Burn Fortune by Brandi Homan
Clash Books, 2019; 197 pp
Reviewed by Zack Anderson
I was reading Burn Fortune—Brandi Homan’s novel about a Midwestern teen’s identification with Jean Seberg’s portrayal of Joan of Arc—during the week that a catastrophic blaze at Notre-Dame de Paris caused the cathedral’s iconic spire to collapse. The Maid of Orléans was burned to death some hundred kilometers away in Rouen, but both of these textual and architectural fires activated complex emotions around history, power structures, privilege, and grief. Burn Fortune is a compelling and necessary examination of these concepts, a meditation on the human costs of heteropatriarchy, and a vital argument about the political implications of narrative itself.
The novel follows the life of June, named for June Carter Cash, member of the school flag team and resident of Marshalltown, Iowa. After June learns that the actress Jean Seberg also hails from Marshalltown, she fixates on Seberg, devouring her films as well as biographies of Joan of Arc. As kind of bildungsroman, much of the conflict in the novel is relational: a rivalrous friendship with fellow flag twirler Marci, a contentious relationship with a character known only as “My Boyfriend.” After another boy rapes June, her identification with Seberg becomes all-consuming. Boundaries between reality, dream, and film dissolve as she bears her trauma. The novel ends with the image of June “look[ing] straight into the lens” in a kind of apotheosis, sealing June/Jean/Joan into a single signifier, yet remaining tantalizingly ambiguous.
Both structurally and thematically, Burn Fortune is an argument about narrative. The publisher’s description characterizes the book as a “novel-in-fragments,” although “fragment” connotes lack and is hard to separate from the heroic (read: male) Modernist’s “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” An alternative way of looking at Burn Fortune might be as a combination of linked and discrete vignettes that read almost as prose poems. Fragment, vignette, or prose poem, the novel’s structure defies the classical narrative structure (rising action, climax, falling action) which Jane Alison has called “masculo-sexual.” The protagonist’s growing obsession with French New Wave cinema extends to Burn Fortune’s narrative structure as well, through quick cuts between scenes, the privileging of lyricism over plot, and a refusal to provide narrative closure at the end of the book.
As June’s obsession with Jean/Joan gathers momentum, so does the theme of agency relative to the act of narration. June’s empathic bond with Seberg often revolves around the power dynamics on the film set. For instance, in “A Bout de Souffle,” June observes that “Jean looks like she never believes herself when she smiles. / I will never forgive her for that. / Smiling when he says so.” Similarly, June sees herself as the unwilling subject of a narrative outside of her control. Through Jean/Joan, June is able to articulate the cruel optimism (as defined by Lauren Berlant) of rural, heteronormative life: “I love watching Jean-Joan because around here the only way to speak is to leave and if you leave you burn.”
Ultimately, Burn Fortune suggests that June will retake control of her narrative—she will speak, but she may also burn. “The most compelling version of sacrifice concerns the flourishing of the self, not its extinction,” writes Terry Eagleton in Radical Sacrifice. “If sacrifice is a political act, it is not least because it concerns an accession to power.” June is acutely aware of this calculus of power and sacrifice: “Joan could have taken back what she said and did. But when faced with prison all her life, Joan gave them the big fuck-you. I said what I did for fear of the fire. // Joan chose to burn.”