A House Divided
Matt Ruff claims he doesn’t suffer from multiple personality disorder, the very condition that ails the two main characters in his third novel, Set This House in Order. It’s unclear, however, whether Ruff is protesting a bit too much. The writer moves so deftly between his characters, and the characters inside the heads of his characters, that one may suspect Ruff has experience juggling the voices in his head.
Mental illness is not exactly a subject that lends itself well to humor. While the veracity of multiple personality disorder is still debated in the psychiatry field, there’s little doubt that its symptoms, including “lost time,” blackouts during which opposing personalities gain control, are terrifying.
It would therefore be very easy to write off Set This House in Order as a sort of lame, pop psychology joke. The sometime first-person narrator Andrew is really just one of dozens of personalities literally shacking up in the head of the protagonist, Andy Gage. Andrew is, through no action of his own, put in touch with another MPD sufferer and expected to show her the ropes to maintaining control of the body. The woman, Penny, is subject to the whims of a handful of power-hungry personalities in her own head, causing her to blackout at times and wake up in new circumstances navigated by rogue personas.
The twist to the multiplicitous dynamic duo is that at the time of Andrew’s and Penny’s meeting, Andrew is technically only two years old. When the body of Andy Gage was 26, the then-controlling personality, Aaron, brought forth Andrew to run the body. All of the splintered and malformed personalities now live in a house built on a landscape in Andy’s mind.
Such a premise could easily add up to a schmaltzy, “Eight is Enough in Andy’s Head” yukfest. Instead, Ruff carves characters out of each of the personalities who, we learn, share a dark history of the abuse that cracked Andy’s psychology. The result is a long, tortuous ride through Andy’s past, about which Andrew is nearly as naive as the reader. Penny and Andrew are frightened characters - neither are sure they’re in complete control of their actions—who have been subjected to some horrifying, soul-crushing abuse, tales of which are weaved into the narrative.
Ruff is adept at relating the abuse that led to both Andy’s and Penny’s fractured selves without letting the book become too gruesome in the details or empty in glossing them over. Equally impressive is his ability to use all of the personalities the same way Andrew does—as guides to the reader through a confusing world that the two-year-old Andrew lacks the emotional maturity to handle.
Ruff has already displayed his knack for telling offbeat tales. His first book, Fool on the Hill, featured a retired Greek god, a Cornell writer-in-residence, talking dogs and cats and a fire-breathing paper dragon. His second book,Sewer, Gas & Electric takes place in 2023, when an ambitious billionaire tries to build a new Tower of Babel, only to be opposed by an eco-terrorist. Oh yeah, and there’s a newspaper publisher whose car is possessed by the spirit of Abbey Hoffman.
Given Ruff’s proclivity for the absurd, Set This House in Order seems a tame affair. In fact, Ruff thankfully allows for the proper gravity when discussing MPD, refusing to let the illness become the joke. Aside from lending the characters more life, Ruff’s understanding of MPD has the additional benefit of giving the reader a better sense of what it entails, and just how serious it can be. It’s one of those rare works that deals with a serious illness and avoids being either mawkish or insulting. The humor is in all the right places, and absent from the wrong ones.
What perhaps is most impressive is the tremendous humility with which Ruff tells the story. He lets his research and imagination take the lead, never distracting from the story with cute asides or gimmicks that would be easy to slip in with such a non-linear topic. While the narrative necessarily shifts from first person to third person when Andrew tells Penny’s story, there is never any confusion in Ruff’s devices. His prose and his structure exhibit a surprising unity that would seem anathema to a story about multiplicity.
Ruff controls the body of his work with the same single-mindedness that Andrew must learn. He seems to have listened to all of the voices in his head, and focused them into a warm and humane novel.