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Set This House In Order: A Romance of Souls is the third novel by Science Fiction and Fantasy author Matt Ruff. In a substantial detour from his established genre, this novel deals with the fictional lives of two Wilburian multiple systems living in mid to late 1990's America. Matt Ruff is neither multiple nor plural.
The two systems in question are Andy Gage, a functional multiple system which maintains a single stream of memory by use of a single fronter who is always either in the body or co-consciously observing, and Penny Driver, an extremely dysfunctional system which has no stable operating system, memory stream or intra-system communication. Both are in their twenties.
The story is told non-linearly by two different narrators: Andrew, the front runner of Andy Gage, who writes in the first person and Thread, the 'inner self-helper' of Penny Driver, who keeps a third person detached and impartial diary of the experiences of Mouse, the classic Wilburian 'clueless host' (however, the source of this narration is not explained until the end of the book and it's implied that Andrew has heavily edited it to read like a novel).
One of Ruff's stated influences is The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson, specifically the scenes where the protagonist continually loses small portions of time and is unable to understand the reactions of her fellow dinner guests as another in her system insults them. This influence is seen strongly throughout the early parts of the book as we see scenes first from Mouse's perspective, with sections of time missing, and then from Andrew's, where everything that occurs is reported. There are a large amount of unexplained events and actions which later become clear in a chapter told from a different character's perspective or starting earlier in the chronology. I personally enjoy non-linear and non-conventional storytelling, so I found this enjoyable. However, if you prefer your narratives to be a little more straight forward, you may resent the amount of work required to follow how the two narrators' differing perceptions interact.
As a member of a multiple system I, and many others who read the book with me, especially enjoyed the sections of the novel which portrayed the everyday existence of the functional system Andy Gage. Our popular culture is almost devoid of positive representations of plurality, in fact even neutral and negative portrayals are few and far between. As such it's refreshing to see 'our people' represented in a published novel.
Andy Gage's system is based around an inner landscape built and sculpted by the system's previous front runner Aaron. The centrepiece of this landscape is 'the house in Andy Gage's head'. This house holds a common room, a meeting place, personal rooms for each of the system members, a nursery for 'the witnesses' (which correspond to 'fragments' in 'poly-fragmented MPD', system members which have only one purpose or hold only one memory) and a pulpit from which they may co-consciously observe and comment on the events which are happening to the body. Other landmarks of note in the landscape are the pumpkin field where dead system members are laid to rest and the lake from which new system members can be called into existence and within which lies the island of Coventry where those who will not follow the rules of the system, laid down by Aaron, are exiled. As well as laying down the rules for how those using the body must act, Aaron also sets out discipline within the house. If system members behave they are given rewards of body time in which to enjoy activities. If they break Aaron's rules they can be punished with the removal of body privileges or by being locked in their room. Essentially the system is run not as a democracy but as an enlightened despotism. This said, when it is required the system hold house meetings where everyone (but those exiled to Coventry) is encouraged to participate.
The system members refer to each other as 'souls', which I haven't seen in the multiple community (where the opinion seems to be split between the disempowering terms such as 'alters' and 'personalities' and the more straightforward and empowered term 'people'). However I don't find the use of the term implausible, many systems have their own personal vocabularies when referring to themselves and their operating systems, and I myself have previously sought a non-insulting term to distinguish between internal and external people when attempting to communicate without ambiguity. Andrew occasionally refers to 'MPD' when talking to outsiders but generally just calls himself 'multiple' as is common amongst functional multiples. They refer to their system as a 'household' which isn't unusual for systems which centre around a physical house in their inner or other world.
The story starts when Andrew is called into existence by Aaron, his father. He is born a 26 year old with no life experience and expected to take responsibility for the actions of the body from then on, to always be at or near front and to never lose time. It turns out though that the original plan was for Aaron to take the full responsibility but he changed his mind due to a double blow of bad news, part of which is that the therapist who had helped him through the process of building a stable operating system and inner world suffered a stroke. Andrew's existence was in that respect unplanned, born out of a moment of weakness, and their then therapist considers Aaron's decision to create him to be a mistake. Throughout the first half of the book we see Andrew's naivety and lack of life experience and how this affects his interactions with others and his attempts to build romantic relationships.
