on June 22, 2004
"Set This House in Order" is truly one of the best-crafted novels I have read- a deftly, cleverly written story with captivating characters. It has an intriguing premise that is carried through to its full potential: Andrew Gage, a narrator and the main protagonist, is one personality belonging to a person with multiple personality disorder. Andrew has been chosen to be the responsible, regulating public persona for his body. Through Andrew, the different personalities inhabiting the body have input, but order is maintained, transforming what is usually considered a psychological disorder into a somewhat bizarre but rich and interesting way of life. When Andrew realizes that his co-worker Penny suffers from multiple personality disorder, he attempts to help her come to grips with her situation and find a better way of handling the many souls vying for dominance in her life. Amazingly, even though there are many characters residing in two bodies, each personality is so distinctive that the story is clear and free of confusion. The plot has a great mix of romance, adventure, and mystery, but it's the characters that make this a truly magnificent novel. The empathy of Ruff's writing imbues each personality with a unique and human soul. Though the idea of multiple personalities might sound difficult or disturbing, the story itself is full of gentleness and compassion. Like "Middlesex" or "The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime," "Set This House is Order" is an amazingly well-written and empathetic novel.
on October 26, 2003
I've read hundreds of books over the years, but I don't think I've ever read anything quite like this before: a novel whose main character is the dominant soul (to use Matt Ruff's own terminology) of a person with Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD).
That soul is Andrew Gage - who, in the chronology of Ruff's novel, was "born" just two years ago. Andrew was created by the former dominant soul, Aaron, to take over that role because he (Aaron) was exhausted from dealing with all the other souls in the body and from building the "house" that they all (but one) now reside in. It would take more space than is available in this review to explain about the "house", but Ruff explains this rather interesting concept extremely well.
The story deals with Andrew's getting his "house" in order, so to speak; his interaction with a fellow, "immature" victim of MPD, Penny Driver; and his discovery of several things in his body's past that could potentially cause Andrew to lose his place as the dominant personality.
I was extremely impressed with Ruff's ability to establish each soul with its own distinct personality. He must have done quite a lot of research on the subject to be able to do this. And to do it with two people (Andrew & Penny) is nothing short of amazing.
Penny and her souls are somewhat weaker characters than Andrew and his, but considering Penny's state when Andrew first encounters her that's hardly surprising. Julie Sivik, the woman who brings Andrew and Penny together, seems to me to be a bit of a caricature - she definitely has her own psychological hangups (as does everyone in this book, to one degree or another) - but she is definitely essential to the story, as you'll see.
As you read this book you'll encounter quite a few surprises along the way, including one that had me reeling for quite a while - suffice it to say that Andrew and Julie do not get together, despite all the indications Ruff throws at you up to that point. Towards the end he even throws in the elements of a mystery novel. That part of the book is somewhat weaker than the rest of the story, but it's still a vastly entertaining novel and one of the strangest stories I've ever read.
From other reviewers I get the impression that this is not at all similar to other fiction Ruff has written. I'm wondering if Ruff can be pigeonholed into any particular category of fiction. I'll pick up another one of his novels and find out.
"Set This House In Order" is Matt Ruff's finest work of fiction to date, brilliantly adding to a splendid body of work that includes such classics as his literary debut "Fool On The Hill" and the Ayn Rand-influenced cyberpunk novel "Sewer, Gas, Electric: The Public Works Trilogy". He offers a fascinating twist on the coming-of-age tale, exploring the lives of the multiple personalities inhabiting the bodies of Andrew Gage and Penny Driver. Like Jonathan Lethem in "Motherless Brooklyn", Ruff writes eloquently and with much compassion about two characters afflicted with a severe personality disorder. None of his splendid prose lapses into cliche or melodramatic writing. It's one of the few books I have read lately that I found almost impossible to put down, compelled to read vast portions of the novel at one clip. Without a doubt, Matt Ruff has become the most distinguished writer ever to have graduated from New York City's prestigious Stuyvesant High School. He is also among my generation's most talented writers, comparable in quality to the likes of Jonathan Lethem, Jeffrey Eugenides and Michael Chabon.
on April 15, 2003
This is a real tour-de-force novel that manages some remarkable feats without being pretentious or overly showy. Grounded, conversational, and naturalistic in style, Matt Ruff latest novel is quite a departure for him, or anyone else, I would imagine.
Andy Gage is an average guy with multiple personality disorder who seems to have a grip on it. Rather than integrating all his "souls" into one Andrew, he and his psychiatrist have found it works best for him to have all the personalities present, but in order. His "father" grew tired of being in charge of Andrew's body, so another personality, Andrew, has appeared to try to give Andy Gage a normal life. The souls are all still there, but live in a house organized by the father in Andy's head. Andy lets each soul surface when needed or when something is going on that he feels one might especially enjoy. He might seem a little strange to the outside world, but he's not blacking out and having days and weeks disappear. And he's got a new job with a computer firm in his small town outside Seattle.
So everything's going well for Andy until his sympathetic boss hires a new programmer who also has MDP. Unlike Andrew's orderly house of souls, Penny's "society" is in complete chaos. Thrown for a loop, Andy's most destructive soul takes over and Penny and Andy are on the roadtrip from hell to take on the demons of Andy's past in his small Michigan home town.
