Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls by Matt Ruff won the 2003 James Tiptree, Jr. Award, now renamed the Otherwise Award, which “celebrates science fiction, fantasy, and other forms of speculative narrative that expand and explore our understanding of gender.” I would also consider this novel to be a mystery or puzzle novel, on top of all the rest. I was glad to have the opportunity of the TBR Challenge, and a long weekend, to finally read it, the first work I’ve read by this author.
Andy Gage definitely has an unusual profession. He’s a soul, who along with many others, lives inside the head of a human being also named Andy Gage. Andy’s job is to keep all of the other souls in line, as they are a sort of squabbling family living in the same mental house. Original Andy’s self, but not his body, was murdered by an abusive stepfather; the Andy we meet was created through dissociative identity disorder, specifically because “somebody had to run the body.”
The other souls in his family have different roles in the imaginary landscape: Andy’s “father” built the eponymous House in which all the souls can interact inside the body’s mind, and created Andy to run it. Elderly Aunt Sam speaks French and makes art; teenaged Jake offers accurate judgements of people and personal interactions, while also craving beer and pornography. Meanwhile, oppositional Uncle Gideon is trapped in darkest Coventry in the middle of a mental lake, often obscured by metaphorical mist…and becomes important later in the story.
The plot may sound confusing, but it’s laid out very clearly from the beginning, and it’s easy to see how efficiently Andy manages shifting between his different souls while still coping with being, himself, both twenty-eight and two years old. “I was called to finish the job that my father had begun; a job that he had chosen, but that I was made for.” Andy then is introduced to Penny Driver, who has suppressed knowledge of her additional selves. Penny needs Andy to provide needed perspective, so she can recognize what’s behind her frequent blackouts, and find professional help. Later, Andy needs Penny’s help as well.
As an aficionado of interesting Point of View techniques, this book is a master class. Andy is the reader’s guide, but he doesn’t know the whole story of Andy’s life and mental death, and he lacks a great deal of lived experience, which his father makes clear to him. Penny, meanwhile, has a number of different souls, but most of them are secondary to her central personality, called Mouse. She lacks total control of them, but they leave her notes and letters and lists to direct her actions, which she has to trust, even though she’s not always happy with what those other souls have done. The angry souls Maledicta and Malefica, for example, constantly get Penny/Mouse into trouble while trying to protect her, while organized Thread keeps her life from flying entirely off the rails.
Content warning for memories of domestic abuse suffered by the two point of view characters as children, resulting in dissociative identity disorder that is the main subject of the novel; there is also discussion of physical murders that happened before the story begins, and are tied into its plot.