Review: Matt Ruff, Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls (sf novel)

Alan P. Scott - Rants - Reviews

matte, rough

I don't know for sure that Matt Ruff got it right, though I believe he did. My last direct contact - that I know of - with a multiple personality was many years ago, when I was too callow and ignorant to know what sort of people I was dealing with. But I can well believe that he did get it right. This book, which is only his third novel (the others are Fool on the Hill and Sewer, Gas and Electric), is serious and well-crafted, showing evidence of long and careful research.

And I know one thing for certain: he got me, hooked me right in at about page 9 (there is a Prologue I could've dispensed with) and kept me reading nonstop thereafter.

Andy Gage is the protagonist, or one of them, at least. Andy Gage is two years old. Andy is also twenty-eight years old, or at least inhabits a body that is. Andy is a construct, a personality who was designed to be the primary external interface for a host of others who inhabit not just the same body but also the same house - the House of the title, the very house which Andy must set in order, in order to survive. A house Andy's father built on a lake he also built, within Andy's mind, to literally compartmentalize and contain all the many souls who share Andy's head.

This is a deeply resonant idea, the house on the lake - a Palace of Memory of a sort that Giordano Bruno never conceived, built wholly within the divided mind of someone who is only physically a single human being. There are other houses, and their order or lack thereof is important to the story, but none of the others are This House. Ruff describes the house on the lake in relentlessly physical terms; it is as real, as matter-of-fact, as any other place in the book.

This matter-of-factness is essential to the success of the book, I think. In a sense, Set This House in Order is science fiction - it relies on a sophisticated understanding of how the mind works that wouldn't have been available in decades past, though I recall a short story from the 1950s or '60s by... Philip José Farmer?... that played with the idea, and there are inklings in Robert Charles Wilson's 1990 novel The Divide, though Wilson explicitly distinguishes his protagonist from a true multiple.

In another sense, though, it is straight mimetic fiction. Andy's situation seems inarguably real... no suspension of disbelief is required. Ruff simply presents Andy's mental landscape - and Aaron's, and Aunt Sam's, Adam's and the rest - without undue exposition. And it's fascinating. Ruff piles revelation upon revelation, cutting ever closer to the roots of Andy's existence without ever faltering, building up to a satisfying crescendo.

"Don't be afraid," he tells a friend, late in the book. "We have him outnumbered."


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I was able to see Matt Ruff read an introductory passage from Set This House in Order on March 5, 2004. He read quickly, in a high, clear voice, standing in the Pearl Room of Powell's City of Books in downtown Portland, in front of an exhibit of off-the-wall plush animals by local artists. His wife Lisa Gold was also in the audience, which was sparse - Ruff's not exactly a household name - but enthusiastic and respectful. He's working on his next book, which is (I think) going to be called Bad Monkeys and which should be out in a shorter interval this time than the last.

After the reading, Ruff graciously signed books for fans and obvious resellers alike, drawing a little Kilroy-was-here figure on each one as well as chatting amiably and shaking hands with his fans.

Matt Ruff, Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls. HarperCollins hardback published 2003, ISBN 0-06-019562-2, US$25.95. Trade paperback published 2004, ISBN 0-06-095485-X, US$14.95.

©2003, 2004 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.

Last updated March 5, 2004.

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