wFeb 9, 2009

Set This House in Order - Matt Ruff

This was for this month's selection at sci-fi book club.

Almost all of the links in this post are courtesy of Jesse_the_K.

Andrew Gage is a man who has Dissociative Identity Disorder. Throughout the course of the novel, he [the POV character] usually refers to it as Multiple Personality Disorder, and is snide when encouraged to use the name "DID." Still, I think DID is the generally accepted name for the condition, that's how I will refer to it in this post, despite it not being the normative name in the novel.

From the outset, it is clear to the reader that Andrew Gage has DID. Unlike, say, Fight Club, where the existence of other personalities (or the presence of other personalities being a manifestation of an inner fragmentation) is a huge reveal, this novel operates with the understanding that the reader knows what's going on. Andrew explains in great detail the structure of his "house," an imaginary structure in which his multiple personalities reside. [The reader later learns that he keeps a scale model of this house.] In his house, each personality lives in a room. One personality can control "the body" at a time. This is done by standing on "the pulpit," a platform on the second floor balcony of his imaginary house. The body is usually operated by Andrew, a personality who was actually created for the sole purpose of controlling the body. All of the other personalities existed before Andrew's "father" (the original personality) called Andrew from the imaginary lake, which lies right next to his imaginary house. Because Andrew has only existed for a couple of years, other personalities are able to hide truths about the body's past from him.

Andrew does allow other personalities to control the body. For example, Serafis performs a work-out routine of push-ups every morning. Jake, a 5-year-old boy, likes visiting toy stores and eats eggs every morning.
Andrew makes his living arrangement work by living in a house with his landlady, Mrs. Winslow. She has grown used to Andrew's DID, and makes him multiple courses of breakfast each morning.

Andrew was not able to set up this arrangement by himself. He had help from a psychologist. I don't know if the novel is accurate in describing how the house is arranged, or how the personalities interact, but I certainly find the characters' reflections intriguing, to say the least.

As Dr. Whitney, the interplanetary-rape counselor, put it: "Of course you've got to reintegrate! Don't you want to be normal?"

..."The primary difficulty faced by multiple personalities," Dr. Grey wrote in her preface, "is not that they are abnormal; it is that they are dysfunctional. Multiplicity, of itself, is no more problematic than left-handedness. Losing time, being unable to keep a steady job or maintain a residence, requiring detailed lists just to get through the day - these things are problems. But they are problems that a well-organized multiple household, acting cooperatively, can learn to overcome."

Maybe you don't understand that (although, by now, maybe you do). Dominance, in a multiple household, is all about being able to endure more trauma than anybody else. The more a particular soul can resist the impulse to switch, the more it gains power over those that can't. By spiking his hand, my father demonstrated not only that he was able to withstand great pain, but that he had the courage to inflict it on himself if need be.

Massive spoilers for the book....and really, the trick is pretty neat, so I recommend not clicking if you intend to read this book.

Regarding the massive plot reveal on page 237: I did not see it coming at all, that Andrew's body was female (or, Andrea). Really, I didn't. In the back of my mind, I kept wondering why this book won the Tiptree Award, and figured it was something stupid, like the fact that both Penny and Andrew happened to have personalities of the opposite gender, although I felt like that was a secondary plot thread. But then Andrew and Julie are about to get it on, and Julie is shocked to discover that Andrew is actually a woman. And of course I felt horrible for Andrew here, who completely shuts down when Julie utterly rejects him upon discovering his true biological sex.

Not far into the book, Andrew encounters another multiple named Penny. They are at different points in recognizing and coping with their DID, and watching them teach each other and identify each other's various personalities.

Matt Ruff maintains a website here. It contains a decent synopsis, as well as the first four chapters, which you can read for free at your leisure. There's also an FAQ, "deleted scenes," the music he listened to while writing the book, and links to other websites about multiplicity. I was surprised to find that his musical tastes overlap my own quite a bit! I might have to check out the stuff on that list that I'm not already familiar with, because I love the rest of it. I find the FAQ particularly useful because he answers questions people have been asking me when I outline the basic premise of the book to them. Ruff says:
It's intended to be a believable and internally consistent portrayal of multiple personality disorder. The question of realism is trickier, because MPD is still a very controversial subject: though it's listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (as "Dissociative Identity Disorder"), a lot of psychiatrists still don't believe that it's a real condition, and those who do believe in it don't agree about its nature.
Since I knew I wasn't qualified to settle the debate, I decided not to worry about it too much. I wrote Set This House in Order as a "what if" novel: if we assume that MPD works in such-and-such a way, what would the experience of it be like? How would it feel to always be part of a crowd? What would the implications be for things like personal responsibility? My hope is that the resulting story is rich enough that, even if you think the premise is pure fantasy, you'll still be able to get something out of it.

He also explains why he uses the term MPD instead of DID in the book. Really...just read the FAQ!

Jesse_the_K also linked to this online essay, which is highly relevant to the recent Cultural Appropriation debate on the Internet. The author points out that writers need to be careful when straying into unknown territory just because it seems "cool."
You don't go writing books set in China if all you know about it is what you've seen in late night kung fu movies. Or a story about life in the ghetto if you're a middle-class white person who doesn't know anything about life outside the suburbs. You don't go writing books where the main character is Hispanic or American Indian or whatever, if you're of a different ethnic group, without doing at least -some- research on the experience of that group. And not just research; you need to -know- and -talk- to people who would have firsthand experience, people who've -lived- it, and put aside any preconceptions you might have had and listen seriously to what they have to say about their own life.

In that same vein, I would also like to plug Tigrin's deviation at DeviantART on DID, which can be found here.

There is a review by a person who identifies as having DID here.

In the end, I highly recommend the book. It was thought-provoking, to say the least, although I would be interested in knowing what other DID people thought about it.

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scribbled mystickeeper at 12:01 PM

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