Set This House in Order

by Matt Ruff

Cover image

Publisher: Perennial
Copyright: 2003
Printing: 2004
ISBN: 0-06-095485-X
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 479

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A textbook case history would say that Andy Gage has disassociative identity disorder (referred to here as the more common although medically inaccurate "multiple personality disorder" for reasons of clarity and to match casual speech, according to the author). However, that's a completely inadequate description. A better description would be that Andy Gage's body is inhabited by a large set of different personalities, who take turns being in control. The original Andy Gage is dead, shattered by horrific childhood abuse. Aaron became the dominant personality and gave structure to the internal geography of the mind they all share, with the help of extensive counselling. But Aaron was exhausted by being the public face and maintaining control of the shared body. Hence, Andrew.

Andrew Gage is the first-person narrator of half of this book. He is twenty-eight, the same age as the body, but he's only existed for two years. He considers Aaron his father, since Aaron called him out of the lake inside their internal metal geography. His purpose is to run the body and be the public face of the family. He is by turns capable and naive, shy on personal experience, but able to get the help of the others. The one heard from most frequently is Adam, a rude and mischevious teenager who also has an uncanny ability to read other people, and who frequently watches through the body's eyes from what the family calls the "pulpit" and gives Andrew advice.

Andrew works for Julie Sivik, a woman he met the day he quit his job at a big-box store because he couldn't explain his behavior to his boss without discussing being a multiple. Julie is a wholly impractical, slightly unethical, well-meaning force of chaos who serves as the thread that draws the plot of the book together. She's running a startup on ingenuity and borrowed money that is attempting to create a comprehensive and customizable virtual reality world. She's the one who finds Penny and hires her, in part for her skills, and in part to push Penny and Andrew together.

Penny Driver has the same condition as Andrew, but Penny is only vaguely aware of it. The world for her is full of blackouts, lost time, waking up in strange and sometimes horrific situations, and attempting to structure her life based on notes left for herself that she didn't write. When she meets Andrew, she's barely making it through life; thankfully, one of her personalities is remarkably good at computers, and that has been enough to make a living despite the chaos. But Julie is the unintentional catalyst for her losing that job, the best job she's ever had, leaving her with no real alternative but to take the job with Julie's company.

There are a few things that are important to say up-front about this book. First, neither I nor the author are actually multiples (or, put another way, neither of us have DID), and writing about atypical mental states is fraught with peril. It's very easy to misrepresent other people's experiences, and multiple personalities in particular are frequent material for dramas of all sorts. There's something people find inherently fascinating about the idea, and it's easy for that fascination to run away with reality and distort the lived experience. I recommend reading Ruff's FAQ about the book, which spells out what his goals are and what approach he took. I did some quick searches and didn't uncover a lot of anger or dislike of the book among either people who have DID or psychiatrists, and it seems true to the descriptions of internal reality I've heard from people who are multiples. But despite being more respectful of real experience than most fictional treatments of DID, this is still a work of fiction written by someone without first-hand experience, and it's worth keeping that in mind.

Second, DID is an intensely controversial diagnosis among psychiatrists. There are, generally speaking, two major controversies. One is over whether or not DID can actually be caused by traumatic experiences such as childhood abuse, or whether it is a creation of psychiatrists, a mental model that they've imposed on their patients or convinced their patients to believe. Set This House in Order comes down firmly on the first side of that controversy: that DID can be created by abuse and is not a creation of psychotherapy. (So, I should note, does every multiple that I've ever talked to or read.) Second, there is significant controversy over treatment, with some psychiatrists believing that integration of the personalities into one is the only true treatment, and others believing that multiples can remain stable and functional as multiple personalities. Set This House in Order leans strongly towards the view that multiples can be stable as multiples and that while integration may be appropriate for some, it's not for all. Both of these viewpoints are presented very convincingly by the narrative in the book, and both are consistent with the beliefs of a lot of multiples, but it's worth remembering that these are active and often quite heated controversies and a novel is not evidence.

It's good to be aware of both of those points, and to read Put This House in Order as something of a what-if, where much more is clear about DID than is actually clear in our world. But once one has done that, one is in for an excellent book.

I loved this book from start to finish. (Well, okay, I felt some surprise at the nature of the ending, but it grew on me after further consideration.) It's simply a brilliant novel, with a little bit of everything: very good characterization, messy love affairs, the satisfying tension of someone overcoming great odds to put themselves together with the help of friends, a startlingly original perspective of the world, some excellent surprises, and some absolutely wonderful characters. Andrew is a good choice of narrator: he brings an earnest calm to a story that could otherwise be quite chaotic and provides a great vantage point for the reader. And I found Penny (and particularly some of her other souls) impossible not to like.

Set This House in Order is a tense book in places, and it's a book where people's lives break down before they can get better. It's also a book about rather horrific abuse, and while nearly all of the specifics happen off-stage, imagination fills in some nasty details. But Ruff manages to write it with a structure and with enough calm assurance that I felt just reassured enough without taking away the tension. That's a tricky balance; few books do it better.

And the supporting characters are a delight. One might think, with all the complexity happening for both Andrew and Penny, that Ruff wouldn't have room in the narrative for other characters, but one would be wrong. There are very few saints and demons here, just a lot of complex people, with their own problems and their own perspectives, who are generally trying to do the best they can from day to day. There are some clear-cut villains in the past — Ruff wisely makes no attempt to add shades of grey to abusers — but even there one can see some clear signs of untreated severe mental illness and chaotic lives rather than mustache-twirling pre-meditated villainy. This is, in short, a book full of people, in all their messy complications, which is what makes it so delightful.

I'm not going to say anything more about the plot, or even the various personalities, since discovering the direction of the book was so much of the fun. I will say that, despite the subject matter and some of the events, the book is surprisingly gentle. One of the things about it that I loved the most was the emotional tone Ruff gave to being a multiple: the sense of a squabbling but tight-knit family looking out for each other. I can't judge the reality of this impression, but it makes for a wonderful story.

Highly recommended. The best book I've read so far this year.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-11-03

Last spun 2014-01-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04