Set This House in Order — reviews

From O Magazine, February 2003:

Matt Ruff has pulled off a phenomenally difficult task in his stunning new novel, Set This House in Order. He has created the two most engaging multiple-personality-disorder characters since Sybil and set them on a cross-country adventure that is both hair-raising and richly funny. Andrew Gage is the public face of a range of “souls” who inhabit the same body, each a fragment of the child who split repeatedly to cope with an abusive stepfather. Andrew deals with the outside world; the others share an imaginary landscape inside his head and on occasion forcefully take over the “body.” In no time we’ve fallen into Andrew’s way of seeing life through many eyes. Penny Driver is Andrew’s colleague at a software development firm and a fellow multiple personality. Together, Andrew and Penny work to untangle the secret at the heart of his past, while trying to keep the unruly cast of characters under control. The conclusion packs a wallop, but this is ultimately a romantic story, and so even the truth is delivered tenderly. Remarkably, Set This House brings extraordinary warmth to the chilliest of childhoods.

— Elaina Richardson

Copyright 2003 O Magazine

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From Publishers Weekly, January 27, 2003:

STARRED REVIEW: Part suspense, part literary coming-of-age story, this unusual novel follows a 29-year-old man with multiple personality disorder—a departure for Ruff, whose last book, Sewer, Gas & Electric, was a futuristic political satire. Andy Gage’s psyche was destroyed at age three by his abusive stepfather, and from its fragments arose a crowd of personalities vying for control of his body. When the novel opens, the body has just been taken over by 26-year-old Andrew. Andrew’s father, Aaron, had been in charge for years, but grew exhausted from the effort of keeping peace among the different “souls,” which include sarcastic, horny 15-year-old Adam, five-year-old Jake, gentle Aunt Sam, and the violent, narcissistic Gideon, whom Aaron banished from the “house.” Shy, intelligent Andrew, the narrator, is now trying to give Andy Gage a normal life. He finds a job at a software company in Seattle and makes friends with his sympathetic boss, Julie. This stability is threatened, however, when Andrew meets self-destructive Penny, whose own multiple personalities are in a state of chaos. Trying to help Penny get her “Society” under control, Andrew is thrown momentarily off guard, and Gideon seizes the body. In cahoots with Penny’s foul-mouthed twin souls, Maledicta and Malefica, Gideon heads for Andy’s home state of Michigan for a gripping showdown with important figures from his past. Ruff never lets the material become lurid, and his matter-of-fact depiction of the relationships between different personalities is remarkable for its imaginative details. Though he takes his hero seriously, Ruff offers plenty of comic situations as Andrew tries to interact with the outside world while the other souls kibbitz. Best of all is the endearing Andrew, a truly original protagonist.

Forecast: Ruff has a cult following from his previous two books. With some handselling, this novel could win him many new fans.

Copyright 2003 Publishers Weekly

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From the San Francisco Chronicle, February 9, 2003:

Three-time novelist Matt Ruff’s third opus is a stunning feat of literary craftsmanship. Opening on the outskirts of Seattle, Set This House in Order is divided into sections narrated in the alternating voices of its two main characters, Andrew Gage and Penny Driver. The twist is that both of these twentysomethings have a clinical diagnosis of MPD, or multiple personality disorder. This means that each of them houses a large enough cast of personalities, or souls, as Ruff calls them, to put on a Broadway musical.

Andrew and Penny are hired by a visionary and mercurial entrepreneur named Julie Sivik, who is trying to create a startup company manufacturing virtual reality tools and toys. Julie recruits first Andrew then Penny, despite their obvious peculiarities and checkered employment histories, because they “had firsthand experience with what virtual reality was ultimately meant to be: an imaginary universe where different people could meet, interact, and be creative together.”

Virtual reality is the guiding metaphor in the novel for the concept of “managed” MPD, a rogue model that goes against the more conventional notion of “reintegration” as the ultimate clinical goal for people with multiple personality disorder. The body becomes a kingdom rather than the usual studio apartment. One personality assumes the dominant role, manipulating the controls, as it were, knowing what’s going on at any given time and assuming responsibility for everyone’s actions. Rather than trying to exorcise or integrate the personalities into one, this time-share or virtual reality model acknowledges both the difference and importance of each soul, affording a place for each of them in the “house” of the body.

In Andrew’s case, this dominant personality is someone who was “born” long after the original childhood trauma that precipitated his MPD. So even though “Andrew” is the person interacting with the outside world (for the most part, at least), he is blissfully ignorant about his body’s own history.

