blackbirdonline journalFall 2014  Vol. 13 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

Review | The Arsonist’s Song Has Nothing to Do with Fire, by Allison Titus
Etruscan Press, 2014

spacer The Arsonist's Song Has Nothing to Do with Fire

Allison Titus’s debut novel takes place in a bleak, nameless Midwestern Gothic terrain, reminiscent of the icy, barren farmscapes and decaying outposts that figure in many of the poems in her 2010 collection Sum of Every Lost Ship (Cleveland State University Poetry Center); that collection’s speakers move through a world in which “Eaves of ice // crowd the bucket of rotted apples” and “The afternoon sky steadies // itself against black wires, tallies / its aluminum cans.” Lacking in domestic stability but shored up by a sort of somnambulist resolve, the subjects of Sum of Every Lost Ship conceive of grandiose plans to combat the despair imposed on them by their surroundings. “What we need // is a schooner,” the speaker of “Barter, Fasten” posits; cryptic and haunting, these utterances are the stuff of a plainspoken Rust Belt mythology, rooted in urgent hopes of rescue or redemption: “What we need // is a surefire way to strap the bed / onto the trembling boat.”

“Obsessive Compulsive,” a poem in Sum of Every Lost Ship, features a speaker who declares, “Because I am in love with you // I imagine your dying. // This is how I keep you safe,” a compulsion shared with the young drifter Vivian, perhaps the most central character in The Arsonist’s Song Has Nothing to Do with Fire, who imagines various possible deaths for herself woven from details she reads in the obituary page each day. In the short chapters which punctuate The Arsonist’s Song, Vivian sees a panoply of possible demises: “an elevator collapsed on its cable at the fifty-third floor; or the train derailed; or the gas pump, struck by lightning, went up in flames.”

At the opening of the novel, Vivian, “convinced a freak accident would befall her eventually,” has found herself unable to put down roots anywhere, doomed to repeat the aimless pilgrimage that sent her mother, raised by traveling carnies, across the country and back again, dragging Vivian and her brother through a series of squats. In the looming face of “some pathetic and arbitrary devastation,” Vivian subsists on the meager perks of a perennial house sitter, feigning domesticity and pilfering food from her hosts’ refrigerators and pantries. Any chance at stability or continuity evaporates in the face of Vivian’s obsession with death: “She had to practice dying, and practice dying, and remain vigilant by practice-dying. And so on.”

These short hypothetical chapters assume the form of a stylized eulogy. Accompanied by dates, each one presents a different possible demise with its own unique tone and texture, an irregular sequence of tiny, intricate narratives: “The wafers were arranged like pocketknives on the heirloom doily. . . . Little did Viv know the cakes were laced with arsenic,” reads one. In another which announces, “Vivian Merritt Foster drowned in Good Hope Lake,” we get the following enigmatic detail, as delicious as it is impossible: “She appears to have struggled to pen a letter to dry land in her last minutes, though no evidence thereof remains.” In these passages and elsewhere, Titus displays a poet’s knack for striking associative and temporal leaps, eschewing novelistic standards of exposition and pacing, deftly incorporating lyric effects such as caesura and ellipsis mid-paragraph; at times, in her boldest and most lyrical moments, Titus is capable of bursting into a character’s stream of consciousness with the power and density of a prose-poem:

Shalt such fever ever last; what lonesome horizon to ignite. Done with twilights that brim with thrushes. Done with cold calls. Done with formalities. Done with potlucks . . . . Done with illustrated guides. Out on the frozen Bodden river, the iceboat skims the clean white scale of erasure: the absence of horizon: the expanse. There is white, and there is white so white it is blue.

Sandra Beasley, in her review of Sum of Every Lost Ship in Blackbird v9n2, suggested that Titus might be categorized an “elliptical poet,” in an allusion to the poet and critic Stephen Burt’s use of this term to denote those who “treat voice and self and identity neither as givens nor as illusions, but as problems, phenomena, [that] poems can explore and limn.” This categorization seems apt, considering Sum of Every Lost Ship’s range of voice and address, from a sequence titled “Instructions from the Narwhal,” drawn from an earlier chapbook of the same title and including that creature’s lyrical ruminations on such topics as “How to harvest ice” and “How to ruin the ending,” to another sequence purporting to be “From the Lost Diary of Anna Anderson,” inspired by the biography of the real-life Anderson, who claimed to be the escaped Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanova of Russia until her death in 1984.

Titus’s collection finds great success in its engagement with all manner of speakers and subjects, and the three focal characters of The Arsonist’s Song—Vivian, her neighbor-turned-lover Ronny, and the sinister Doctor who invites Ronny to become a part of a top secret experiment at the hospital where both work—seem themselves to defy the constraints of realistic “givens” or the orderly “illusions” found in most literary fiction. Titus’s characters are most engrossing when they appear alone in scene, each defined by their unique history and obsessions, untroubled by the demands other characters or forces make of them.