Essentially Set This House In Order is the coming of age story of Andrew, how he grows as a person, learns the lessons needed to overcome his lack of experience and eventually gains the strength and insight needed to move past the circumstances of his origins and become an empowered and independent individual.
As well as Andrew, the front runner, and Aaron, the enlightened despot, there are various other system members who make more than a passing appearance in the book. The most prominent is Adam, a cocky 15 year old who's an impeccable judge of character and the system member most likely to be advising the naive and inexperienced Andrew from the pulpit. Next are Seferis the strong defending giant, ever ready to take the front when a physical threat is present, Aunt Sam the artist and romantic and Jake the curious toy-loving child.
The system are openly multiple at home and switch freely around their landlady who cooks them individual portions of breakfast and calls them by their names. In their room in the Earth world there are various possessions which are owned or shared by different system members. In the mornings different system members are allowed time in the body for their getting up routine (various configurations of showers, exercise and talking to their landlady) and in the evenings time is split between those who have body privileges (handed out by Aaron) within which various hobbies and activities take place.
At work only Andrew is out but he is open to his workmates about being a member of a multiple system. He's also quite obvious about asking those inside for advice or answering back to those commenting from the pulpit.
Often the system will go on outings and day trips during which various people are allowed time in the body to do activities of their choice, be it exploring a toy shop or enjoying dessert at a restaurant.
It's clear that Ruff has researched within the multiple community, his website specifically refers to Astraea's Web (from which numerous systems' websites are linked, including our own) and at the end of the book he acknowledges the various web and newsgroup authors. Even without this information, one can see that he's clearly read the personal descriptions from the websites of many functional systems as there's practically nothing in the descriptions of the interpersonal interactions of the system members which doesn't ring true. They really are a pleasure to read.
Also present in the system is Gideon, the 'dark soul' who seems to be more sociopathic than psychopathic. He wishes to take dominance over the body and never give time to the others, seeing them only as pests. Gideon is supposedly exiled to Coventry but in fact has an escape route, from which he can steal time in the body, which exists due to a weakness in Aaron's psyche never closed due to their therapy being cut short by the doctor's stroke.
Andrew meets Penny Driver through his workplace. His boss is an eccentric entrepreneur who hires multiples to work in her virtual reality company because she believes that they are the ultimate creative consultants having the experience of internal landscapes where many people can interact together.
Mouse, the main fronter, is extremely dysfunctional, continually losing time, in heavy denial of her multiplicity, living her life by lists which 'mysteriously' appear and often finding herself in dangerous or degrading situations. Because of her lost time, her life is essentially without cause and effect. She believes that she finds herself upsetting people or in terrible situations simply because she's a horrible person. From Andrew's perspective we see that talking to Penny is like watching a parade, people come to the front simply to make obscene comments and then slip away leaving Mouse unaware that anything was said. The system members are obviously not communicating or cooperating with each other, simply acting for their own gain (for the most part).
As the story goes on the other members of Mouse's system realise that Andrew is also multiple and ask him to help Mouse accept that she is part of a system and to therefore become more functional. Andrew reluctantly agrees, after some drama from less understanding members of the system and from his boss with whom he's romantically involved (in a complicated way), and eventually Mouse accepts that she's multiple and agrees to go to see a therapist. At this point all should go well and the story should finish, but due to the weakness in Aaron's control over the system Gideon engineers a takeover and attempts to get back to the other side of America, to the small town where Andy Gage grew up.
Because Andrew and Aaron have been so willing to help her, Mouse goes off in pursuit. In doing so she finally begins to see the other members of her system as allies and communicates with them as equals. She also becomes less timid and mouse-like as they face stresses and dangers together.
The second half of the book is essentially a road trip to Andy Gage's childhood home through which both Andrew and Mouse achieve the self growth and personal revelations which would have taken place in therapy, eventually becoming better and stronger people.
Ultimately I enjoyed this novel for the style and quality of storytelling, the portrayal of functional multiplicity and for the way the story was resolved once the two systems arrived in Andy Gage's childhood home. I found it well written and well conceived. The behaviour of the characters (almost) always felt consistent with their circumstances and life experience. The storylines were rich and multi-dimensional, as were the characters. However, as a happy, smoothly functioning, natural multiple with a cooperative operating system, I read the novel with a critical eye and I came away with some serious misgivings.