The plot takes off when the more knowledgeable parts of Andrew launch him, with Penny and her personalities in tow, on a hair-raising road trip in search of the truth about his past, hair-raising because neither of them ever knows at any given time which of their souls is going to grab the wheel. With such a large and changing cast of personalities, this deceptively simple plot becomes positively Dickensian in its scope, even though the tales of abuse it tells have been visited upon a mere two human bodies and minds.

Child abuse is at the heart of this story, the gradual unveiling of a horrifying parade of sick, sadistic parents and their unspeakable crimes. What is amazing is that Ruff has managed to make of this material a novel that is not only gripping for all of its 479 pages, but also at times laugh-out-loud funny.

This becomes clear when Penny and Andrew’s various alter egos struggle for control of their respective bodies, create alliances among themselves and get into shouting matches. “I am Andy Gage, you know” insists one of the least tractable of Andrew’s personas. “More than any of those others. They aren’t even real, they’re just…delusions with egos.”

Conceptually the thing is terribly clever. We watch as some of Andrew’s inner children “make copies” of objects in a toy store (by touching them, memorizing them) so that they can take them “inside the house” to their rooms to play with them. At one point, both Penny and Andrew re-emerge after two of their more mischievous alter egos have created havoc in a bar. It’s a choice moment, with both turning to each other and helplessly asking in unison, “Where are we?”

It comes as no great surprise that Ruff’s first two novels were science fiction. Even though Set This House in Order is pure literary fiction at its best, it is just as fantastical as either of Ruff’s earlier books. It’s just that, in this case, the author immerses us in the rich, strange and sometimes terrifying landscape of the psyche.

Ruff is particularly well attuned to the ways in which so-called normal people can be just as pathological, delusional and/or self-destructive as others who carry the label of a clinical diagnosis. We’re all a little nuts. We all have shadowy, unacknowledged psychic hitchhikers. We all hear withering voices in our heads that we have to tell to shut up now and then, or that we fail to listen to because they frighten us with their bold, unconventional ideas.

In the end, the challenges facing Andrew and Penny are not that different from the challenges facing all of us. Penny longs to learn “how to acknowledge evil without being consumed by it.”

Andrew must find the courage to be whom he believes himself to be, even though his chosen identity flies in the face of the most glaring logic. We are all, the author seems to be saying, made up of fragments of memory and experience and wishful thinking; everyone is, to some extent, a multiple personality. And we all are faced with the task in our lives of setting our own psychic house in order.

— Barbara Quick

Copyright 2003 Hearst Communications Inc.

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From the Boston Globe, February 16, 2003:

It takes a certain demonic capability to people a novel with two main characters suffering from multiple personality disorder: Imagine Sybil bumping into Eve, say, and the two of them—or rather, the lot of them—trying to navigate the world together. With his blend of literary high jinks and old-fashioned adventurism, Matt Ruff is a weirdly appropriate candidate to have envisioned the job. His previous novels, Fool on the Hill and Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy, have drawn comparisons ranging from Blade Runner to The Lord of the Rings, and it’s true that there’s something Tolkienesque about Set This House in Order, with its misty psychological interiors and good-and-evil showdowns. But the novel is also funny, wildly inventive, and emotionally astute, its core reality firmly rooted in contemporary Seattle. Drawing most of his dramatis personae from the motley personalities of two thoroughly fetching characters, Ruff has created a shockingly likable suspense story—most of the apprehension being over just who will triumph in this virtual one-room schoolhouse.

The predominant narrator is Andrew Gage, a sweet, somewhat cautious man in his late 20s—the composite functioning personality of a boy fragmented by an abusive stepfather years earlier. “My father called me out,” announces Andrew in the first line of the novel, plunging us straight away into the netherworld of multiple personality. Having struggled for years to connect the disparate voices hiding inside him, Andrew’s “father,” or strongest ego, eventually constructed an internal dwelling place where all his selves could reside, then threw in Andrew to run the show. This monumental architectural task, effected with the help of the loyal Dr. Grey, did not come easily; Andrew still spends a lot of his day making sure everybody gets a say. Breakfast, the time allotted the entire cast, is especially daunting: Jake, the 5-year-old, gets Cheerios, while Aunt Sam, a grand female presence, prefers wheat toast and herbal tea. Andrew, fortunately, has found a formidable ally in his landlady-caretaker, Mrs. Winslow, a woman fond enough of the whole gang to spend a few minutes with each of them.

