July 7, 2016
Melville House Intern Book Club: Not on Fire, But Burning by Greg Hrbek
by Melville House Interns
We Melville interns know it’s already halfway through summer, and we’re finally ready to admit something: we haven’t exactly read every title on the Melville back list. But the good news is… it’s only halfway through summer! So, we’d like to announce our weekly book club, where the four of us—Jessica, Carly, Hannah, and Bailey—will be chatting about the books we read and the off-topic things they make us think about.
For this week, we read Not On Fire, But Burning by Greg Hrbek (a novel we published last year and will bring out in paperback this fall), which tells the story of a future America that, after a mysterious explosion on 8/11, herds its Muslim citizens into internment camps.
(SPOILER ALERT: We tried our best to avoid it, but we may give away some plot points in the discussion.)
Jessica: So…what’d y’all think about Not On Fire, But Burning?
Hannah: I loved this book! I admit I got a bit lost sometimes in the switches between the plot and some of the more conceptual stuff, but honestly I have a weak spot for really well-done, intelligent-but-realistic kids.
Bailey: Mmm yeah, I feel like what really drew me in was my love/hate/pity for both Dorian and Karim, because they’re clearly smart but also under such tremendously shitty situations and moral manipulation.
Jessica: Yeah definitely—they’re so similar outside of that, too.
Carly: I was seriously on the edge of my seat the whole time. I couldn’t believe the plot I was reading, in a way.
Jessica: What do you mean?
Carly: Like “omg omg omg no way, this can’t be happening” when the story was at its most intense, you know?
Hannah: And literally, too. Because so much of it happened-but-didn’t-happen and still affects the characters.
Jessica: Yeah and it was also awesome how it felt so fast-paced without seeming… mindless? I seriously came home and read it straight through, and it didn’t make me feel dumb and bad the way watching four hours of Bob’s Burgers does. It was so surreal, though, because so soon after we finished, the Brexit decision happened.
Hannah: Yes! True!
Jessica: And a lot of the conversations surrounding that, the slew of articles about islamophobia and xenophobia, seriously felt like they’d dropped straight out of the book.
Carly: I think that’s what made it really chilling to read. Just the sheer extremism of it all, with that mirror held up to our society right now.
Bailey: Yeah, I felt like it scared me and hurt in a way that not all books do, where when things started to really go wrong in the last few sections, I was in it, you know? And I think that’s partially a result of good writing and partially a result of topical writing.
Hannah: Honestly, the racism/xenophobia in the book wasn’t shocking for me because it sounded kind of exactly like what Muslim and Middle Eastern families deal with in contemporary white suburbia. Or at the very least, it looked and sounded a lot like what went on in my very white suburban Ohio neighborhood with my friend’s family… minus the violent extremist group!
Jessica: Yeah I totally agree, like with the anti-Muslim rhetoric from Trump? We’re not so far from Hrbek’s world. It’s terrifying.
Hannah: Yep, for sure.
Bailey: I think it’s interesting that we don’t see that in the book. Like, we don’t see the political processes that allowed things to get this bad, just the effects and how unstable society has become.
Jessica: Yeah, I think that was a smart decision. It makes it so much more applicable to like any situation beyond post-9/11 America.
Jessica: Have any of you ever read The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid? Because I thought about that book a lot. It’s essentially this dinner conversation between a Pakistani and an American shortly after 9/11 and, throughout, there’s this hinted sense of violence, though it’s never clear from which side. And I think that’s such a powerful ambiguity when talking about race and fear—which we definitely also see in Hrbek’s novel.
Hannah: Oooh I need to read that.
Carly: I need to have dinner with that book.
Jessica: I highly encourage it. It’s written like Camus’s The Fall, and takes like three hours to read—as if you really were having a conversation over a meal. But anyhow, yeah, I wonder how influenced Hrbek was by Hamid.
Carly: If I had to guess, I’m sure Hrbek was really familiar with post-9/11 fiction before writing Not On Fire.
Bailey: I really wonder who inspired him in general. Because this book, in form, is like nothing I’ve ever read.
Jessica: Hm, maybe like… David Mitchell and Christopher Nolan? Like them plus Hamid.
Bailey: I could very much see that.
Jessica: Can’t you just see Nolan making this into a movie?
Hannah and Bailey: Yes!
Hannah: David Mitchell is an awesome guess. I wouldn’t have thought of him, but it makes complete sense.
Carly: I feel like a movie adaptation would be so… intense.
Hannah: The ultimate plot ambiguity especially, I would love to have that.
Jessica: Only if the movie poster is our cover art though—it’s so good! Two guys stopped me on the subway to ask what book I was reading.
Carly: Yaaaas cover art!!
Bailey: I don’t know if I could even watch the ending to a movie version of this, it was enough to handle in print form… oof.
Jessica: Like, emotionally?
Bailey: Yes for sure. Also I feel like it’s just such a universal anxiety, not just the terrorism but the visceral attack, biological or bomb or what have you. I felt pretty affected by the fallout of the final attack, and Karim’s fate too.
Carly: I agree, Bailey—I couldn’t watch the ending I don’t think.
Jessica: Hmm. It’s interesting, though. 9/11 was the first terrorist attack to be globally witnessed because of the increased televization of shit. But do you think a fictionalized version of it would be harder?
Bailey: I feel like what this book does is get into the people, not just the tower falling or the plane hitting (metaphorically speaking, for this book) but the lives, lives of CHILDREN, that are hurt and molded and forced into terrible action. So in that sense I feel like the fictional exploration is even tougher.
Jessica: Oh yeah that’s a good point. Hmm… but have there been a lot of movies about 9/11? Do they always feel like that?
Hannah: The Rob Pattinson thing! Ha! My bad, the awful rom-com came first to mind.
Jessica: Oh god wait, Bailey you’re so right. The film version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close involved kids and 9/11 and it was pretty brutal.
Hannah: Still need to read that dammit.
Bailey: Same, it’s on my list too!
Jessica: Not to sound cliché, but the book is so much better. The movie was like made to destroy you, which I found annoying.
Bailey: I think that’s what this book does so cleverly, it doesn’t just destroy you (though it’s capable of that too) but it makes you think. Hard.
Carly: Books that ask tough questions *snaps*.
Jessica: YES I completely agree with you, there’s something that feels cheap in a novel when it relies solely on its touchy subject matter to provoke an emotional response, without being good in craft too.
Hannah: Yes! The whole malleability of reality did really well for it there, because nothing could be taken as an ultimate unending tragedy if it didn’t necessarily happen.
Bailey: So…to sum up, what are everyone’s favorite parts or lines from the book?
Carly: Oh god the epilogue GOT ME. I was crying so hard. I couldn’t tell if they were happy or sad tears—I was just so emotional by the end of this book.
Hannah: That was a fucking good epilogue.
Carly: But I also liked the use of math within the text in regard to the universes explored. Oh, and also the descriptions of depression.
Jessica: That stood out to me too! Especially when he says that it isn’t “having nothing in you; it’s the absence of things without which you feel like you have nothing.”
Hannah: For me, it’s the prologue, actually. It’s very intense and I think you really get a sense of the confusion through Skylar’s narrative.
Bailey: This is my favorite line by far: “For a moment, you won’t be certain what you’ve done. What you’ve done is this: You have done the best you could. On the darkest of pathways, you have managed to stay true to the better angel of your nature.” Kills me.
Jessica: Yeah. Damn that’s good.
Want to read along? (You should!) For next week, we’re reading The Awakening and The Last Interview: David Foster Wallace.