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Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls

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Overview

Andy Gage was born in 1965 and murdered not long after by his stepfather. . . . It was no ordinary murder. Though the torture and abuse that killed him were real, Andy Gage's death wasn't. Only his soul actually died, and when it died, it broke in pieces. Then the pieces became souls in their own right, coinheritors of Andy Gage's life. . . .

While Andy deals with the outside world, more than a hundred other souls share an imaginary house inside Andy's head, struggling to ...

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Overview

Andy Gage was born in 1965 and murdered not long after by his stepfather. . . . It was no ordinary murder. Though the torture and abuse that killed him were real, Andy Gage's death wasn't. Only his soul actually died, and when it died, it broke in pieces. Then the pieces became souls in their own right, coinheritors of Andy Gage's life. . . .

While Andy deals with the outside world, more than a hundred other souls share an imaginary house inside Andy's head, struggling to maintain an orderly coexistence: Aaron, the father figure; Adam, the mischievous teenager; Jake, the frightened little boy; Aunt Sam, the artist; Seferis, the defender; and Gideon, who wants to get rid of Andy and the others and run things on his own.

Andy's new coworker, Penny Driver, is also a multiple personality, a fact that Penny is only partially aware of. When several of Penny's other souls ask Andy for help, Andy reluctantly agrees, setting in motion a chain of events that threatens to destroy the stability of the house. Now Andy and Penny must work together to uncover a terrible secret that Andy has been keeping . . . from himself.

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Editorial Reviews

O magazine
“Set This House in Order brings extraordinary warmth to the chilliest of childhoods.”
O Magazine
"Set This House in Order brings extraordinary warmth to the chilliest of childhoods."
The Washington Post
Matt Ruff's Set This House in Order is a charming though ultimately frustrating novel about multiple personality disorder, child abuse and murder. To Ruff's great credit, this book isn't some morose litany of woes. In fact, it's pretty lighthearted, and obviously a great deal of imaginative flourish went into its conception. — Victor LaValle
The New York Times
In Fool on the Hill and Sewer, Gas & Electric, Ruff was prodigal with his plots, his human extras, his animal delights (a mongrel and Manx in search of heaven, a mutant sewer-dwelling Great White). Set This House in Order, though equally irresistible, is a bolder book, an odyssey of transformation and trust rather than a clamorous symphony of a thousand. — Kerry Fried
Publishers Weekly
Part suspense, part literary coming-of-age story, this unusual novel follows a 29-year-old man with multiple personality disorder-a departure for Ruff, whose last book, Sewer, Gas & Electric, was a futuristic political satire. Andy Gage's psyche was destroyed at age three by his abusive stepfather, and from its fragments arose a crowd of personalities vying for control of his body. When the novel opens, the body has just been taken over by 26-year-old Andrew. Andrew's father, Aaron, had been in charge for years, but grew exhausted from the effort of keeping peace among the different "souls," which include sarcastic, horny 15-year-old Adam; five-year-old Jake; gentle Aunt Sam; and the violent, narcissistic Gideon, whom Aaron banished from the "house." Shy, intelligent Andrew, the narrator, is now trying to give Andy Gage a normal life. He finds a job at a software company in Seattle and makes friends with his sympathetic boss, Julie. This stability is threatened, however, when Andrew meets self-destructive Penny, whose own multiple personalities are in a state of chaos. Trying to help Penny get her "Society" under control, Andrew is thrown momentarily off guard, and Gideon seizes the body. In cahoots with Penny's foul-mouthed twin souls, Maledicta and Malefica, Gideon heads for Andy's home state of Michigan for a gripping showdown with important figures from his past. Ruff never lets the material become lurid, and his matter-of-fact depiction of the relationships between different personalities is remarkable for its imaginative details. Though he takes his hero seriously, Ruff offers plenty of comic situations as Andrew tries to interact with the outside world while the other souls kibbitz. Best of all is the endearing Andrew, a truly original protagonist. (Feb.) Forecast: Ruff has a cult following from his previous two books. With some handselling, this novel could win him many new fans.
Kirkus Reviews
Ruff (Sewer, Gas and Electric, 1997, etc.) steps closer still to recognizable realism with a tale of dueling multiple personality sufferers. "The house, along with the lake, the forest, and Coventry, are all in Andy Gage's head, or what would have been Andy Gage's head if he had lived." Andy Gage isn't actually dead-he works as the creative consultant at the Reality Factory on Bridge Street and thinks of his alternate personalities as souls. He's 26 but was born a month ago, and his way of confronting MPD is to draw detailed sketches of the topography of his mind. He imagines that all his personalities live in a kind of boardinghouse of the brain and even knows which soul did which bits of carpentry. It's but a short time after being born that the souls' love interest arrives, Penny Driver, the new programmer, nicknamed "Mouse and Thread." At the Reality Factory, work goes forward on infusing video games into an increasingly cyberized world that's so virtual it might not be so different from you-know-who's head. Ruff's strategy is interesting-Gage's main personality comes in first person, the rest in third, but when Penny turns out also to have MPD, we wind up getting scenes that are like a witch coven rumbling with a trucker convention. Will the personalities of Penny and Andrew, like lovers on a train platform crowded with other personalities, find each other before the all aboard? Between fascinating updates on scholarship into disassociative identity disorder, we'll watch the two overstuffed people confront the mysterious deaths of friends and the sudden strokes of loved ones-in other words, we'll see them contend with the sadness, madness, and ardor of a world, like them,increasingly distant and fractured. A convenient premise complicated by another convenient premise-but not without its charms despite its crowdedness and (necessary) length.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060954857
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/20/2004
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 326,538
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

