When I first met Julia Dixon Evans, I was struck by her dedication and commitment to her craft. Having worked with her as both as a writer and an editor (for States of Terror Vol.1 and The Radvocate magazine, respectively), she is a rare combination of talent, persistence and creativity. She has organized vast efforts around writing and her community, which has led to some of her excellent work to be featured on countless websites and publications. She has helped helm the literary horror journal Black Candies with Ryan Bradford, which started small and has grown into a vast force of talent to be reckoned with. In addition to her duties with the literary non-profit So Say We All and as the mother of two young children, she has created the stunning new novel How to Set Yourself on Fire. Even though this is decidedly not a horror novel, Evans still uses the masterful dramatic underpinnings I have seen in her previous work which lend the story a similarly thrilling tone. The atmosphere taut with tension, secrets and lies, How to Set Yourself on Fire exudes the quiet menace of an explosion waiting to happen, a fantastic debut charged with the static of a Santa Ana wind.
Sheila’s experience is that of a life raft, drifting aimlessly between meaningless temp jobs while her obsessions fuel her daily purpose. From one of these former jobs, she keeps a found letter as a totem, a heartfelt letter from a UPS driver to an unknown woman. Memorizing the letter, tracking down the man but never approaching him, handling it until the page is soft and worn – these are the hallmarks of her behavior. She languishes in a sunbaked courtyard of a San Diego suburb, absent-mindedly listening to the skype calls between her neighbor Vinnie and his estranged wife. PBS plays in the background, the intellectual yet toothless programming providing a perfect soundscape to while the warm days away. A dirty teacup, partially filled with blood, sits remembered but undisturbed by the bed. In Sheila’s life, Evans has captured a quintessential Southern California reality. The ennui of a place people love to visit for a holiday, while most of the residents remain stuck in a holding pattern, a beautiful purgatory where the past is too easily forgotten, trampled underfoot like fallen Jacaranda petals. Sheila is about to find herself in one of these situations, where she must fight to keep the memory of the past from being obliterated by the jasmine-scented haze of the present.
Sheila’s grandmother, Rosamond, has just died. Her family unit isn’t as tightly knit as others, but her grief stems from the place of not knowing Rosamond that well – her grandmother’s quiet nature and later, a degenerative disease have blown out most chances for connection between the two. Rosamond did, however, allude to an old shoebox that she wants Sheila to have, but the shoebox is swooped up by Sheila’s mother before she has a chance. Sheila and her mom already have a strained relationship (demonstrated through little affects like answering “It’s Mom” over the phone when Sheila has already addressed her as such) and adds to it with the petty indignity of switching the funeral flowers from her grandmother’s choice (sunflowers) to tulips (from Rosamond’s wedding bouquet, a marriage alluded to as joyless). Proclaiming “Fuck the tulips”, Sheila steals back the shoebox from her mother’s house and starts a journey of discovery about her grandmother through the letters it contains – or rather, an insight into the author of the letters, Rosamond’s former neighbor, Harold Carr.
Harold’s language in the letters is a relic even in his own time, their flowery affectations having more in common with Victorian flourish than mid-century Americana. He makes clear his passionate obsession with Rosamond, a trait that Sheila clearly identifies with, which becomes the tipping point that starts her down the path of the mystery of their dynamic. “(Harold) may be an adulterer, or at least a hopeful adulterer, but he is so pure in heart,” Sheila tells herself. “He isn’t the one hanging by a thread. I imagine being Rosamond. I imagine being the same mess I am now, but all vintage, nineteen fifties style. I imagine hanging by a thread, fifties style.” Both aspects fascinate her – Harold’s extreme vulnerability and Rosamond’s unknown responses, whether they reflect an untapped reservoir of emotion that she never presented to her family, a clue to a personality left quiet.
This occurs as a drama of the present is also unfolding. Vinnie’s ex-wife has died in an accident, and his tween daughter Torrey arrives to live with him. Surprisingly, Sheila and Torrey end up bonding over the letters, and the pre-teen encourages her to keep investigating what happened to Harold & Rosamond to counteract her fleeting focus. Little does Torrey know that Sheila has also begun an affair – with her father, whose flaws she has overlooked to form their own bond.
How to Set Yourself on Fire is literary fiction with a bite – it has layered characters, unique language, and a gripping storyline. But more so than the book, what I enjoyed was seeing how far Julia’s writing has come since I met her. She’s a perfectionist when it comes to her work, and this book is proof of that: it’s lean and uses detail as a seasoning rather than a crutch. It has broad appeal in the best possible sense – with taut storytelling, mysterious circumstances and compelling characters, it’s easy to fall in love with it. The thing that I enjoyed most about How to Set Yourself on Fire is that such a phenomenal work will be Julia’s introduction to the rest of the world, who will get to see the talented person that I have known her to be. It is the start of a literary career that will be nothing short of incendiary.
How to Set Yourself on Fire
by Julia Dixon Evans
Dzanc Books; 312 p.