Hawking Up Hairballs

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More On Ruff

Set This House In Order held up pretty well. Matt Ruff is ingenious and inventive. He does a good job of keeping a story going in unexpected directions. Again and again, I'd be settling into the narrative. I'd say to myself, okay, I can see where he's going. But no, there would be a new plot twist and off it would run, like a roller coaster diving into a steep downhill. It keeps things going, and it kept me reading. He does overdo it sometimes though, and the plot twists are not all well motivated. For example, Andrew Gage, the protagonist, suffers from multiple personality disorder. He is presented as male and, of his many personalities, there is only one that matters that is female, but halfway through the novel it is revealed that Gage is a biological female. Huh? Where did that come from? Halfway through, and the reader wasn't given so much as an earlier clue. I didn't buy it.

As with Bad Monkey, I found the conclusion of Set This House In Order to be less than satisfying. Ruff includes a long epilogue that summarizes the future developments in his characters lives. It really is superfluous. The story was complete, and there was no reason to extend the novel like that. If Ruff was interested in the future fates of the characters, he should have written a sequel. If not, then he should have exercised a little discipline, and left that stuff out.

At the end of my copy of Bad Monkey, there's an interview with Ruff. In it, he says that he knew that he wanted to be a writer when he was five years old. If that's so, I'm guessing that he has written obsessively from a very young age. It has been my experience that such people often over-write, and Set This House In Order confirms that impression. There are places where the writing is sloppy; there are plot twists that should have been omitted; and, there is dialogue that rings false. In general, I often got the feeling that he was just winging it. In short, the book could have used a good editor. In his acknowledgements, he credits three people as editors, but they must have been more like fans, because there is no evidence of any real professional editing. Interestingly enough, Bad Monkey is a tight, fast-moving narrative. I doubt that Ruff changed the way he writes, so he must have had a good editor for that book.

I might add that Ruff doesn't do a very convincing job of portraying the inner life of someone with multiple personalities. Some readers might have a problem with that, but I don't. He's a fantasist and I'm willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to that.

Well, looking back on this entry, I see that I've done it again. I started off saying that I liked the book, then proceeded to do nothing but point out its flaws. I remember reading somewhere that when one is commenting on something, everything before the "but" is bullshit. Maybe so, but I liked Ruff's book well enough to start another one of his novels, Sewer, Gas, and Electric.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Matt Ruff

I know I've been away for a while. I'd like to say it's because I've been up to exciting things, like a trip to the International Space Station or bicycliing across the country. Sorry, folks, but I've just been blog lazy. I'm back now though. For how long? None of us knows the future.

I have a question for today though. Is there something in the air out there in the Pacific Northwest that produces quirky writers? There's Katherine Dunn. She's only written one novel, Geek Love, but it's the quintessence of quirky and bizarre. There's Chuck Palahniuk, who most of you probably know, and another guy I ran into by the name of Matt Ruff. As genres go, he's classified as a sci-fi/fanstasy writer, though his books don't really fit into my understanding of the genre.

I've finished one book by him called Bad Monkey. The protagonist is a woman who claims to be a member of a secret organization called Bad Monkey, that assassinates the most evil of people, the ones who genuinely deserve to die --child molesters, serial killers, people like that. When the novel opens, she's in what appears to be a room in the psychiatric wing of a prison. She's telling her story to a shrink, starting with how she came to be a part of Bad Monkey and proceeding from there. Ruff does a good job of swinging the reader back and forth from believing that the woman's story is the raving of a paranoid schizophrenic, to believing that Bad Monkey really exists and that she's a part of it. It isn't great lit, but it was entertaining, though I thought the ending wasn't well handled.

I'm in the middle of another novel of his, Set This House In Order. It's about this guy who suffers from multiple personality disorder, though he prefers to say that many souls live in his body. He has learned how to integrate all of his personalities, without destroying them, so he's what could be called well-adjusted. A woman he knows introduces him to another woman who also has multiple personalities. However, she's living in chaos and her main personality doesn't even know about the others. The story proceeds as a kind of romance where he's going to help her deal with her personalities. I know it sounds hokey, like the kind of thing that might be on Oprah, Jerry Springer, or Dr. Phil, but it's not. Ruff is clever and imaginative. He handles the story well. Whether it will hold up through all 479 pages remains to be seen. Again, it's not great lit, but I'm enjoying it.