Matt Ruff is the authorof the critically acclaimed novelsBad Monkeys, Set This House inOrder, Fool on the Hill, and Sewer,Gas & Electric. He lives in Seattle.

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First Chapter

Set This House in Order
A Romance of Souls

Chapter One

I met Penny Driver two months after my twenty-eighth birthday -- or two months after my second birthday, depending on how you want to count it.

Jake was up first that morning, as he is most mornings, barreling out of his room around sunrise, thundering down the stairs to the common room, the clamor of his progress setting off a chain reaction of wakings among the other souls in the house. Jake is five years old, and has been since 1973, when he was born from the wreckage of a dead soul named Jacob; he is a mature five, but still basically a little kid, and not very good about respecting other people's need for quiet.

Jake's stomping roused Aunt Sam, who started up cursing; and Aunt Sam's cursing woke Adam, who has the room next to hers; and Adam, who is old enough to respect other people's need for quiet, but often chooses not to, let out a series of war whoops until my father banged on the wall and told him to knock it off. By then, everyone was awake.

I might have tried to ignore it. Unlike the others, I don't sleep in the house, I sleep in the body, and when you're in the body, even the loudest house-noises are just echoes in Andy Gage's head that can be tuned out at will -- unless they come from the pulpit. But Adam knows this, of course, and whenever I do try to oversleep, he's out on the pulpit in no time, crowing like a rooster until I take the hint. Some days I make him crow himself hoarse, just to remind him who's boss; but on this particular morning, my eyes were open as soon as Jake hit the stairs.

The room where I slept -- where the body slept -- was in a renovated Victorian in Autumn Creek, Washington, twenty-five miles east of Seattle. The Victorian belonged to Mrs. Alice Winslow, who had first taken my father on as a boarder back in 1992, before I even existed.

We rented part of the first floor. The space was large but cluttered, clutter being an inevitable side effect of multiplicity, even if you make an effort to keep real-world possessions to a minimum. Just lying there in bed, and without even turning my head, I could see: Aunt Sam's easel, brushes, and paints, and two blank canvases; Adam's skateboard; Jake's stuffed panda; Seferis's kendo sword; my books; my father's books; Jake's little shelf of books; Adam's Playboy collection; Aunt Sam's stack of art prints; a color television with remote that used to be my father's but now belonged to me; a VCR that was three-fifths mine, three-tenths Adam's, and one-tenth Jake's (long story); a CD player that was one-half mine, one-quarter my father's, one-eighth Aunt Sam's, and one-sixteenth apiece Adam's and Jake's (longer story); a rack of CDs and videotapes of various ownerships; and a wheeled hamper of dirty clothes that no one wanted to lay claim to, but was mostly mine.

That's what I could see without even looking around; and besides the bedroom, there was a sitting room, a big walk-in closet, a full bathroom that was full in more ways than one, and the kitchen that we shared with Mrs. Winslow. The kitchen wasn't so cluttered, though; Mrs. Winslow cooked most of our meals for us, and strictly limited our personal food storage to one shelf in the refrigerator and two shelves in the pantry.