The first two-thirds of "Set this House in Order" are wonderful. Hearing Andy describe how he gets ready in the morning (different souls take on the various elements of the morning toilette) is a kick. But the final third becomes so frenetic that the sympathy and affection set up in the beginning to the novel begins to unravel. Considering what Matt Ruff has set up throughout, is this kind of denouement really necessary, or is it an attempt to tie everything up in a manner that will appeal to more mainstream readers? I was sorry to see the book go in this direction, but nonetheless, "Set This House" is highly recommended.
on March 11, 2003
I am only halfway through Set This House in Order, but I am so impressed and riveted by it that I had to write. This book is unique, a huge departure from Matt Ruffï¿½s previous novels Fool On the Hill and Sewer, Gas, & Electric. I loved those two books and certainly considered them to be written by a very gifted author. But Set This House in Order is blowing me away. To be honest, I wasnï¿½t sure I would like it. The subject matter was something of a turn-off for me. But as I mentioned, I loved his two previous books, and I feel it is imperative to support talented authors by buying their books in hardcover, so I bit the bullet. Good thing I did - this is one of the best books I have ever read.
It reads like a mystery, a psychological thriller, a comedy and a horror novel all at once. I will admit that the descriptions of Pennyï¿½s experiences with her mother caused me to sleep with the lights on last nightï¿½and since I am only halfway through, I suspect that there is more to come that wonï¿½t make sleep any easier. I wonï¿½t re-cap the plot, as this has been done already in the Publishers Weekly and Booklist reviews above. I canï¿½t imagine that anyone reading this book for any reason would be disappointed. It is dense, richly imagined, well-plotted, intensely interesting, surprising, satisfying. I rarely want to ask an author the dreaded question of ï¿½where do you get your ideas?ï¿½ but in this case I am so impressed that nothing would satisfy me more than to sit down with Matt Ruff for a couple of days to talk about this amazing book. I really hope that this book turns into one of those runaway sleeper hits that the bookstores canï¿½t keep stocked, a la Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Matt Ruff deserves to be famous.
on March 6, 2003
Like "The Fool on the Hill" and "Sewer, Gas & Electric", this story is very imaginative, has a lot of twists and turns in the plot, and keeps you turning the pages. Missing from this book however is the wackiness that permiated those other stories. Instead, the narrative in this story is edgy and a bit dark - largely due to the subject matter - two people with multiple personalities trying to come to grips with the childhood abuse that created their psychological problems. That said, the story is interesting and Ruff's portrayal of the various personalities inside each character's head is done in a very creative, fascinating - and non-confusing style.
I highly recommend the book, but given the excellent way in that Ruff established seperate storylines that take place both in and outside the characters' heads I would have liked to have seen Ruff explore the more comic possibilities of the situations rather than focus on the dark backdrop of childhood abuse, which rendered the story darkly creative instead of comically creative - definitely worth reading, however!
on April 28, 2004
This book is better than 99% of the books you could read. And for a mainstream novel, it's very well written.
But compared to his first two novels, which had strong elements of the fantastic, this is a disappointment. Sure, it's unusual to have main characters with MPD. And I feel that many of the major souls were more interesting than some of the minor characters who were "whole" people.
But "Fool on the Hill" and "Sewer, Gas and Electric" are novels which I will never be able to forget, even if I wanted to try. Besides being stunningly original and inventive in style and content, they have characters that are unforgettable. As I read them, I kept hoping that the novel would never end, that's how enjoyable they were.
And while "House" has well-written characters, I'm not sure I'll remember them for a long time. And it lacks the originality and inventiveness of "Fool" and "Sewer".
on May 27, 2004
After his first two books - quirky and sharply written, deftly straddling the imaginary fence between fantasy and literary - Ruff made an interesting decision in choosing his subject matter for his third novel. Instead of taking the "easy" route and returning to a fantasy setting, he steps into the real world, choosing a difficult premise, and delivers his best story yet.
While his first two books showed off his ability to handle large casts of distinctive characters and their overlapping stories, he flips the script here by focusing on two characters, both of whom house large and distinctive casts IN THEIR HEADS.
Describing the plot doesn't do the book justice as, like any worthwhile journey, half the pleasure is in getting there, and this book is a rare pleasure, indeed. In the end, Andy Gage and Penny Driver will be two people whose lives stick with you long after you reluctantly put the book down.
Matt Ruff has done it again!
on April 22, 2003
This isn't like talking to yourself. Or arguing with yourself. This is like reading a movie script, with a cast of dozens played by two people. And it is unbelievably, compulsively readable.
I'm a librarian, and read over 200 books a year. This is the first book in a very long time which I recommended to co-workers. I cared about the main characters, Andrew and Penny, but also became familiar enough with the secondary characters to miss them when I finished the book. I found Ruff's portrayal of 2 characters with MPD, and the manner in which they and their personalities interacted with each other and the rest of the world, both fascinating and utterly believable.
If you're looking for something outside of the mainstream regurgitated fluff (which never asks you to think), but also for something compelling, this is definitely worth the read.
on March 29, 2003
Matt Ruff has has been a favorite of mine since college when my girlfriend raved about Fool on the Hill and indeed I loved it too! This novel here is a departure for Ruff in that the fantastic isn't evident. What is consitant are the many rich characters within, however they're mostly inside two people, Andy & Penny. What's so incredible is that this novel, full of winsome charm, pulls you in with this same charm and an almost voyeuristic interest (for me) about the personalities inside the principal characters. Furthermore, as my fiancee (the same woman), who has worked in the mental health field for over eight years says, Ruff got MPD right.
This novel is not only a personal look into this fascinating yet sad disease, it also accomplishes something only the best of literature can; It broadens the soul.