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Set This House in Order is a novel which purports to tell the story of two multiples-- a 'romance of souls'. I am given to understand that the singlet author, Matt Ruff, is known primarily for writing science fiction, and whilst the novel is set in modern-day America, its inclusion of multiplicity, for better or worse, is likely to be perceived as representative of the author's fascination with and desire to write upon the fantastic.
Singlets enraptured with and writing about multiples are by no means a recent phenomenon, though by great majority these attempts have been sensationalised, caricatured, and outright dreadful, being founded either upon a cookie-cutter abuse-splitting model replete with token killer (Daniel Keyes' The Fifth Sally, John Wilson's The Disappearance of Lyndsay Barratt) or some psychic toaster nonsense (Stephen King's The Dark Half, Dean Koontz's Cold Fire); or, in some cases, a combination of the two (Mercedes Lackey and Holly Lisle's When The Bough Breaks, which I should not recommend to anyone for any use other than bird cage lining, and certainly not for reading). The only few which have at all come close to depicting a realistic experience of multiplicity, I think, are founded firmly within the genres of speculative and fantastical fiction, among them This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman (which per its author's admission is indeed founded upon the MPD/DID model, but shows the system living happily as a family at the end, with neither need nor desire to integrate) and The Watcher's Mask by Laurie Marks (which posits a society in which some individuals are born as co-conscious multiples).
So, the cynics among us may be given to wonder, why might we have cause to expect anything particularly new or remarkable from this new book; in the words of this system's Anthea, "yet another case of someone who is not us writing about us" --? This particular cynic did not approach the book with any great enthusiasm, and was on many turns validated in that lack of expectation; but I cannot in the end judge Mr. Ruff to be a thoroughly clueless singlet. He is, it must be confessed, to the best of my knowledge or that of any other in this system, the first singlet author to be exposed to the idea of empowered multiplicity, and to incorporate some of its concepts, however few, into the weaving of his tale; and by that incorporation to introduce these concepts duly to perhaps a greater audience than would have stumbled across the concepts in their own searchings of the Internet. There are, as our Azusa has pointed out, no few singlets to eagerly gobble up any books which touch upon the subject of multiplicity;-- either because we are seen as pity-cases to gawk at, like the hapless downtrodden creatures who populate talk-show circuits, or because the toaster tales reinforce to them some saccharine notion of 'the amazing abilities of the human mind', or because they enjoy a vicarious thrill from gratuitous descriptions of abuse and incest, or because the idea of a serial killer skulking around in the back of cheerful Miss Tiddlywinks' head gives them a nice fright (why, your neighbor could be a multiple and live a secret life of eating babies, and you could never know it!), or because we are simply 'interesting', like Siamese twins and two-headed frogs, weird and grotesque and entrancing all at once-- all these are much finer and more interesting reasons to buy a book or browse a page, for most, than screeds upon personal responsibility and recountings of the unfortunate mundanities of our real lives.
Perhaps then it is good, on the greater scale of reckoning, that Mr. Ruff has chosen to include enough tasty tidbits of time-loss, abuse histories, and violent alters to whet the literary appetites of the reading public, and of the singlets who devour anything touching even cursorily upon the subject of 'MPD', in that they may end up with the idea of functional multiplicity embedded into their awareness, even whilst greedily devouring the gory details which drew their interest in the first place; it will at least have touched their minds, and perhaps, for a few, it may inspire them to want to know more. On the lesser scale, in the estimation of someone whose way of life is being purportedly represented (or misrepresented) therein, there are a fair share of things to quarrel with, and some things which I grimaced and swallowed without complaint like a bad-tasting medicine (insofar as they were a step up from the usual singlets-writing-about-multiples fare, and at least served to purport the revolutionary concept that some of us, at least, are under control).
The tale hinges upon the meeting of two multiples, going by the body-names of Andrew Gage and Penny Driver, and their cross-country journey to Andrew's hometown, a plot which the author does not fail to lace with tantalising hints that someone in Andrew's system may have murdered their abusive stepfather. (Happily, this particular suggestion does not pan out, which is as much as I can say without spoiling the end thoroughly for the curious).