This sort of specificity—funny and tender at once—is part of what drives Set This House in Order by making Andrew both familiar and sympathetic. People tend to want to care for him. His friend and employer is Julie Sivik, a brilliant but scattershot entrepreneur who’s trying to build a virtual-reality company called the Reality Factory; upon learning Andrew is a multiple, she quickly grasps the concept that he might understand more about her techno-fantasy world than any normally grounded human ever would, and offers him a job on the spot. A true Seattle techie, Julie has a knack for finding the creative wounded. She shows up at the Factory one day with a programmer in tow named Penny Driver—a slight, softspoken woman who is, in alternating universes, a hardware genius, a barfly, and a couple of tough-talking twins named Malefica and Maledicta.

Unlike Andrew, who has found a way to corral his chorale into one workable entity, Penny has yet to meet all the competing souls in her psyche. Nearly destroyed by a mother who was most likely schizophrenic, Penny has survived by splitting into a multitude of spirits who don’t know about each other; one minute she’s repairing a hard drive, the next she wakes up in a strange place with a hangover. Not surprisingly, her dominant ego reaches out to Andrew—hopeful that he can provide her with some kind of map, or at least a compass. Virgil to her Dante, then, which puts an undue burden on his relatively fragile character. His begrudging assistance sets the two of them on a voyage through the underworld—one that winds up taking them cross-country, to Andrew’s native Michigan, with everybody fighting for control of the wheel.

Road trip! Having hit the interstate, Set This House in Order veers between lunacy and drama a lot of the time, what with Maledicta stopping for beer and cigarettes and Andrew trying to lasso his unrulier selves into some sort of union. But Ruff has the sense and dexterity to realize this manifold universe—the vast complexities of fugue states, lost time, and competing egos—by evoking its particulars: the fierce courage of Andrew’s Seferis, for instance, who emerges in dangerous situations, or the fog that hangs over the father’s internal lake when things go awry.

Riveting in its external plot (will Penny get out of the bar fight Maledicta has started?) as well as its interior secrets (will Andrew discover hidden horrors about his stepfather?), Set This House in Order is not so much a whodunit as a whoisit, roaming with cavalier narrative agility among real and imaginary shoals. Because the structure of the novel relies so thoroughly on this adventure-tale conceit, and because its central themes belong, accordingly, to a mythic sphere, it can’t help seeming a little hokey at times—Frodo Baggins as a fairly vanilla MPD, lost in the murky realm and waiting for cues from Gandalf.

But these lapses seem, for the most part, to be conscious sacrifices; ever attentive to his shifting narration (and to the multiple possibilities of an omniscient eye), Ruff has elected to make this novel a wide-ranging, action-based, psychic thriller—Judith Rossner’s August meets Bonnie and Clyde without the guns. What seems more extraordinary is how thoroughly he has imagined the turmoil, symptomatology, and constant internal negotiations of a fragmented personality. Not to mention how much he has made us care for every one of the demi-characters presented here. When Andrew (with the help of Seferis) stands up for a little girl being bullied by her father in a diner, you could almost weep with gratitude.

And there, too, lies one of the captivating qualities of Set This House in Order. Because it dares to be clever and ironic about a subject fraught with labyrinthine despair, it liberates the idea of multiple personality disorder from doom-ridden pathology. Of course, this is fiction, not real life, and most people who suffer from the controversial diagnosis of MPD don’t generally have the wherewithal to rise up and conquer Middle Earth. But Ruff’s comprehension of that struggle—of, in Penny’s words, “how to acknowledge evil without being consumed by it”—is fundamental to the master plan of Set This House in Order. Like his myriad protagonists, he has invented a freestanding universe—where a young hero, fleeing night and forest, has built his own castle in the clouds.

— Gail Caldwell

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company

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From the New York Times Book Review, March 23, 2003:

Readers of Matt Ruff’s exuberant, population-packed earlier novels will be surprised to hear that his third has a relatively tiny cast, at least on the surface. On the other hand, the star-crossed, parent-wrecked principals of Set This House in Order both have multiple personality disorder, so another character is always in the offing. These extra personalities are most often allies, though some need to be treated like “rude houseguests,” and there’s usually a destructive individual aching to get out.

The condition that Andrew Gage and Penny (Mouse) Driver share would be a liability in most places, but not necessarily at the virtual-reality start-up outside Seattle where they labor inside a windowless warehouse under separate tents (a new roof isn’t in the budget) along with two perpetually overheated programmers from Alaska. (“As you can see, we’re pretty informal here—a little too informal, sometimes,” the Reality Factory’s owner, Julie Sivik, admits when she introduces Penny. “This nudist is Dennis Manciple. And Mr. Pouty over there is his brother Irwin.”)