I got us out of bed and into the bathroom to start the morning ritual. Teeth came first. Jake really enjoys brushing for some reason, so I let him do it, stepping back into the pulpit and giving him the body. I stayed alert. Jake, as I've mentioned, is a child; but Andy Gage's body is adult and five-foot-seven, and hangs on Jake's soul like a suit of clothes many sizes too big. He moves clumsily in it, and often misjudges the distance between his extremities and the rest of the world; and as we've only got the one skull between us, if he bends over to get a dropped toothpaste cap and bashes his head on the corner of the sink, it is a group tragedy. So I kept a close eye on him.

This morning there were no accidents. He did his usual thorough job of brushing: side to side, up and down, getting every tooth, even the tricky ones in back. I wish he could handle the flossing as well, but that's a little too dexterous for him.

I took the body back and had a quick squat on the toilet. This is my job most mornings, though my father occasionally asks to do it -- the pleasure of a good shit, he says, being one of the few things he misses from outside. Adam also volunteers sometimes, usually just after the latest Playboy has arrived; but I generally don't indulge him more than once or twice a month, as it upsets the others.

After the toilet came exercise. I stretched out on the bath mat beside the tub and let Seferis run through his routine: two hundred sit-ups followed by two hundred push-ups, the last hundred evenly divided between the right and left arms. I came back from the pulpit to muscle burn and a lather of sweat, but I didn't complain. The body's stomach is as flat as a washboard, and I can lift heavy things.

Next I gave Adam and Aunt Sam two minutes each under the shower, starting with Aunt Sam. They used to alternate who went first, but Aunt Sam likes the water a lot warmer than Adam does, and Adam was always "forgetting" to adjust the temperature control ...

Set This House in Order
A Romance of Souls
. Copyright © by Matt Ruff. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

I was called to finish the job that my father had begun:
a job that he had chosen, but that I was made for.

On a daily basis, Andrew Gage struggles to maintain order with more than a hundred other personalities … other "souls" … in his head. He has been created for the sole purpose of running the body while the others live in a geography that exists only in his mind. Aaron, the soul who was in charge prior to Andrew and the one that he calls "father," constructed the imaginary house in a countryside setting where all the souls could exist together peacefully.

While Aaron manages the landscape inside, Andrew manages to have a functional, although somewhat cluttered, life on the outside. He does allow his other souls to take over for short periods of time: Jake, a five year boy, likes to brush his teeth; Seferis, the defender, enjoys his morning sit-ups; Aunt Sam, the artist, prefers hot showers, while perceptive yet mischievous Adam needs cold ones. But there is one soul that is not allowed time outside. Gideon, Aaron's brother, has been exiled to an island set apart from the house, apart from the other souls.

Working as a virtual reality consultant, Andy meets another lost soul, computer programmer Penny Driver (a.k.a. Mouse). Their boss Julie believes they would make a perfect match and asks Andy to help Penny confront her own multiple personality disorder -- something that she is only vaguely aware of. Blackouts, waking up in strange clothes in even stranger places, finding daily to-do lists, and receiving letters from The English Society of International Correspondents all serve as constant reminders toPenny that she is not normal. Consumed by paranoia and tragically low self-esteem, Penny is unable to accept Andy's help at first. But her other souls do. Thread, Maledicta, and Malefica take turns pushing Penny closer to the edge of reality until she finally agrees to see Andrew's doctor, Danielle Grey.

Once Andrew and Penny spend more time together, and each of their personalities is introduced, they piece together valuable information about each other and themselves. As they set out on their chaotic journey to unveil hidden truths from Andrew's past, terrifying and heartbreaking memories begin to surface -- memories of the events that forever shattered both characters; memories that explain the shards left behind.

What should be a very confusing novel -- a story about, and told by, someone with multiple personality disorder -- is, in fact, "irresistible" (New York Times Book Review) "addictive" (Portland Oregonian), and "a stunning feat of literary craftsmanship" (San Francisco Chronicle).

Discussion Questions

  1. The author tells us from the first page "that a good storyteller only reveals important information a little at a time, to keep the audience interested." Did he succeed?

  2. "Part of knowing who I am is knowing why I am, and I've always known who I am, from the first moment" (page2). Andrew's ease with his disorder changes drastically when he falls into the lake giving up control of the body. By the end of the novel, does he return to his earlier confidence? Or is his security forever shaken?