Ruff states in interview that he decided to write a novel about multiplicity because he thought it would be fun. However, buying entirely into the Wilburian concept that multiplicity is caused by 'splitting' due to severe and prolonged childhood trauma which is most often abuse, he proceeds to create detailed, graphic fictional accounts of systematic physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Ruff claims not to have been abused '[any] more than any other smart kid who didn't play sports'. Decide for yourself if you find well conceived, detailed, fictional accounts of extreme abuse written to justify the origins of fictional multiple systems created for 'fun' to be distasteful or not.
During the book we're given flashback sequences to Penny Driver's childhood where her violent, sadistic and paranoid mother sets about emotionally destroying her as if she were a plaything. As well as a cat and mouse 'game' which cumulates in incestuous sexual assault. Many other severely abusive events are shown or implied. If this is going to upset you it might be worth giving this book a miss.
It's worth noting that this novel received quite widespread coverage in the (American) national literary press (including many major newspapers) and, later this year, will be released in other English speaking countries (including the UK). These reviews were perhaps the first, or at least most prominent, coverage the concept of functional multiplicity has received, many explaining in detail what multiplicity is and how a functional multiple system might be configured. However they also covered or picked up on many of the negative aspects of Ruff's plot, probably propagating rather than dispelling many stereotypes which are already damaging to those of us who live our lives as multiple.
A minor but prime example of this is that Ruff has made an error in his use of terminology, consistently referring to integration (the dubious process of somehow causing a system full of people to become one single person) as 'reintegration'. This term is seen in some translations of Jung's splitting theory and some bad TV movies. It's also occasionally used by a small minority of therapists, mainly those wishing to stress that integration is a restoration of some kind of natural state. However the term used by the vast majority of therapists and multiples, including those who write books on the subject, is 'integration'. It seems extremely unlikely that Andrew's system and every therapist they ever encounter would all use this rarely seen alternative term. It's especially unlikely that Dr Grey, a therapist who doesn't advocate integration, would choose to use a non-standard term which contradicts her own philosophy. It's also worth noting that the most commonly understood meaning of the term is the reintegration of institutionalised individuals into society, certainly not something a non-advocate of integration would want to imply.
I'm not sure how Ruff can have read so many books and websites on the subject and be so obviously well researched and yet make such a glaring repeated error. It's as if he'd managed to use disassociation in the place of dissociation (for those who are wondering, there is thankfully only one reference to dissociation in the entire book). I can only assume that the use of the non-standard term was a concious choice, which seems odd considering that Ruff has otherwise tried hard to make the story match reality. Of course, the literary press reviews of the novel have faithfully recreated this incongruity describing multiplicity to the masses in terms of 'reintegration'.
At one point in the book we see what Ruff's idea of successful 'reintegration' is, apparently he's confused fluid co-conscious cooperation where individual system members can move to and from front (i.e., probably the most common configuration of real life multiples) with becoming one person. Still, it was nice to see something other than classic Wilburian multiplicity presented albeit briefly, even if it was mislabeled to the point where many readers may miss it entirely.
I also have issue with the depiction of Penny Driver's system. Sure, Ruff has created the most horrendous fictional abusive background to justify any degree of 'brokenness' or dysfunctionality, but the names and 'roles' of the various members of the system are so gratuitously stereotypical as to be insulting to all multiples. These are no less insulting than ethnic stereotypes which would be universally frowned upon if they appeared in popular culture. Prominent members of Penny Driver's system include timid Mouse, slutty Loins, academic Brain, inner self-helper Thread and the twins, foul mouthed chain-smoking Maledicta The Foul Speaker and violent alcoholic Malefica The Evil Doer.
Another extremely annoying and possibly insulting part of the book is when Andrew is completely incapable of understanding another's uncomfortable reaction to a piece of personal information during an intimate situation. This is a blatant contrivance in order to create a plot twist that should not naturally appear in the flow of the story. Firstly, while Andrew has little life experience, he's still continually advised and warned about things he's not picking up on by other wiser or more perceptive observers. In this case it's unimaginable that in the years he has been attempting to start this relationship he wouldn't have been warned by one of the others about how the world tends to work in this respect. Secondly, anyone who has watched television (especially talk shows) in our society will be aware of the weight and controversy that is placed on this issue and would realise that some people, if not most people, are going to be extremely uncomfortable if at least not warned in advance (Andrew has a television, is always following what happens to the body and has been at front for two years at this point). Finally, we're told that Andrew is regularly active on Internet discussion forums for multiple systems, from experience it would be impossible for him to spend any amount of time in such places without coming across many discussions that touched on this issue and the difficulties many members of multiple systems have with it. In general it just seems ludicrous that, even on his own, Andrew would not have some degree of understanding of this issue.