Andrew, the company’s wistful “creative consultant” and Ruff’s most winning creation, has no past—and an overwhelming past. He is 28, and he is only 2. The discrepancy, once Andrew explains it, is obvious: “Souls only age when they’re in control of the body.” When he was 3, Andy Gage’s soul was destroyed by his abusive stepfather, Horace Rollins, and over the years other personalities emerged, 100 or so eventually existing in a dark space in the child’s head. “In the center of the room was a column of bright light, and any soul that entered or was pulled into the light found itself outside, in Andy Gage’s body, with no memory of how it had gotten there or what had happened since the last time it was out.” (Ruff doesn’t overplay the dissociation hand, but Andrew always refers to “Andy Gage,” “the body,” “the stepfather.” The person who might have protected everyone, however, is “our mother.”)

Andy Gage’s people include Adam, an exceptionally acute adolescent who “upsets the others” by reading Playboy; the very proper Aunt Sam; Jake, a timid 5-year-old; and Seferis, who materializes when there’s physical danger. Ruff excels at the changes in bearing, speech, even appearance when someone new blows in. This may sound fantastic, but he makes them utterly convincing. In fact, he sometimes has to remind us that Andrew isn’t the voice of reason we think he is.

There’s also a sort of ur-self, named Aaron, whom Andrew calls his father, and who, with the help of an unorthodox therapist, was responsible for getting Andy Gage’s various constituents under control. “In place of the dark room, he constructed a geography in Andy Gage’s head, a sunlit countryside where the souls could see and talk to one another. He created the house, so they’d have a place to live; the forest, so they’d have somewhere to be alone; and the pumpkin field, so the dead could be decently buried.”

At the start of Set This House in Order, Andrew has his proteges in hand, allowing most to emerge at prescribed moments and keeping watch should someone break house rules. But even getting up in the morning is exhausting. Jake likes to wield the toothbrush, Seferis needs his exercise, another two shower and four, sometimes five, have different breakfast demands. Happily, Mrs. Winslow, whose real house they share—and who has her own odious past—has proved “an almost magical reader of persons” and cooks individual meals for each. Throughout, Ruff deftly evokes the comedy and pain of maintaining such an elaborate inner life.

Andrew is almost at home in his circumscribed existence, though he admits, “I guess it’s not all that surprising that I would be confused about sex.” But Penny Driver is very much a stranger to her world and to herself, lurching between profanity, self-laceration and passivity. Mouse (a name she answers to but loathes) is appalled when she loses slivers or great swaths of time, waking up in strangers’ beds—courtesy of the ever randy Loins—or, worse, months later in another city. She isn’t even aware of what she does, since the Brain, a dab hand at fixing computers and writing code, takes over once the Navigator has gotten her to work. (As her doctor will point out, “There are people who would really envy you.”)

Julie, realizing that Mouse has multiple personality disorder, has hired her so that Andrew can coax her into acknowledging her condition. Though he is outraged by his boss’s meddling, Andrew relents after receiving two radically different e-mails from the same address. The first begs him to “help Penny find herself. I know it is a lot to ask—you don’t know us at all—but she has been afraid for such a very long time.” The second, sent three minutes later, is sheer menace. Short, unpunctuated and to the point, it’s a warning from Maledicta, one of Penny’s foul-mouthed twin protectors.

But as Penny begins to realize that she is leading her life as “a time-share,” Andrew comes undone. Julie rejects him (any reviewer who reveals why should be sentenced to life without literature), his therapist dies and he begins to think that he killed his stepfather. As Andrew makes his way to Seven Lakes, Mich., where he lived as a child, Penny tries to keep up with him. It’s a road trip that alternates between violence (when things get really bad, most of Andy Gage’s souls won’t come out of their rooms) and absurdity. In one motel, Mouse finds Adam watching a sex movie and instantly becomes Loins, who tries to seduce Adam, who turns into Aunt Sam, who then goes off in search of cigarettes with Maledicta. (The two become great friends.) The action also moves between the outside world and the inside of Andy Gage’s head. If Andrew can’t escape despair, he can at least alter the internal wasteland: “I reached up to the geography and smoothed out a rough spot on one of the gray ridges. As though an emotional volume control had been turned way down, the bad feeling diminished to a level where I could handle it.”