The book begins through the recollections of the members of Andrew Gage's system (the concept of system-names having been judged perhaps too bizarre or outlandish for the general public's understanding, though it cannot have failed to come to the author's attention in his research, none of the collectives in the book have names). Andrew, we are told from the first chapter of the book, was created deliberately to be the main frontrunner, born into the body as a 26-year-old man; he was the creation of Aaron, the previous, and now retired, main fronter, whom he refers to throughout as his father. Andrew rules over the system as what has been best described (by another system, to whom I grant due credit) a sort of enlightened despot; which impresses itself upon this reader as a rather poor way to run a collective, however benevolent his dictatorship; it is like construsting a high-rise apartment building with no fire escapes.
Nonetheless we are shown that the system encompasses several individuals who in their own rights are quite competent, and not at all after the molds of 'typical kinds of alters' that I can see; they include 15-year-old Adam, sarcastic and unreluctant in voicing his opinions, and Aunt Sam, who possesses a sort of motherly kindness redeemed from becoming a stereotype by her streetwise ways. All of this leads to the inevitable wonderment of why Andrew has been appointed to lead the body's affairs entirely, with the others acting as a sort of peanut-gallery commenting on exterior happenings; at least, this reviewer is led to hope that the inquiring reader will come away with the curiosity of why a more communal operating system might not have served better.
Penny's system is, in the estimation of this reviewer, frankly the less interesting of the two, being so much in the Wilburian model that one is given to imagine that the author penned her chapters with copies of Sybil and Three Faces of Eve in hand to paw through. Once we know that the main frontrunner Mouse, as one might guess by her name, is a timid and fearful creature who loses time like pennies falling through a torn pocket, it becomes merely tedious for anyone who is in the least familiar with the Wilburian model to guess the 'mysteries' underlying her externally curious and contradictory behaviour, and the dark secrets of her past. And indeed we do trudge through her initial befuddled cluelessness, her tedious acknowledgement of her own multiplicity, her meeting of the others (who incline mostly towards cookie-cutter roles), her abuse at the hands of her sadistic mother, via flashbacks which we later learn to have been related by 'Thread', her ISH-type. (It is worth noting that Mr. Ruff seems not only to have borrowed heavily from Sybil in his envisioning of her system and its creation, but seems to have gone overboard with the homages: Penny's hometown of 'Willow Grove,' her mother's maiden name of 'Dorset,' her losing a year of time after the death of her grandmother.)
Indeed, when Penny's group opts for integration in the end, the opinion of this reviewer was that it may perhaps have been for the better, so flat are the roles played by her group: libidinous 'Loins,' who enjoys gaining power over men through sex; foul-mouthed 'Maledicta,' who seems incapable of delivering a sentence without once employing a variant of the word 'fuck'; some little-described person named 'Brain' who fixes computers (a skill of which Mouse has no knowledge); and the aforementioned 'Thread.'
It is curious and somewhat embittering that Mr. Ruff, having offered in his acknowledgements a concilliatory nod to 'numerous Web authors and Usenet posters', leaves the chief among them uncredited by name or specific, in particular the system from which the word 'household' in reference to a multiple collective was lifted, as well as the character 'Dr. Grey's' comparison of functional multiplicity to left-handedness-- a simple difference, not a disability. Indeed my final suspicion was that this omission had been conscious, for one of two reasons: firstly as a means of saving face among his literary colleagues, by leaving no traceable references by which sundry literati might have used to indict him for fraternising with such loonies; secondly, and perhaps more dismally, that he browsed our sites and self-definitions with a jaundiced eye, founded in what I have come to call the 'postcards from the asylum' mindset.
