Re-reading Matt Ruff’s ‘Set This House in Order’
A couple of years and a couple of novels after “Fool on the Hill”, I got a new Matt Ruff novel into my hands. “Set This House in Order: A romance of souls”.
I knew very little about it when I began to read it – but by this stage Matt Ruff had become one of the handful of novelists whose new book I just BUY, no questions asked, when it comes out because I know I am going to be rewarded for it. The subject matter of this book and how it was being dealt with was something that I wasn’t expecting. Blindsided, but riveted, I sank into this story and helplessly let its waters close over my head.
I have read thousands of books, only a handful of them that would I call “perfect”. This book is one of them.
It has not one, but TWO protagonists with Multiple Personality Disorder, and the sheer difficulty, some might call it impossibility, of getting into those heads, into the multiplicities that live inside those heads, I don’t know where he found the courage to do it. But I am oh so glad that he did.
This is a novel that is brimming with poignancy, with understanding, with sympathy, with helplessness, with sheer humanity. It has two protagonists – but each protagonist is fractured into smithereens and so each protagonist has individual sub-protagonists. What that means, craft-wise, is that the writer has MANY people who are on stage all the time and they all have speaking parts and they have to have individual and distinguishable voices and personalities of their own.
Andrew Gage – one of the protagonists – is literally (as and of his own actual existence) a handful of years old (his BODY is in its twenties). But inside him live Aaron, Adam, Aunt Sam, Jake, Seferis, Gideon, Simon, Angel, Rhea..and more. One of these people is an artistic woman who smokes. One of them is five years old. One is a teenager. One is a fit and dangerous warrior who exists in order to protect the body when it is in danger. One of them is the Bad Guy.
Think about that for a second. Just living with this is going to be catastraphically complicated, sometimes. Writing about someone who is living with it? And keeping it “sane”? This is something that Matt Ruff accomplishes with almost ridiculous aplomb.
The other main protag, Penny, is even more chaotic – while the Gage multiples have organized themselves into a somewhat tenable situation where things can be kept (just barely) under control, Penny has no such restraints. Her life is utter and complete chaos where any of her hidden personalities can basically wrestle the others down and grab control of the body they all share – and everyone else “loses time” and can wake up in places they have no memory of having gone to sleep in. Penny lives with a catastrophically damaged girl called Mouse, a chronicler named Thread, protectors Maledicta and Malefica, a borderline nymphomaniac named Loins, and any number of other splinters many of which she doesn’t even have names for.
It’s Penny’s search for sanity and identity and Andrew Gage’s search for truth and closure that form the backbone of this book, and it is a masterpiece from a writer who is writing from his full powers. Rarely will you read a book which grips from the beginning, which (despite its inherent improbabilities which you, the reader, are struggling to come to terms with from the very beginning) refuses to let go of you – while you’re reading, and then, afterwards, indelibly remaining behind in the archives of your mind. Matt Ruff finds the improbable, makes it the necessary and the obvious, and leaves you with the inevitable. Reading this book frequently left me breathless. Thinking about it after I finished reading it sharpened my mind and deepened my empathy.
I don’t know how much more you can possibly ask of a novel.
This probably remains the most inherently powerful book of Matt Ruff’s that I have read. It is the book which took the promise of the brash young genius kid who wrote “Fool on the Hill” and solidified it into a towering, confident talent who is fully aware of the difficulties of his subject matter and remains undaunted by them and undefeated by them.
As close to perfect as I know how to describe a book. An absolute tour de force and one to which I return to glory in it, to sink into, to learn – both about what makes my fellow man tick, and how to write about it with the power of a literary angel.
If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again there is really no use to read it at all. — Oscar Wilde
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