Ruff, Matt. Set This House In Order. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.
...day or night, the sky in Andy Gage's head is almost always clear, and it never rains.
Set This House In Order, subtitled A Romance of Souls, is the third novel by Matt Ruff, author of Fool on the Hill and Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works
Trilogy and perhaps my favorite fiction writer, so you can kiss the myth of objectivity goodbye for the duration of this review. It's mostly the story of Andy Gage, whose body is inhabited by multiple personalities, referred to as "souls". With the help of a good psychiatrist, one of these souls, Aaron, constructed an internal mental geography, including the house of the book's title, enabling all of them to coexist peacefully while he acted as the public face of Andy Gage. Later he retired the latter role, calling a new personality, Andrew, into existence to take his place. About half of Set This House In Order is narrated by Andrew, and I'd say that's fair --- the story is mostly, though far from entirely, his.
Andrew refers to Aaron as his father, and the relationships between them and the other soul personalities form a complicated family tree that includes (among many others): Adam, an unruly teenager with a knack for seeing through lies and untruth; five-year-old Jake; artistic Aunt Sam, who is actually a cousin but is called "Aunt" because she's older than many of the other souls; Seferis, the nine-foot-tall protector soul who keeps the body safe and in shape; and Aaron's brother Gideon, a dark soul who fought for control of Andy Gage's body but lost and was banished to a distant part of its mental geography. All the different souls (except Gideon) share the house in Andy Gage's mind, and take occasional turns controlling his body, although by agreement they mostly leave this task to Andrew.
Thanks to Andy Gage's carefully constructed mental geography, governed by Aaron's strict but fair rules, Andrew has been functioning fairly well in the world, albeit with the help of a very sympathetic landlady and his well-meaning boss, Julie, for about two years when the story of Set This House In Order begins. Andrew was born twenty-six years old, when Andy Gage was twenty-nine, but he only has two years of experience dealing with the world. According to Andrew, souls only age when they're in control of the body, but it's very complicated and that's all I'm going to say about that. Anyway, when Andrew has been
in existence and experience for two years, his boss hires a new employee for her startup (the story takes place during the twilight of the dot-com boom): Penny, another multiple who is only barely aware of her condition. It is Adam who first recognizes Penny for what she is, and somehow one or more of her personalities recognize in Andrew a kindred spirit and ask him to help her "find herself". To give away any more than that would perhaps not spoil the book, but Set This House In Order is a Matt Ruff novel, which means that reading it for the first time is a magical experience, full of delightful surprises, and I would hate to ruin any of them for anyone.
Maybe Andrew, or Andrew's father, can teach her the trick of it: how to acknowledge evil without being consumed by it.
I think one of my favorite things about Set This House In Order was how well Ruff handled the characterization of the different souls, from Andrew the first person narrator to the different spirits inhabiting Penny's body, mostly but not always described in the third person. In the hands of a lesser writer, multiple
personality disorder (or dissociative identity disorder, as it is also termed) could be an incredibly cheesy plot device. But Ruff manages to use Andy and Penny's MPD mostly as character development while keeping the plot moving as independently as it can of their characters' complications, if that makes any sense. If that sounds tricky, well, if you ask me it is, but Ruff pulls it off. At one point, as the plot began to thicken, I found myself speculating about the actions and motivations of one of Andy's souls, and I realized that the author had succeeded at making me really think of the different souls as real, individual characters, rather than just facets of one complicated personality, and it made me grin. Moments
like that are what make me recommend Set This House In
Order so very highly indeed.
Read this book. I didn't know what I was expecting when I started into it, and it's definitely a departure in tone from the good-natured madcap adventures of Ruff's previous books, but his characters are as memorable --- and as lovable --- as ever. I enjoyed meeting them, it
was fun introducing some of them in this writing, and I look forward to rereading them in the not-too-distant future (which is just to say that I first got Set This House In Order from my friendly local public library, but expect to add it to my permanent collection very soon). Finally, for those of you familiar with Ruff's other books, a final note that I hope isn't too much of a spoiler: you'll be glad to know that Set This House In Order shares an important, enjoyable feature with Fool On the Hill and Sewer, Gas, & Electric: a magical moment in the reading, a scene or series of events, where disparate plot elements come together, worlds collide, and it's all a glorious rush of exhilarating inevitability, whether you saw it coming or not (and this
time around I didn't, not one bit). Once again, it's my favorite part of the book, only this time I didn't have to wait as long for the payoff and it resonated through the rest of the reading, and it was great. I'd say Set This House In Order was worth reading for that moment alone, but I could say that of any of a number of its
features --- its characters, the parts where the author's research on his subject material shines through, and any of a number of scenes, both comic and tragic. Fortunately, I didn't have to choose to read it for any of those alone --- I got them all. I'd better stop writing now before I get any gushier. You get the idea, I'm sure. Read this
Quotes taken from Set This House In Order. This writeup is dedicated to ailie, who reminded me that I needed to read this book, with big thanks.