In Fool on the Hill and Sewer, Gas & Electric, Ruff was prodigal with his plots, his human extras, his animal delights (a mongrel and Manx in search of heaven, a mutant sewer-dwelling Great White). Set This House in Order, though equally irresistible, is a bolder book, an odyssey of transformation and trust rather than a clamorous symphony of a thousand.

— Kerry Fried

Copyright 2003 The New York Times

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From the Seattle Weekly, March 5, 2003:

This fascinating, very well-written book settles it: The hottest, coolest new Seattle writer is Matt Ruff. Don’t believe me? Think it’s just local pride talking? Would you believe ex-Seattleite Thomas fucking Pynchon, who hailed Ruff’s previous novel, Sewer, Gas & Electric (“”spectacular—dizzyingly readable”)? The first few pages of Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls will convince you. They’re not so much dizzying as clarifying—which is remarkable, since they’re about multiple personality disorder (MPD), the confusing malady made famous by The Three Faces of Eve, Sybil, and When Rabbit Howls.

The “house” in question is inside the mind of Ruff’s MPD hero, Andrew Gage, a Seattle guy who works in the virtual-reality field (of course!). Shy Andrew contains multitudes: his authoritative mental “dad,” Aaron; his bratty, horny anarchist kid brother (also Aaron); and several others, each with a room in the house. At any given time, only one personality can run the body (and Andrew “runs” the novel, too, as the first-person narrator). From time to time, a personality will seize control, wreak havoc, and leave Andrew to wake up blinking, wondering what happened, and responsible to deal with the consequences. Andrew hooks up with Penny, a co-worker who also has MPD, and he hopes to help her with her even more unruly mental house of cards. They wind up on a cross-country trip to find the secret of her past trauma, each struggling to keep their respective heads from turning into Animal House.

It reminds me of the mental strife in Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, only Ruff is a writer of leaner prose. The MPD stuff is absorbing—it wholly lacks the kind of revolting, sentimental therapy-speak that often infests such books. The tale is tactile, logical, and action-packed—inside and outside Andrew’s head. Let it get inside your head. I dare you.

— Tim Appelo

Copyright 2003 Seattle Weekly

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From the Seattle Times, January 27, 2003:

Andy Gage is dead. Andrew Gage, a 26-year-old born two years ago, is in charge of Andy’s body, while his father, Aaron, runs the house he built inside it …

The truth, as this novel’s characters keep telling one another, is complicated. Thanks to Matt Ruff’s matter-of-fact explanations, though, it’s easy to make sense of even the weirder aspects of Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls.

Andy, Andrew, Aaron and the house’s hundred or so other inhabitants are “alters,” to use a psychiatric term. They are the multiple personalities that arose after repeated incidents of childhood abuse shattered Andy’s sense of self. Instead of attempting to reintegrate them all, Aaron, a dominant personality, has constructed a stable inner landscape, a common gathering place. Whether or not this “house” is real, the various alters act as if it is. That lends helpful concreteness to the proceedings—and to the participants, many of whom would be classified as imaginary by some schools of thought. (Though recent editions of the DSM, the psychiatrists’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, still list multiple-personality disorder, it has fallen out of professional favor since its heyday, when bestsellers like Sybil and The Minds of Billy Milligan popularized the concept.)

At the novel’s opening, Andrew, whom Aaron created fully grown at the same time as he built the house, exists on a fairly even keel. Free of the blackouts and buying sprees that plague the lives of most multiples, Andrew carefully allots time “out” (in control of the body) to genteel Aunt Sam, childish Jake, mall-loving Simon and others. He sees no reason things shouldn’t continue calmly for the foreseeable future.

But his boss, Julie (Andrew is a janitor at a virtual-reality startup), introduces him to Mouse, another multiple who’s unaware of her own disorder. Julie thinks Andrew can help Mouse. Andrew is pretty sure he can’t, but one of Mouse’s alters, a foul-mouthed personality known as Maledicta, harasses Andrew until he has no choice but to try.

Mouse is just getting the hang of her situation when several traumatic events snap Andrew’s control and send Andy Gage’s body cross country with renegade alters Gideon and Xavier in charge. Mouse catches up with them, but as she’s by no means as sure of herself as Andrew was at his peak. Continual swift switches ensue.

If this sounds a little like a buddy movie starring Robin Williams and Lucille Ball, that’s an image in keeping with the book’s zanier bits, such as the scene where Aunt Sam throws a pie at a policeman. But Ruff meets the serious material inherent in his subject head on. Mouse’s flashbacks to the torture she suffered as a little girl are as quietly hideous as a tarantula creeping across a baby’s face.

