Very Old Review: Set This House In Order by Matt Ruff
Originally posted to Livejournal in November, 2007.
I tend to get pretty obsessive about the characters in my books (and by “my” books, I mean, of course, the books that I am reading, not the nonexistent books that I have never actually written), and hopefully there is a point in every story where I find myself absolutely torn between wanting to talk to my friends or my family in this pretty little thing that they refer to as “reality” and carrying those characters through whatever debacle they’ve found themselves in now. And when I say torn, please know that I mean torn, as in I have to use reserves of strength (and I did go through labor, friend) I never knew existed in order to not freak out completely on my (oops!) partner or (worse!) child when they fail to realize the importance of my task as Reader: if I do not continue my assigned role, then my characters will be trapped in mid-sentence, and Mr. Darcy will never propose to Elizabeth. And then the world will explode. Twice.
If there are not characters with whom I can identify or at least feel some sort of affinity towards, then a book becomes useless to me, and generally does not find itself completed. Oh, I’ve dragged my ass through plenty of books simply because I wanted the damn things to be over, but those books were still completed, and the writer could still count that one as a win (I know they keep track of these things) because I, like most readers, wouldn’t have bothered going any farther with their lousy book if there wasn’t something redeeming that hooked me right behind the tit (this location may be different for you).
Maybe it was because I myself am a total nutcase, but I rarely connect to a book as early, or as wholly as I have connected to this one. Sure, I thought that the climax was sloppy and as someone actually living in the area, I thought that some of the “Seattle” passages could have been managed with at least a little more grace. (Although, I have to share something that totally made me lolz:
Dr. Eddington’s office is in Fremont, the hippie/Bohemian enclave on the north bank of the Lake Washington Shipping Canal. Though not technically a slum, Fremont is still the sort of neighborhood Mouse’s mother would have turned her nose up at; it is also a neighborhood where, twice in the past year, Mouse has awakened in strangers’ beds after a lost night. She will have to take care coming and going from Dr. Eddington’s, not to catch the eye of anyone who ‘knows’ her.
The above passage has nothing to do with anything. Like I said, it just made me lolz.)
But every single time I felt impatient with the book, for whatever reason, the moment was graciously fleeting, sometimes only lasting a sentence or even a single phrase. Even towards the end, when I could have felt betrayed by the author for leading me into what I should have perceived as a very cheap whodunit, the straightforward writing effectively sold me on the authenticity of this unusual reality. And the analytical, almost detached recitation used by the protagonists allowed me to read in relative safety righteously chilling passages that would have otherwise made me skim over whole paragraphs that were ultimately key to my understanding of the character’s worldview. And man, what a world view it was.
The cover of the book proclaims that this is a “Romance of Souls” which I initially took as code word for “fluffy chicken soup woolf in clove cigarette smelling sheepskin clothing” but am happy to report that I completely misunderstood the author’s original meaning. While yes, there are quasi-romantic moments in the book, those are handled in the same matter-of-fact way that sold the fantastical psychology. And ultimately, the romance that I believe the author was trying to convey was much more intricate than just the hormonal swooning of strangers in the night. It was awkward and funny and tragic, and real. Well, sort of.
Anyway, that I think everyone who lives a little too much inside their own head - and feels worse off for it - should at least try to read this fucking book. The author’s narrative style turned for me what could have been a truly stupid story (oh, and believe me, when I first got the book home, I felt all sorts of chagrin for buying what I thought was most likely a Harlequin Romance for Crazies) into what I, as a reader, am always looking for: a glimpse into the actual life of a really good character. And as far as characters go? I won’t get into it as much as I’d like, since I’d like to fangirl even more than I already am, but I will say this:
I did that thing where you put the book down thirty pages from the ending and wander around for awhile because you don’t want it to end just quite yet. And then when I did get to the ending, I reread the last page again straight away, just to stay inside the story for a few seconds longer. And yes, I even flipped right back to the beginning for a second, but I don’t think I want to spoil it just yet with too quick a reread. I’d like to maintain this feeling of contentment, and when I read it again those sloppy phrases will really stick out. (I tried to read my sister's copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife too soon after finishing it, and now I think I have to abstain from it for a year or more. This is seriously The Boo.) And I just can’t have that. Not with these new friends that I have made.
Not everyone will feel the same connection, of course, and lots of people will disagree with my glowing praise. But I, for one, have never felt as home as I have inside this protagonist’s crazy head. No, I’m not trying to say that I think I’ve got multiple personalities, any more than I think that we all have those “other selves” inside us that we have to reign in or let loose, depending on our needs. And it was nice to have someone explore that and run with it, in a non-Sally Field sort of way.
So thank you, Andrew and Penny, and the rest of your respective gangs. I’m glad you let me hang out with you this weekend. I’m sorry that I won’t be able to follow you around anymore. Now go have good lives; you two definitely deserve them.
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