The book Paul assigned to Johanna Kunin (Bright Archer) for Songs about Books is Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls, by Seattle-based author Matt Ruff. I was well into it by the time I posted my piece on Bluets last Friday, and as I expected I would, I finished it this weekend. (I’m a little nervous because I don’t have another book on deck yet, though the Nabokov and Houellebecq are both “in transit” to the Library and I should have one or both soon.) If the rest of the books are as compulsively readable as this one was, I should have no problem meeting my August deadline, although I’m sure some will be a bit slower going (I’m lookin’ at you, Nabokov).
I don’t want to go too far into the story of Set This House in Order, as a great part of the pleasure in this story is letting it reveal itself to you as you go along. It won’t be spoiling anything to tell you the basic premise, which is outlined up front in the very first pages of the book: the narrator, Andrew Gage, is one personality in a body that has many. The original owner of the body, Andy Gage, is referred to as having been murdered, although not physically. As a result of abuse, Andy Gage’s mind fractured in a severe case of Multiple Personality Disorder. After a great deal of therapy, the personality Andy refers to as his “father” created a house in the brain and a structure and hierarchy so that all of the personalities (or souls) could coexist peaceably. He then created Andrew – two years before the action in the story begins – to be the default public personality. If all of that sounds confusing and maybe a little over the top, Ruff’s clear writing style manages to make it (along with many, many more twists and wrinkles) as clear and easy to comprehend as any potboiler. You instantly buy the premise, empathize with the main character and his many personalities – many of which are very well developed as individuals – and are pulled along into his story, page by page and chapter by chapter.
There is a lot of suspense and there are a good deal of surprises in Ruff’s story, but it’s really unlike any other suspense book I can think of. Again, trying not to give too much away, I will say that the story isn’t really an epic quest, or a mystery, or a race against time, or any of the typical novel story arcs. I guess what it is is a story about a person (or people) finding his (their) place(s) in the world, sort of an amped-up bildungsroman. There are funny moments, and tender moments, and exciting moments, and Ruff weaves them together so deftly that it really is hard to put the book down, or to keep from starting the next chapter as soon as you finish one. Put simply: this is a great summer read.
It’s also been a very satisfying experience to read this book as I become familiar with Johanna’s songs. The more I read, and the more I listen, the more lines like this speak to me:
You may have drawn a map but you’re too afraid to take the first step
Meanwhile you let ’em run away with half of your life
The years dissolve when you close your eyes
And it’s not that I don’t sympathize
But the whole world’s pity won’t bring it back
Get your tickets now, and join us at the Fremont Abbey on August 19th to hear all of the Songs about Books and get a copy of the CD.