Here we are, we have laid bare our realities and the experience of our existence for all to see, in detail as intimate as we care to confess before public view; detailing our concepts of how systems may work and come to be; and most if not all in flagrant defiance of what psychiatry holds as dogma, and what the public at large has come to believe. Clearly we are not normal, and so many who hold dear the MPD/DID label are swift to profess that 'MPDs' are not well people; we cut, we burn, we can scarcely drag ourselves through a day without foundering in an ocean of triggers and flashbacks. And the ones who so profess have got the endorsement of their therapists; surely their opinion must be more trustworthy than we curious strangers who have never so much as confessed the fact of our existence to a therapist, indeed! And what strange opinions we espouse; all this business about otherworlds and otherkin, walk-ins and reincarnated souls-- true, to be sure, we are not all touting our mighty toaster powers, but we are such curious folk to think that anyone can become multiple without being shattered, that they might be so born or have souls enter the system from realities existing beyond our own-- how do we come to think such things? By the reckoning of what they have been taught, none of those are more plausible than any other, and all encompassed by a category of indistinguished 'strange beliefs,' none worth holding to greater scrutiny than any other-- surely then we are not in our right minds; surely we cannot be trusted at face value! Thus it is the job of the sane singlet to pick through the madman's scribblings, and thence sift out what smacks as plausible to his media-steeped ways of thinking; living without integration, indeed, might be possible, but best not even to fathom what mindset could hold as a possibility the existence of other worlds. Postcards from the asylum, indeed! A colourful place it must be to visit, but none in their right mind would choose to live there.
But, parting company now with my misanthropic tendencies, let us suppose that my most pessimistic suspicions about Mr. Ruff's research are misguided, and that, instead, he has merely refused firm favour of one side or the other, but partook of both sides' opinions equally, and produced this result. What then? If indeed he did not enter into the research with his own notions upon the subject already carven in stone, then some portion of what we see in Set This House in Order is a mirror reflecting not Mr. Ruff's ideas and prejudices, but the multiple 'community' (I employ the quotations because in many corners of the web one can no more speak of a universal multiple community, than one might have the audacity to speak of a 'Christian community' in Northern Ireland) and its myriad presentations. Then if there is some truth to this more optimistic supposition, multiples themselves must bear some portion of the blame for the depiction they receive at the hands of Mr. Ruff and his like. There are indeed a good many people, speaking relatively, in MPD/DID survivor-oriented communities, who behave like Loins or Maledicta, and would eagerly peddle that as the truth of all multiples to any who came to inquire; and most likely did-- I suspect alt.support.dissociation was the source of the 'Usenet posts' cited in the author's acknowedgements. (I use here our Azu's definition of survivor-oriented in reference not to one who has suffered abuse per se, but one who makes said abuse, and their memories of it, the cornerstone upon which their identity is founded) As for those of us who actively refuse such definitions? I suppose our 'sin' may be said to consist in not being forceful enough in publicising our self-definition; but this is a book review and I have no urge to use it for an excuse to wax didactic, so I will permit the reader to draw his own conclusions on that particular issue.
I would feel myself remiss, however, if I did not confess to the fact that there were some portions of the book which made me nod in acknowledgement, or laugh out loud; for whilst the implication throughout is that multiples are universally in need of therapy to set their proverbial houses in order (Andrew having constructed his only as the outcome of years of therapy with Dr. Grey), it is clear that Mr. Ruff does not think well of all the doctors who have proclaimed themselves experts upon the subject of multiplicity and of their theories, and some of the more prominent ones are given roman-a-clef incarnations in the book and duly needled at. Andrew scoffs a bit at therapists who consider all multiplicity to be the result of past-life incarnations, or of satanic abuse; and Robert Meyer, one of the more infamous case-history authors, is lampooned (misogyny and contempt for patients and all) as 'Dr. Thomas Minor,' whose books are snarked at by both Andrew and his therapist. I confess that this was somewhat cathartic for me to read, and afforded me one of the few well-intentioned laughs in my reading.
Above all, despite the frequency and nature of my misgivings with the book, it must be emphasised that this is one of but a precious few novels to depict reasonably functional multiples, and to toss out into the sea of public consciousness the possibility of our sanity. Yet in the end, those of us from whom Mr. Ruff has anonymously drawn upon find ourselves with the question: why did he not simply ask multiples about their experience of life, come before us and put aside vanity to inquire "Is this like your experience; might this be a part of your life?" Might we in our answerings chance to disprove some idealised image he wished to hold of us? I am left in the end with the conviction that until one of us deigns to write a novel depicting flatly our own reality, without gloss, deceit or pandering to public tastes, all singlet attempts to depict our existence in this Earth world, this society, without fail shall do nothing but present multiple equivalents of Uncle Tom and his cabin to the public, again and again-- engendering sympathy to be sure, but of a kind which the majority of us find altogether distasteful; pity for us poor, abused children, not empathy with the plight of fellow human beings; and none of it speaking altogether to the full truth and richness of our lives.