Vivian fixates on her mother’s descent into mental illness and isolation, which contributed to the estrangement between Vivian and her brother Seth and seems a key factor in Vivian’s choice of what she calls her “profession.” Profoundly impacted by these twin absences, Vivian has chosen a life which itself depends on other absences: “If no one ever left,” Vivian muses, “she’d have no place to go, and she knew what to expect from these temp arrangements—hot water, a decent couch, someone else’s weather and fingerprints; someone else’s dust.” Indeed, the house-sitting job Vivian starts at the beginning of the novel is predicated by the mysterious disappearance of a scientist, Paul, whose wife goes to Florida to supervise the investigation and take refuge with relatives, leaving Vivian to collect mail and water the plants. Rootless in life except for the houses she watches, Vivian lacks the strength of identity necessary to expect even the simplest considerations of those around her:

Really, what it came down to was the peculiar deficiency of not understanding how to be known by anyone. She didn’t want to give too much away. . . . How could a person stand to always be seen desiring, and taking. Not just food, either—anything coveted. To Viv, every kind of hunger felt vulgar, and that was an embarrassing kind of shame.

Ronny, the novel’s eponymous arsonist, is similarly shattered by loss, the tragic death of his older brother Pete, which may or may not have triggered Ronny’s destructive impulses and precipitated the disintegration of the rest of the family. Recently out of jail and left alone with his grief-stricken, incapacitated father when his mother flees the household, Ronny feels overwhelmed by an absence of purpose or direction, an absence which goes unnoticed by his near-catatonic father: “Now Ronny was back, and they were down to two again, and two, basically, meet and divide. Nothing to keep them from the smallness of themselves.” The claustrophobia and suffocating despair of Ronny’s home life find a natural-seeming (if perhaps too-tidy) correlation to his criminal temptations: “Ronny smoked as he walked, and pictured every house they passed going up in flames, thinking how you could see every second ending if it was set on fire.”

While Ronny and Vivian possess more or less realistic-seeming psychologies, the novel’s other main character, the Doctor, exists more in the realm of Burt’s “phenomena” to be limned. He enters the novel when Ronny, through a friend of his father, secures a custodial job at the local hospital. In a turn of events which both corroborates the Doctor’s fatalistic view of the world and undermines the fragile realism of the novel’s opening chapters, Ronny becomes the Doctor’s apprentice in a mysterious research project which may or may not connect to the missing Paul. The scope of this project emerges in language closely linked with the Doctor’s grandiose sense of both himself and the research as visionary, wide-reaching in its implications for humanity:

“It was elementary; actually, it was practical. . . . [T]here was more to do. . . . [T]hey were long past the time, long overdue, for invention. . . . [T]he unprecedented adaptations the human form might withstand, to think of it: the new body, the super-human body—that was the work of the extraordinary.”

Several pages of narration in the Doctor’s theatrical circumlocution and pseudoscientific bluster finally arrive at the disclosure of the true nature of the project: the Doctor seeks to design and test a radical new design for wings to be surgically grafted onto the human frame—specifically, Ronny’s—ushering in a new era of possibility, “a re-envisioning of the human condition.” The character of the Doctor, with his hazy background, ambiguous motives and ornate, antiquated forms of address, seems lifted out of a German Expressionist film, an interesting decision which proves somewhat discordant when the Doctor encounters resistance to his project from hospital authorities, the mundane facts of official censures and meetings with the Board, as well as from Ronny, whose voice and impressions come from the same grittily realistic (if somewhat poetically charged) world as Vivian. The result of this discord is that the reader accepts the idea of human flight as a charged and resonant symbol in the novel—and indeed, the source of some of Titus’s most arresting images—but at the cost of the vital illusion that the more grounded moments of the narrative still seem aimed at perpetuating.

The story of Icarus comprises yet another present absence here, bleeding through Titus’s lines and enriching the reader’s sense of the questions she poses: Which of these three main characters is guilty of the most hubris, and which of them has the farthest to fall?

“After everything, there could be only one possible outcome,” a character reflects late in The Arsonist’s Song. The true mark of Titus’s accomplishment is that the novel’s breathless conclusion has it both ways, surprising the reader at the same time as conveying the sense that an inevitable cycle has been completed. Afterward the reader may see Titus as an authorial incarnation of the Doctor, conducting a sort of symbolic exercise, moving her test subjects through a series of trials, inviting us to submit to her persuasive arguments; for isn’t it perfectly logical, Titus seems to ask, that in every fever dream of flight is also embedded our secret desire to fall?  end  

Allison Titus is the author of two books of poems: The True Book of Animal Homes (forthcoming from Saturnalia Press in 2017) and Sum of Every Lost Ship (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010). The Arsonist’s Song Has Nothing to Do with Fire (Etruscan Press, 2014) is her first novel.  Her chapbook, Instructions from the Narwhal (Bateau Press, 2007), won the BOOM Chapbook Prize. Her work has been published in Blackbird, Boston Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, and Denver Quarterly, among others. She was the recipient of a 2011 literature fellowship in creative writing from the National Endowment for the Arts. Titus is coeditor of the poetry journal Handsome.

return to top