to more singular minds
|Matt Ruff is a writer who
keeps his art and craft in order. Ruff has a knack for taking premises
that sound incoherent, pretentious or unwieldy his first novel
is a mythological struggle centered around Cornell University, his second
a grand parody of Atlas Shrugged and building them into plausible
worlds with sympathetic characters.
In his third book, Set This House In Order: A Romance of Souls (HarperCollins), Ruffs architecture holds again as he relates the adventures of two protagonists, both of whom have multiple personality disorder. A lesser writer might only construct a melee of muddled monologues. But Ruffs subtle, elegant structure balances the extremes like a literary Frank Lloyd Wright his prose is so natural and readable you never notice that what hes describing shouldnt be possible.
Set This House In Order opens with the story of Andrew Gage, a seemingly carefree Seattle 26-year-old. If asked, though, Andrew would admit he was born just two years ago. With the help of a skilled (if unorthodox) therapist, Andrew was created to serve as emcee for the hundreds of souls populating the shattered mind of abused child Andy Gage.
Andys father died before he was born and his stepfather was unspeakably cruel. But Andrew says his father, Aaron, is alive and well. Aaron was one of the original splinter souls left in Andy Gages mind. He created the house in Andy Gages mind where all the souls live. Exhausted by the task, he created Andrew to be the permanent pilot of Andy Gages body, handling all relations with the outside world.
The other souls of Andy Gage, though, are not exactly passive passengers. They preach at Andrew from a mental pulpit, and must occasionally be granted a jaunt in the real world. Thus we meet Adam, a perverse but perceptive 15-year-old; Aunt Sam, a sweet old bohemian; younger siblings like Jake and Simon, who demand excursions to the mall; superhuman Seferis, who keeps the body in tip-top shape through a morning exercise routine; and Gideon, Aarons twin, who might be evil if he werent so self-centered.
Regular Ruff readers wont be intimidated by this parade; his first two novels include a manifest of dramatis personae, and with good reason. But like Aaron and Andrew, Ruff has settled on a structure that wont upset more singular minds. Andrew is the only first-person narrator, and fulfills his diplomatic purpose by explaining how these souls interact within Andy Gages internal architecture. This choice by Ruff overcomes a dilemma of his earlier novels that usually limited his readership to the science fiction/fantasy set.
Andy Gages story is contained within the conventional setting of the 90s; the foreign world is he, and for that geography, Andrew is a gentle guide. Its a good thing because the books other narrator, Penny Driver, is a multiple personality whose mind has yet to be mapped. Pennys original personality is still intact, though she has been cowed by the other souls into accepting the nickname Mouse.
Mouse experiences blackouts of minutes, days and months while a Society of multiples maneuver through the rest of her life. One soul takes over when she clocks in at work; a pair of gritty twins knows how to fight and flee. She even has a designated driver. But Mouse also wakes up in distant cities or the beds of strangers, making her life a miserable series of unrelated moments.
Penny and Andrew share an employer, Julie, a hapless if well-intentioned software developer. Julie hires Penny in the hope that Andrew can shed some light on her situation and convince her to begin therapy. He succeeds, but shortly afterward undergoes a series of crises that shake his own psychological foundations. This leads to a bizarre chase across the country and into Andy Gages past that forces both Penny and Andrew to confront their fears.
Ruff conveys the differences between this pairs conditions better than any psychology textbook could do. The portions of the book narrated by Andrew are illuminated by a ponderous I, who has time to discuss and interpret his world. His digressions and memories are easily managed and fit logically into the story. But Penny is trapped in a third-person perspective divided by dashes, where painful flashbacks jut out like broken bones. When reading Andrews sections, its easy to believe that this multiple-personality thing could be kind of fun. Pennys stories show how difficult it must be to actually live with.
To some, Andrew and Pennys quest will seem contrived. But even if they do, that does little to detract from the excitement of this novel. The real cliffhangers are the mysteries of Andrews identity. One beauty of choosing a single soul as narrator is that Andrew cant know everything about his housemates pasts. As the geography of his mind is transformed from familiar territory to treacherous terrain, we encounter original plot twists more engaging than a murder mystery (in addition to the real murder mystery Penny and Andrew must solve).
Set This House In Order is a charming take on a topic that is often taboo. But the book isnt really about multiple personality disorder. The condition simply serves as a device to address a larger philosophical issue: How to acknowledge evil without being consumed by it. The many rooms of Ruffs world make it a place worth exploring.
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