Matt Ruff

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"Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls"

(Reviewed by Jenny Dressel OCT 21, 2003)

Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff
I think everybody has a “voice in their head” -- what most people call a conscience, I suppose. I also think everybody has a tendency to talk to themselves -- I’ve heard people do it, and I KNOW I do it. There are times when I’m talking to myself, and I should be listening to other people, a la “Ally McBeal” -- I get upset with myself when I do this, as I find it a rude habit of mine, but sometimes, I just can’t help it.

Read excerptNow, imagine having dozens of voices in your head. And then, think of these voices as having very different personalities, demanding to be heard. Then, when these personalities get restless, or feeling a need to do something, imagine them taking over your body, at their whim. I could be sitting here typing this review, and the next thing I know, I “wake” up and I’m sitting at a restaurant eating lunch with a person I’ve never met, but who seems to know who I am.

This is the premise of Matt Ruff’s novel, Set This House In Order: A Romance of Souls. It is an extremely realistic and profound look at multiple personality disorder.

When we meet Andy Gage, he is a twenty-eight year old, who has been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (MPD). Through psychiatric help and therapy, Andy has been able to cope with his condition for the last two years, and lead a fairly normal life.

“My name is Andrew Gage. I was twenty-six years old when I first came out of the lake. I was born with my father’s strength, but not his weariness; his persistence but not his pain. I was called to finish the job that my father had begun: a job that he had chosen, but that I was made for.”

Andrew’s “father” is named Aaron. He is one of the personalities which occupies Andy’s mind. With the help of Dr. Danielle Grey, Andrew has worked through his illness, and has come up with a lifestyle where he and his other “souls” co-habitate peacefully. This isn’t the therapy you may be familiar with, where all personalities become one integrated person. There are dozens of “souls” who are always with Andy. Besides Aaron, these personalities include Aunt Sam -- a mothering figure who enjoys creating art; Adam -- a teenager who enjoys causing trouble; Jake -- a five year old who enjoys toy stores; and Sefaris -- an athletically strong man who defends the body.

In the two years that Andy has existed as a personality and “been called from the lake,” he, the other “souls,” and Dr. Grey have worked extremely hard to come up with a life which makes everyone who exists in the body content. Andy has organized quite a schedule, so that all of the diverse personalities have time on the outside to live and create.

Andy’s best friend and employer is Julie Sivik. He met Julie at the beginning of his “life.” He was working at a computer supply store, when Julie asked Andy for help in choosing tax preparation software.

“Personal income tax or small business?” I asked.

“Oh…” Julie’s expression softened. “That make’s a difference?”

“Wait,” I interrupted her, holding up a finger. My father was saying something else now.

“Wait?” said Julie.

“Just a second…”

The annoyed look resurfaced on Julie’s face. “What the hell am I waiting on?” she demanded.

“My father,” I told her.

“Your father?”…

She made a show of checking to see if there was someone standing behind me, first leaning sideways, then going up on tiptoe to peer over the top of my head. “Where?” she finally said.

“In the pulpit,” I told her, after a quick backward glance of my own.

“Pulpit?”

“It’s sort of a balcony, on the front of the house. In my head.”

“What are you, schizophrenic?” Julie said.

“No, I’m a multiple personality. Schizophrenia is different… It’s a complicated truth.”

Julie, a high-energied entrepeneur, believed a person with multiple personality disorder would be perfect for her new company. She was starting a company called “The Reality Factory” -- a computer company which created and invented virtual reality software. She immediately started recruiting Andy as a creative consultant. Andy has been working with her ever since. Andy’s quite comfortable with his job and his life, until Julie hires a new employee.

Penny Driver is a young woman who also has multiple personality disorder. She doesn’t realize this though; Penny, or “Mouse” (depending on who you are talking to at the moment), just plain thinks she’s slowly going insane. She is having regular blackouts; she is losing time, and finding herself in strange places.

Julie understands the symptoms, and knows when she hires Penny that the woman is an MPD. She also knows from talking to Penny that Penny doesn’t realize what is wrong with her, and is doing her best to hide her “insanity.” Once Penny starts working at The Reality Factory, Julie tries to get Andy to help the girl. In addition, Penny’s other personalities start enlisting his help through e-mails. Andy reluctantly agrees to help Penny. He doesn’t realize that his help may disorganize his fragile life and put his own “house” in critical chaos.

This novel alternates between Andy Gage’s narrative -- the person who understands his condition; and Penny Driver’s voice -- the person who needs help. This leads the reader into a more complete understanding of the disorder and the side effects it has.

Matt Ruff has created an amazing world in this novel. I found my self intrigued and riveted from the beginning. The metaphor that Ruff uses in the beginning, where Andy is “called from the lake,” may be confusing at first, but once the novel starts rolling, you realize it is “spot-on.“ As soon as I started Book One, I got my bearing, and the roller coaster ride this author takes his audience on is well worth the initial confusion.

The ability that Ruff has, to take us into the fold of multiple personality disorder, is quite the feat. Everything that happens to Andy and Penny is not pleasant; but there are some humorous aspects to this novel, as well, and it’s the compassion that Ruff so aptly displays that resonated with me long after I finished this book. Ruff also has the ability to draw a character so vividly, that I started thinking of Andy and Penny’s other personalities as legitimate characters in this book.

By the end of this novel, I felt I understood multiple personality disorder a little more. The amount of work and energy someone with this disorder must go through to organize their lives boggles my mind. It’s Ruff’s ability to put it all in coherent fashion and lead me to understand just what a job it must for MPD’s to “set their house in order.” I thank Matt Ruff for giving me a glimpse into this fascinating world.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 58 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Set This House in Order at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Matt RuffMatt Ruff was born in 1965 in Queens, New York and grew up in New York City. His father was a hospital chaplain who descended from a line of peaceful Midwestern dairy farmers; his mother was a missionary's daughter who grew up battling snakes and scorpions in the jungles of Brazil. Between the two of them, he received an interesting moral education. He attended Styyvesant High School in Manhattan.

His first novel, Fool on the Hill, was his college thesis at Cornell University. His second novel, Set This House in Order, won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, a Washington State Book Award, and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He is also the recipient of a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship.

He and his wife, Lisa Gold, live in Seattle, Washington.

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