novel written in prose poetry that instead of sparking a raging wildfire, its narrative ignites a highly controlled, searing bonfire. The main protagonists, Vivian, Ronny, and The Doctor, are three outcasts that have little in common. The only thing that they share is a conscious rejection of society.

Vivian Foster is a fragile nomad, committing to a life of endless housesitting gigs in order to escape the black hole insanity of her ailing mother. Her twin brother, Seth, has continued the family legacy and joined the circus circuit. After he chose to become mute, it seemed only natural that he would embark on a new career as a mime. Ronny Stoger is a former arsonist trapped in the banality of a forgettable small town, forever chained to the baggage of his fire-hungry past. He befriends Vivian, who is housesitting for his neighbors. His gestures of friendship are awkward yet tender; Ronny can't resist Vivian's air of mystery. Viewed as a mad scientist who is attempting to resurrect Frankenstein, the purposefully nameless Doctor is determined to carry out his passion project: attaching a set of working, functional wings to the human body. These three characters are carved from very different hardships but their status as the town pariahs provides an unforeseen bond.

Some authors may find it impossible to craft a complete story that relies on the swift, crisp exhibition of visceral images rather than labored exposition. Titus is able to weave three opposing paths together into prose that dances and refuses to remain stagnant. She understands the power of meticulous sentences that bend the atmosphere and tone of each scene. The novel is bookmarked by Death, namely the unyielding finality of human mortality. The opening sentence in the first chapter simultaneously tells the reader of Vivian's fate and the essence of her character. Her obsession with imagining worst case death scenarios is a deciding factor in her downfall. The relationship between Vivian and Ronny is not portrayed as sexual or overtly romantic. They exist on a plane of estranged sibling camaraderie and pained desperation. Vivian needs a strong distraction from her obsession with Death and Ronny needs a distraction from his failures and his lingering adoration of fire. The Doctor is added into the mix when Ronny becomes a janitor at the local hospital. The Doctor's bullheaded resolve and morbid intellect mold him into the Devil to Ronny's Faust. He lives and breathes for this experiment, charging forward without regard to hospital regulations, his reputation, or as we later find out, the feelings of friends and lovers.

In addition to the aforementioned discussions of Death and the multiple ways to stave off one's existential passing before the physical event, the narrative contemplates what it means to take up literal and figurative space. Titus writes of a band of the walking invisible, a small group of people who move about the world as though it were comprised of all sharp edges. The Doctor is an extreme manifestation of competitive ego and arrogance. He wants to take up space in the history books; he wants the weight of his intellectual prowess to be acknowledged and respected. He is a person most at home in the role of a detached puppetmaster. He finds in Ronny the perfect test subject. Ronny finds it hard to even want to take up space, as his mind is crowded with memories of Pete, his late brother, and the gaping wound of his absence.

Titus uses language in a way that borrows the mechanics of poetry, mindful of spacing, short, staccato sentences, repetition, and rhythm. It's not always the dialogue that reveals the most telling observations but the pieces around it: the shift in a character's body, the extended pauses, sometimes even the lack of response.

When Vivian's mother unexpectedly dies, she must travel from North Carolina to Nebraska to handle the funeral affairs. Her relationship with Ronny becomes strained, ensuring a disastrous road trip. Ronny feels guilty that he cannot fix Vivian but seems unaware that part of her doesn't want to be fixed. The car ride preys on the different ways Vivian and Ronny deal with grief and death. The ties that initially bound them together start to disintegrate.

Perhaps one could say that if Ronny had never agreed to help the Doctor with his experiments, Ronny would have given Vivian the peace of mind she craved. Perhaps one could speculate that if Ronny had never met the Doctor, he would have achieved greatness. With a history of burning instead of cleansing, I would have to say that Ronny was destined for an unhappy ending.

The final act in the book brings to mind the story of Icarus. Instead of permanent freedom, each character succombs to the consequences of the Doctor's hubris. Although Titus does not leave the characters entirely hopeless, their worlds are colder, shrunk to fish tank living. They have left behind the monotony of their previous lives for the same existence dressed in a different disguise. Titus has full command of her readers from the first chapter and does not let go until all the air has been knocked out of your lungs.

The Arsonist's Song Has Nothing to Do with Fire by Allison Titus
Etruscan Press
ISBN: 978-0988692251
244 pages