In Matt Ruff's Set This House in Order, we are introduced to Andrew Gage, a fictional character who has several hundred "souls" inhabiting his mind. Andy suffers from the particular psychological disorder known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), and is under the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Gray. With the assistance of Dr. Gray, Andy's father, Aaron--an "alter" in his head--constructs a house in which all of the souls can live together: But the price to pay for this structure is very high.
Andrew is generally in charge of his physical self at any given time, but in order to keep the peace, various alters are allowed to exist and "physically" control the body. Some of these "selves" are relatively harmless--Adam, the mischievous teenager, Jake, the frightened little boy or Aunt Sam, the artist--while others, such as Seferis, are conjured up in order to protect the body. And isolated on an island named Coventry, is the dark soul, Gideon, who wants nothing more than to destroy the house and put himself in charge.
Other than the multiple identities, Andy's life is running pretty smoothly. He is employed at the Reality Factory, a company that specializes in virtual reality software. His boss Julie Sivik is his best friend, but a nagging sexual undercurrent threatens to endanger their closeness. Into this situation comes Penny Driver, a woman who appears to be suffering from the same condition as Andrew, but who doesn't realize that she is a multiple. But when one of the souls in Penny asks for Andy's help, they set off on a journey of discovery that changes both of their lives forever.
Even though some of this material has been mined in other nonfictional works such as Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber, or The Lives of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes, Ruff manages to keep all the balls in the air by alternating between narrators. Andy and Penny both get to tell their version of the unfolding events, and we are also present when their various personalities become involved. These voices, even though they all are part of the whole, become separate characters in the book.
Andrew's story unravels slowly. We are told that Andy was born just two years ago, but that his physical body is 26 years old. Aaron, Andy's father, created him in order that he might control the public face. Inside Andy's head--in an imaginary landscape--are the souls, who, in total, make up Andy as a person. We learn that Andy's fragmentation came about due to a series of horrible events committed by his stepfather. Much of the past still remains a mystery, including whether Andy murdered his stepfather or if his mother had been complicit in her husband's evil deeds.
On the other hand, we find that Penny's personality splintered due to the actions of her vicious mother. Forget about Joan Crawford as a bad parent--Penny's mom is a virulent, hateful shrew that strikes out at her only child in order to reinforce her own self-importance. As the novel progresses, we are introduced to the many faces that exist within this diminutive and shy character: Maledicta, the foul mouthed and angry twin; Malefica, her silent and hard-drinking other; Thread, the voice of reason and Duncan, the organizer and protector.
As Andy agrees to help Penny, little does he realize that his own murky past is going to rise up and threaten to destroy everything that he believes to be valid. The two set out on a cross-country road trip that brings them head-on with the truth. Huff steers this powerhouse of a novel with a sure and steady hand, alternating between moments of incredible tenderness, amazing hilarity and thoughtful introspection. Set This House is one of those rare opportunities to marvel at good writing, as the characters of Andy and Penny become substitutes for a modern day Adam and Eve in today's rapid and transparent world. A powerful and moving display of talent and charisma.
Algonquin Books, 403 pp., $23.95
A police car is like a church confessional, the narrator realizes in Priscila Uppal's novel The Divine Economy of Salvation. It's a telling linkage for Sister Angela, a nun who's sought obscurity in a small Canadian convent to escape the shadows in her own past.
Her former life begins to catch up with her in the novel's opening pages, when Angela anonymously receives a silver candle holder in the mail. It's beautiful, expensive--and it directly connects her to a classmate's death in an all-girl Catholic boarding school decades before.
Uppal's prose here is little less than cinematic. Not in the usual sense of vivid literary depictions of broad horizons. No, think film noir instead. The equally vivid exploration of muted interiors, both of convent and memory, figures prominently in Uppal's vision--the scene in which the unwelcome gift arrives is worthy of Hitchcock.
In large part this is due to the certitudes of Angela's voice. While she clearly sees and speaks on the beauty of the world, at base she remains intimately aware of the guilt she shares with the girls who once formed a schoolhouse clique known, significantly, as The Sisterhood. When confronted with resubmitted evidence from her past, Angela doesn't avoid the burden. She calls the candle holder "a sign I have been waiting for these twenty years" before concluding, "At least I can bless the fact that it has finally come."
On one level, Divine Economy is as much about religious mystery as it is about the earthbound mysteries in Angela's past. And repeatedly, Uppal looks for relationships between the two.
Speaking of the convent, Angela writes, "Rumours spread easily in a house of women. No underground system is necessary. [...] Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene, a woman, knowing she would tell, not able to keep the news to herself. [...] Women talk to make things unseen heard. It has been this way for centuries. Here the women believe in rumour, and give it the respect it deserves."
One mystery Angela investigates in Divine Economy involves her own survival in childhood. Angela's family was uprooted when her mother's illness demanded they move from farmland to Ottawa to seek a cure. Then it was split apart when she and her sister were subsequently placed in boarding schools where they were left for months at a time. The chill of these disclosures suggests a young girl skating swiftly, on indeterminate ice, over a limitless abyss.
Thus, bonding with The Sisterhood is related as a matter of survival, in the starkest terms. Immediately after describing the death, burial and subsequent exhumation of the weakest baby bird--the one who couldn't "get near the one most equipped to survive"-- in a flock abandoned by their mother, Angela decides, "I would need to find a new family to survive the season, curl up next to the one who seemed the strongest." Thus at times the mechanism of the "economy" of salvation seems more Darwinian than divine.
The inconvenient resurrection of Angela's past points out that she's in need of a spiritual resurrection as well. "I can't hide myself forever," she notes. "Like anything deep in the ground, I too can be dug up."
We see Angela's unsparing jadedness in a self-assessment that concludes, "Belief in God isn't enough to be a nun. The word Believer originally came from the word meaning Approve. [...] One must approve of God and I'm not sure I do."
Uppal's novel travels the broken pavement of a broken life. If details in its ending are flawed, they seem less so when we realize that the work in the end is a signed confession itself--one Angela must write and submit in order to come to terms with her own past.