The idea that members of multiple systems are stuck in their own perceptions of reality and completely unable to comprehend that others don't see their way of thinking is an insulting stereotype lifted straight out of Flora Schreiber's Sybil. Actually multiples are all too painfully aware of the perceptions and prejudices of others and to suggest otherwise is to imply that we're delusional or impaired.
Lifted from Truddi Chase's When Rabbit Howls is the idea that if, when asked something, one comes out with a nonsense answer that indicates that something is being suppressed. In this case 'How many doors are on the first floor?' 'Three, the front door and the back door'.
Quite disturbingly a major plot element seems to have been lifted straight out of the awful Jim Carey multiple-themed comedy film Me, Myself & Irene, which is even listed as one of Ruff's influences. It seems that when the fronter lets their guard down another can take control of the body's right arm without them noticing anything is happening. At one point there's a fight scene where one hand attempts to block the attacks of the other.
Perhaps the worst stereotype of all that's repeated in the book is that of the 'dark one' inside which you don't know about or which you thought you had under control who could come out at any point and ruin your life or commit a crime (at one point it's strongly hinted that someone may have killed Andy Gage's abuser, I can assure you now that no one in either of the systems killed anyone (although someone in Penny's system does at one point rob what is almost a liquor store), but nonetheless this strong hinting is picked up on and repeated in many reviews). The author lists the despicable horror film Session 9 as one of his influences. Anyone who's seen this film should be extremely unimpressed to find it recommended as a good way to learn about multiplicity.
On the other hand, I enjoyed and agreed with Andrew's assertions that the entire system is a single legal entity and it's their responsibility to ensure that they as a whole do not do wrong. If someone in a system commits a crime that person is responsible, but the entire system also holds some blame for not preventing the criminal actions. It's nice to finally see the sensible and obvious answer to the hysteria over the 'multiple personality defence', under which one person claims not to be legally responsible for their actions because someone else inside committed the crime (the most famous example of this is probably Billy Milligan, whose case was specifically cited by the characters in the book), aired in a published work.
It's strongly implied, and in places stated, that all multiples require therapy to become functional either through integration or the development of a stable operating system. Even when Andrew resolves the issues which had caused his father's weakness and becomes a far stronger and more empowered person, he still goes back to therapy, perhaps seeking validation that he got it right? Many multiple systems do not require or seek therapy. This idea is not represented at all in this book.
When I first heard about this book and read the reviews I sincerely hoped that the ending of the book would involve Andy Gage's household developing a far fairer, cooperative and therefore more stable and functional system. The book does end with a change in their operating system which leaves them more stable but it's still ultimately an enlightened despotism which is only as fair as the single person who dominates it. Towards the end we are even given the blanket statement that 'dominance' in multiple systems is all about how much trauma one can endure. Andy Gage's operating system is based around dominance, not cooperation, and the way it's presented makes it seem as this is the one and only way to be multiple. Andy Gage is a functional multiple system, but probably not one I would choose to be the figurehead of our movement.
To conclude, I found Set This House In Order to be well written and almost entirely consistent within its fictional world. However, it also exists in our world where it will be read or reviewed by others as possibly their first exposure to the concept of multiplicity. As such, it's quite questionable in a number of respects. Some people in the multiple community have expressed distaste at the idea that someone who is neither multiple nor an abuse survivor felt qualified to write a novel in which both featured prominently and in which many negative stereotypes were reinforced. On the other hand, it's still a pleasure to see multiplicity, let alone functional multiplicity, represented in popular culture. While coming with its fair share of negative stereotypes, the novel does introduce to the masses the ideas of system responsibility, multiple functionality and capability and the idea that not all multiples choose to integrate, or can integrate, but instead function in society as many (albeit, the book insists, after some substantial therapy). Who knows, perhaps these small plot elements will be the seed of an idea that could grow large enough to open some readers' minds?