  3. Discuss any hidden meanings in the characters' names in the novel: Andy Gage, Penny Driver, Gideon, Thread, Maledicta, Malefica, Xavier, and Seferis.

  4. What does Andy tell us is "an inevitable side effect of multiplicity"?

  5. In Andy Gage's mind, his "father controlled the weather inside the geography. He did not control the mist" (page 97). Why do you think that is?

  6. "Unlike many of the other souls in the house, I was never raped or molested" (page 118). Do you think Andrew's distance from his abuse makes him a good narrator?

  7. How did Penny keep her mother from reading her letters from the "Society"?

  8. Mrs. Winslow, Andy's landlord, and Julie Sivik, Andy's boss, offer him stability and security. But how are the women different from each other? Are they each other's foils?

  9. Discuss the two cellar doors -- the one from Penny's Trash Town, and the one in Andy's mind -- and what is hidden behind them.

  10. Why is it that Aaron, Andrew's father, doesn't want to talk to Dr. Grey?

  11. How is the storyline of Warren Lodge crucial to this novel?

  12. "Does it really matter so much? I mean it's still me … " (page 238). Did you see any clues as to Andrew's true physical identity before it was revealed?

  13. What event sends Andrew into the lake allowing Gideon to take control of the body?

  14. What alliances -- between Andrew's personalities and Penny's personalities -- are formed?

  15. "Here I sleep but for a while until I am called up again into my Father's house" (page 357). Discuss the layers of irony here and the revelation of horror that follows.

  16. What is Gideon afraid of and why?

  17. Why does Chief Bradley want to buy Andy's house?

  18. How is Chapter 29 significant to the reader?

About the Author

Matt Ruff is not a multiple personality, but he is an obsessive personality, a condition for which he self-medicates with marriage to a patient woman. He is the author of two previous novels, Fool on the Hill and Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy. He lives in Seattle.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 19 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2004

    A Unique Journey of 'Self-Discovery'

    Andrew is the personality in charge of 'driving' the soul-ridden body of Andy Gage. Born from the ashes of Andy Gage's mind, the society of multiple personalities live in a stable arrangement together thanks to a helpful therapist. Andrew is a recently born personality trying to give the body a fairly normal life, starting with a new job at a software company. But Andrew's stability is threatened when his impulsive boss, Julie, hires Penny, another victim of multiple personality disorder. Julie wants Andrew to help Penny tame the chaos in her head. Penny doesn't understand her condition, but some of her other personalities do. Andrew is reluctant to get involved, but Penny's group of protective personas make a plea for help. When his own house of souls collapses under the strain of several shocks, Andrew and Penny end up on a road-trip to confront the past. This is one of the best fiction books I've read this year. Ruff's handling of the multiple personalities is both inventive and sensitive. He is straightforward in dealing with the abuse that led to Andrew and Penny's fractured state - it's clearly important, but not sensationalized. In spite of the serious subject matter, Ruff manages to incorporate a good measure of humor into the story. Andrew's journey gives a whole new meaning to 'finding yourself.' Ruff's excellent characterizations make it easy to root for Andrew, Penny, and their collective internal societies. I like that Ruff avoids the trap of a cliched, sappy ending, instead making it clear that there are no easy solutions. Ruff's plot was engrossing in all its twists and turns, and only one late section seemed to jump a bit off the tracks. This is a compelling book that will entertain you even as it makes you think about how we all interact with the world.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2005

    I couldn't put it down

    I chanced upon this novel and have purchased and passed it on to all the readers in my life. Once started, it is impossible to put it down. Engaging, extremely well written and a story that was never once anything less than brilliant.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2004

    Wonderful

    Truly original and highly enjoyable. After reading this book, I read his earlier 2 novels. I recommend all of them, but it's most interesting to see his development as a writer. He's really hitting his stride in this book and I look forward to reading more of his work.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2004

    One of the truly great books

    This is one of the best books I've read in a while and I read a lot of books. It's well written, the plot is wonderful and the idea behind it is originally refreshing. Please go buy this book right away. I cannot wait for the author to come out with a new novel!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2012

    Damn fine story

    Pleasure to read. Plot was complicated enough to keep you busy but deftly written so you didn't get lost. Contained a few real surprises and had characters that really mattered. Good job, Matt Ruff.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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