Dragged by Xavier and Gideon to his abandoned childhood home, Andrew must confront his own memories of rape and neglect. At the same time, he tries to find out if one of his alters was responsible for his wicked stepfather’s “accidental” death, while wondering whether, if there was a murder, it might have been justified.

The truth, when we arrive at it, is complicated. Some of the answers lead only to larger questions: Why do people hurt one another? What is evil? Wisely, the author leaves these questions unanswered.

Ruff’s two previous novels, Fool on the Hill and Sewer, Gas & Electric drew critical praise and earned him the approval of no less a literary personage than Thomas Pynchon.

In Set This House in Order, he has realized speculative fiction’s great potential for exploring the dynamic edges of human consciousness.

— Nisi Shawl

Copyright 2003 Seattle Times

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From the “Review-a-Day” column of the web site, March 1, 2003:

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.

— George Lewis

Copyright 2003

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From the Telegraph, March 11, 2003:

From the outset, you know this is going to be a very peculiar thriller. Anything Thomas Pynchon calls “dizzyingly readable” (those two epithets, in conjunction, from Pynchon, will give rise to decades of scholarship) probably has to be.

It opens riddlingly. Its narrator, Andrew Gage, describes his own birth, the moment his father “called him out” from the bottom of a lake at the age of 26. Adam and Jake and Aunt Sam were watching from the lake bank, he says; Seferis was “up in the pulpit keeping an eye on the body”; and the “others” were watching from the edge of the forest. “Gideon must have been watching too, from Coventry, but I didn’t know about him then.”

This spooky scene, as he explains briskly not long afterwards, takes place inside the head of an adult living out the aftermath of sexual abuse, which has manifested itself in Multiple Personality Disorder. Andrew’s “father” is one of the many fissile personalities, or “souls”, which have been in competition to control the body ever since the original soul, called Andy, shattered. Andrew, now, is running the show, in uneasy truce with the extended family he shares brainspace with. Few around him understand so well the truth of the dictum: “Je est un autre.”

Reading those first pages, you feel real excitement: the thump in head and heart of a captivating idea; the creepiness of a fairytale; the wonderment of coming across something which feels both original and authoritatively imagined. Andy Gage is legion. And a novel at the core of which is the possibility of love not between people but, in the brutalised ruins of an abused child, between the broken parts of one lonely person, seems to me very moving.

The mostly harmonious set-up of Andrew’s head gives us some wonderful, and deliberately down-to-earth, gags, too. His saintly landlady Mrs Winslow (amusingly, the non-multiple characters tend to be pretty two-dimensional) every morning prepares a series of tiny little servings of breakfast foods. Each of the senior souls is allowed a go on the body to enjoy its favourite: so, five-year-old Jake, clumsy in an adult body, gets a teeny bowl of Cheerios; adolescent Adam gets half a muffin and a rasher of bacon; hardman Seferis (the body’s protector) crunches salted radishes.

Less ordered is the world of “Mouse”, the other multiple Andrew meets, and his relationship with whom drives the main action of the novel. Mouse, until she gets to know Andrew, has never understood why she blacks out and comes to, say, blind drunk in a bar, or “lying in a strange bed, in a strange house, with her hand pressed between the thighs of a man she has never seen before”.

The plot works in two directions. The action in the outside world moves towards an unknowable future, while in the inner worlds it is busily unravelling a series of unknown pasts. How did Mouse and Andrew become as they are? What buried memories may be threatening to undermine Andrew’s inward community of souls? And did one of his souls murder his stepfather, as he fears they did, without the knowledge of the others?

The weirdness of this book’s premise—which combines elements of Richard Powers’s Plowing the Dark with the film Memento and the “Numskulls” comic strip from Beezer—is at odds with the breezy and entirely absorbing style which carries it through its 500 pages. This is a gripping, occasionally hokey novel of suspense that could have come from the pen of Stephen King at his best – the more so for its gravitational attraction to grand guignol.

In curmudgeonly moments, I found myself wishing the mental geography Ruff has invented could have produced more to live up to the promise of the opening chapters, some of which brought me a prickle of tears. But if it ends up more readable than dizzying, it’s none the worse for that. It’s an exceptional piece of narrative, a two-man play with a cast of hundreds, and the only novel I’ve read lately in which the hero is able to announce, going out alone: “If they try anything, I’ve got them outnumbered.” I liked it. Me too.

— Sam Leith

Copyright 2003 Telegraph Group Limited