by Jeanne Doherty, MLIS Day
My favorite books are those that have the surface appearance of being chaotic and composed of random events, but that hint at a complex and elegant structure that is merely obscured from the reader. These are often the most addictive of books no matter what their topic, because the outcome is a complete mystery--you keep reading just to see if 20 or 50 or 100 more pages will show you what's really going on. They can't be easy to write either, because they require that the author know what he is trying to accomplish in much more detail than a straightforwardly plotted book would require. If you are building a story with carefully revealed random details and a certain amount of chaos, you need to know exactly how those details fit into your completed whole or you will lose the thread altogether.
Set This House in Order is a fantastically original, only slightly flawed example of this kind of book. It is told from the perspective of a person who has Multiple Personality Disorder, and has learned to work successfully with his many "souls" in a way that I had never heard of before. The "house" of the title refers to the home, within his head, of his many personalities, and much of the first part of the book is taken up with introducing the prominent members of this "house" and explaining the many rules they must follow. This mostly untroubled existence begins to spiral quickly into a big mess when our narrator's meddling boss hires and tries to set him up with a woman named Penny, who also has multiple people in her head, but is only vaguely aware of the fact and definitely not in control of it. Her problems snarl up with hidden problems of his, they each begin to change in ways both subtle and drastic. They push one another quickly and unintentionally towards some kind of revealing crisis that the reader can see coming but can't predict.
The book has so many strengths, chief among which is the originality of the narrator's character, which the author manages to convey in a way that makes you want to hear more, and that seems real. It has one flaw: it isn't long enough. Clearly, someone told the author that he wouldn't be able to sell a book that exceeds 500 pages, and towards the end he rushes to wrap things up in a way that answers all of the reader's questions, but that doesn't feel true to the pacing of the rest of the book. It's a minor detail, and one that makes me wish I could read the book that would have come if he'd allowed himself to continue for a little longer, but it doesn't necessarily detract from enjoyment of the book. Perhaps it's for the best. How many of you would be willing to read a 900 page book about Multiple Personality Disorder?