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Review-a-Day
Powells.com
Saturday, March 1st, 2003


 

Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls

by Matt Ruff

A review by Georgie Lewis

Imagine being greeted on the street by a stranger who seems to know you well, finding cigarettes in your purse when you don't smoke, discovering clothes in your closet you don't remember purchasing (and perhaps never would have, given a choice) and notes addressed to yourself telling you how to get to work and reminding you where you are.

If this sounds like the beginning of a science fiction novel something written by Sewer, Gas & Electric author Matt Ruff, perhaps you are halfway there. Matt Ruff's third novel deals with the scenarios above, but in this case the subject matter is multiple personality disorder, and the time and place is contemporary Seattle. Multiple personality disorder, now termed Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), is a fairly rare (not to mention controversial) psychological condition in which a person's self starts splitting mentally at times of severe trauma or abuse and forming new personalities. These personalities, or "alters" as they are called by many sufferers, can stand in to witness or protect the self from the traumatic event. The condition is bewildering to the victim and, until identified, can lead to the above list of upsetting situations. With treatment, the alters can begin communicating with each other, coming forward to testify why they were created and what they witnessed. Numbers of alters, of both genders and varying ages, can be found within the person suffering DID. The condition was sensationalized and made famous by films such as Sybil and The Three Faces of Eve.

Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls is the story of two such sufferers. Without voyeurism or sensationalism, in fact with incredible sensitivity and grace, Matt Ruff creates a unique narrator in the person(ality) of Andrew Gage. Andrew is an alter created by the community of personalities who live within Andy Gage, Andy's principal self having been subsumed by years of abuse at the hands of a sadistic stepfather. Andrew was created to run the exterior life of Andy, and, with the help of the internal father figure Aaron, he manages a precarious balancing act of making sure the other alters are allowed their time in the sun and a say in how Andy's life is led. Many years of therapy have gotten Andy this far, and his friend Julie and landlady, Mrs. Winslow, aid in his day-to-day life with love and acceptance.

Inspired by Andrew's ability to manage his interior community and landscape, Julie employs him to help with her business, an entrepreneurial attempt at a virtual reality company, the Reality Factory. However, Julie has invited another person to work with them, a young woman nicknamed Mouse, whose manner indicates to Julie that Mouse has multiple personalities but is not aware of it. Instead she lives in a blur of confusion, experiencing blackouts, waking up in different clothes, reeking of cigarettes, and, often enough, lying in a stranger's bed.

When Andrew is approached surreptitiously by one of Mouse's alters and asked to help Mouse come to terms with her multiplicity, Andrew grudgingly complies. What follows could be described as a balletic car crash, as alters meet other alters and a previously exiled personality of Andy's takes the fore, accelerating the two across the country in a quest for revenge.

Set This House in Order is exhilarating and unique. The challenge that Ruff sets himself is more than fully met, with a cohesive narrative that builds up speed to a satisfying climax and a poignant final chapter. Ruff includes some astonishing twists to the plot, but he never veers from the believable. With strong, sympathetic characterizations, he takes the reader on a journey both psychological and geographical. While Ruff's previous two novels have illustrated a dazzling imagination and a flair for the fantastic and futuristic, Set This House in Order is firmly set in the here and now. But the present still provides fertile soil for his obvious talents.


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