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Two’s Company
By Margaret Black

Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls
By Matt Ruff
HarperCollins, 479 pages, $25.95

At age 21, Matt Ruff put on his first pyrotechnical display, Fool on the Hill, a wild if somewhat sophomoric fantasy set at Cornell University, where a kite-flying hero slays an evil dragon, dogs discuss Heaven, and invisible sprites help “the University keep its files straight, seeing to it that alumni got their student loan repayment notices right on schedule.” His cult readership waited eight years for Ruff’s next fireworks, a multitargeted satire dressed up as sci-fi. Set in a futuristic New York City, Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy has alligators roaming the sewers, eco-terrorists striking from a pink-and-green submarine, and a heroine tracking a killer with the grumpy aid of a holographic Ayn Rand. Ruff doesn’t quite keep control, but his rambunctious energy sweeps you through his not altogether coherent plot.

Set This House in Order makes a quantum leap in literary maturity. Speaking much more quietly, Ruff’s new book takes place in the real world of the present. In this “romance of souls,” the author’s effortlessly inventive imagination explores the complicated life of two young people, both of whom have multiple personalities. The hero, usually under the persona of Andrew Gage, is a kind, decent, and engaging young man. Before the book opens, Andrew’s “father,” Aaron, has identified the many personalities of the original Andy Gage, long since “murdered” by an abusive stepfather. This history is sketched matter-of-factly, without heat or details. Aaron has introduced the different souls to each other and built them an imaginary house by a lake where they now live, more or less cooperatively. Besides Aaron, the builder and rulemaker, there is Adam, the clear-eyed obstreperous teenager; Jake, the imaginative but frightened 5-year-old; Aunt Sam, the gentle artist; Seferis, the body’s huge protector, called forth in times of real-world threat; and the mysteriously dangerous Gideon, whom Aaron has banished to an island in the lake. However, the effort has so exhausted Aaron that he has called forth Andrew to take control and run the common body.

All this is fascinating and marvelously funny at times. Instead of groaning in soggy clinical victimhood, the many souls of Andy Gage have transformed themselves into an entertaining family of dramatic characters. Getting up in the morning, for example, takes forever because it’s the one time of the day when Andrew always gives the others a chance to use the body: Jake loves to brush teeth, Seferis has an intense exercise regime, Aunt Sam and Adam quarrel over the shower, Aaron dearly loves a good shit. Andrew’s landlady, Mrs. Winslow, provides multiple tiny breakfasts to satisfy everyone’s preferences (Adam: one-half an English muffin plus a bacon strip; Jake: a small bowl of Cheerios and some orange juice; Seferis: only salted radishes).

Andrew loses Aaron’s old job, but lucks out when he’s hired by Julie, a young entrepreneur starting a virtual-reality software company, who realizes that Andrew lives virtual reality all day long. When Julie later hires Penny, who also has multiple personalities, it’s partly because Julie hopes that Andrew can help young Penny learn about her other personalities and maybe even teach them to build a house. Penny, usually in her pathetic persona as Mouse, knows only that she blacks out constantly, often to awaken in strange places, and that she’s apparently capable of doing work she doesn’t understand in the slightest. Several of her other personalities, including Thread, the recordkeeper, and the magnificently foul-mouthed Maladicta, are sick of their current existence and support Julie’s proposal. Much against his better judgment, Andrew agrees to try.

At first the novel’s initial lightness continues: “I waited for Penny in front of the Harvest Moon Diner, trying not to laugh as Adam did Maledicta impressions: ‘How about this fucking weather? Pretty fuckingly clear fucking skies for fucking April, don’t you fucking think?’ ” But very soon the story sags, becoming flatly sober as the author presents a moving, but essentially realistic case history of Penny’s awful childhood. Sparing us the details of Andy Gage’s story had distinguished this novel. It is obvious that abuse shattered his personality, but up to this point Set This House in Order had focused instead on the successful construction of a functioning corporate individual who could say things like “My father had built the house as a means of crowd control, not to express his creativity.”

And then the book changes gears again, this time into a road trip/quest/mystery story. If the actual mystery (alas, about Andrew’s past) is klutzy TV soap opera, the road trip—with all of Andrew’s and Penny’s personalities working at cross purposes—is incredibly gripping and, once again, very funny at moments. When all seems lost, and the villain is about to dispose of the pair, Andrew leans over to Penny: “Don’t be afraid,” he tells her. “We have him outnumbered.”

It’s hard to emphasize enough how intensely likeable Andrew is, how kind, decent, and responsible. “What I’d told Julie was true: as the soul in charge of Andy Gage’s body, I stood accountable for all the body’s actions, past and present, even those I wasn’t technically guilty of. It had to be that way, for reasons of both house discipline and simple good citizenship. You can’t have crimes being committed and no one owning up to them.” Of course his other personalities provide the necessary bracing contrast, as do Penny’s Maladicta, and her even more troublesome action-twin Malafica.

Several promising starts in the book, like the virtual-reality company, are simply abandoned. And one appallingly bad gender surprise almost ruins the book. But ultimately, Set This House in Order is so rich and engaging that, once again, Ruff’s formidable talent swept me along.

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