book review
June '03

 

A surprise to more singular minds
By Andy Nelson

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), Ruff’s 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 Ruff’s subtle, elegant structure balances the extremes like a literary Frank Lloyd Wright — his prose is so natural and readable you never notice that what he’s describing shouldn’t 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.

Andy’s 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 Gage’s mind. He created the “house” in Andy Gage’s mind where all the souls live. Exhausted by the task, he created Andrew to be the permanent pilot of Andy Gage’s 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, Aaron’s twin, who might be evil if he weren’t so self-centered.

Regular Ruff readers won’t 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 won’t upset more singular minds. Andrew is the only first-person narrator, and fulfills his diplomatic purpose by explaining how these souls interact within Andy Gage’s 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 Gage’s story is contained within the conventional setting of the ‘90s; the foreign world is he, and for that geography, Andrew is a gentle guide. It’s a good thing because the book’s other narrator, Penny Driver, is a multiple personality whose mind has yet to be mapped. Penny’s 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 Gage’s past that forces both Penny and Andrew to confront their fears.

Ruff conveys the differences between this pair’s 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 Andrew’s sections, it’s easy to believe that this multiple-personality thing could be kind of fun. Penny’s stories show how difficult it must be to actually live with.

To some, Andrew and Penny’s 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 Andrew’s identity. One beauty of choosing a single soul as narrator is that Andrew can’t 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 isn’t 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 Ruff’s world make it a place worth exploring.

Andy Nelson can be contacted at anelson@northwestern.edu or publisher_editEKC@kcactive.com.


              
              
                 

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