Author: Matt Ruff
Details: (c) 2003 Matt Ruff (matt_ruff); Pub Harper Perennial 2004; ISBN 0-06-095485-X
Verdict: Set this house in order is well-written and emotionally complex.
Reasons for reading it: There was a lot of buzz about it when it came out, particularly in connection with winning the Tiptree award (was that your Tiptree year, redbird?) It sounded like my kind of thing, and I enjoyed the sample chapters posted on the web; this is one case where pixel-stained techopeasantry led to me buying a new book I might not otherwise have picked up, or waited until it turned up second-hand.
How it came into my hands: Amazon, with the help of lovely hatam_soferet
Set this house in order is very high quality writing, and it's easy to see why it was so lionized. The characterization is superlative, and the plot exciting, though it's a fairly low-key story which is more about the characters' personal development than any particularly dramatic action. I found it extremely readable and read it with enjoyment as well as appreciation of the technical achievement.
I am a little uncomfortable with the fact that the book exists, though. I do feel there's enough real misery in the world that inventing child abuse in order to provide character tension for fictional characters can be rather poor taste. It isn't gratuitous in its depictions, but even so, I think the actual description of Andy Gage's rape was unnecessary, particularly when the book had already spent several hundred pages by that point establishing the protagonist as a survivor of abuse by his stepfather. Yes, that scene made a point about the involvement of Andy's mother in the abuse, but I think that point could have been made less graphically.
I am also uncomfortable with the concept of a book where the point is that the two major characters are mulitple personalities. The description fits in with what little I know about MPD/DID, which is to say that he's done at least as much research as I have in terms of reading internet essays by people who identify as multiple. So I don't think it's a case of taking some neurological condition that sounds symbolically rich and making up shit about it. Obviously I hold to the principle that authors can write about people who are not like them, that's rather the point of writing! There just seems to be a slight whiff of a kind of appropriation. I didn't feel like this about the use of autism in The curious incident of the dog in the night-time, though perhaps I should have done, so I'm not quite sure what it is that's making me uncomfortable.
The characterization of Andrew and Penny's alters is perhaps not as brilliant as the depictions of Andrew and Penny themselves or the other singlet characters. Some of them seem to be a bit one-dimensional, having a single memorable trait rather than actual personality, though it could be a lot worse. The narrative tends to the view that Andrew and Penny are the "main" personalities of the two systems depicted. Though this is possibly an artefact of seeing through Andrew and Penny's eyes, whereas their alters are seen only from as it were an external point of view.
I don't have strong views about the big reveal. I think it does work, there were just enough clues beforehand to make it not seem like cheating. And I think it's a successful technique that the narrative simply accepts Andrew's view of himself in that respect, just as it never questions the reality of the multiple system. It's not in your face about how it's saying something incredibly new and original about gender, but in that respect I can see why it was a Tiptree candidate. (That said, although quibbling about genre boundaries is generally boring, I can't really see why STHiO counts as SF; it reads as highly mimetic to me. I suppose the speculative element is the premise that multiplicity is actually a realistic view of how some people's minds work, rather than pathological delusion, but that's a bit weak.)
Oh, one thing I did like about STHiO is that it doesn't pair the characters off in an obvious way. There is romantic tension, but it's very much not a story about two soul-mates finding eachother. It ends with the characters better off than during the crisis of the story, but not with everything neatly tied up, it's easy to imagine that their lives will continue after the end of the book. In spite of my concerns, I do think it's one of the strongest pieces of writing to have come out recently.