No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, February 05, 2009

#06: Wit's End -- Karen Joy Fowler

Rima opened her mouth to explain why she'd sent a letter to a woman she doubted was alive, and signed it with a fictional character's name. No one was more curious than she to hear what she might say. (p. 96)

Wit's End is a novel set in, and exploring, the interstices between fact and fiction. It's about writing, fanfiction, online life, family secrets; it's about brothers and sisters, cults, fandom. It's funny, sad, thought-provoking. Fowler's voice comes through warm and strong, chatting to the reader, almost gossipy.

Rima Lanisell, 29, has lost her family: mother to an aneurism, brother to a carcrash, father to illness. She goes to stay with her godmother Addison, penname A. B. Early, a successful thriller writer who lives in a beach house in Santa Cruz. The house is full of dolls' houses, each containing a murder scene from one of Addison's novels. A few are missing, presumed destroyed in the Oakland earthquake; amongst them is the house for Ice City, a murder mystery featuring Addison's star character Maxwell Lane and a murderer who -- surely coincidentally? -- has the same name as Rima's father.

Maxwell Lane is rather more successful than Addison, despite being fictional. He's featured on TV and in films (Addison doesn't care for the actor currently playing him). He receives mail: not just letters from fans, though he's the star of a great deal of fanfic (one excerpt given, extremely funny and extremely accurate pastiche), much of it pairing him with Bim -- the nickname used by both Rima's father and the murderer in Ice City. There are quite a few fans who disapprove of the way that Addison's writing Maxwell Lane, but of course that doesn't stop them eagerly awaiting her next novel, or posting Wikipedia entries about Maxwell Lane -- entries which promptly become edit wars as Addison seeks to impose her authorial veto on inaccuracies. Addison had a lot of readers of whom she did not approve. Most of them, if you really want to know. (p. 25)

Ice City -- the place rather than the novel -- is a fiction within a fiction, a bar to which Maxwell Lane escapes in times of turmoil, occupied by imaginary people: whomever Maxwell wants them to be -- people from his past, the famous, the infamous, the real, the fictional, the living, the dead. (p. 120)

Throughout the novel there's interaction between real and fictional. Ice City may or may not hold clues to a real murder. Rima finds herself writing, under the name 'Maxwell Lane', to a woman who's been sending letters to Lane. She dreams about Maxwell Lane. She encounters a woman who claims to be Pamela Price (another Ice City character) but who looks too old and raddled: Pamela Price's appearance at that particular moment is, feels Rima, too contrived to be believable. "Bad plotting there." Rima's brother is dead, a car crash: when Scorch, Addison's dog-walker, mentions the circumstances of his death -- which she learnt from Addison's blog -- Rima's taken aback: "this was not the way she liked to tell the story." She's been reinventing reality, fictionalising it, glossing it. (Incidentally, you could read Wit's End as alternate history: it's set in 2004, and the Democrats have just won the election.)

I could make a case for Rima herself being -- even within the scope of the novel -- a fictional character. (She's named after one; the heroine of Green Mansions, 'a romance of the tropical forest', published 1904). In Wit's End, Rima discovers a topic thread about herself on one of the Maxwell Lane fansites: it's hard to gauge her response as she reads posts about whether she's her father's daughter, and posts that insist she was the best character in Ice City. (But, somebody points out, she didn't appear in Ice City. Does that mean she did appear in another Maxwell Lane book? ... The forum posters certainly refer to her dead brother as a real, actual, real-world person: he's more real than Rima.) If Rima's not real, that might help to explain why she does so little; why she knows so many things without knowing how she knows them; why she's a blank slate at the beginning of the novel.

Rima was ... eager to be little herself, to do and have and feel little things. A little room of her own. A little job for Addison. Someone else's little life that she could just slide inside until all her emotions had shrunk enough to be manageable. (p.9)

And she's certainly immersed in the fictional case described in Ice City, and perhaps the real incidents that inspired it. She's unwilling to read anything new, but she can cope with rereading: "it wasn't the same as reading, not when you'd read a book as often as Rima had read Ice City." (p. 42)

There's quite a bit in here about reading. In a game of Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit, Addison insists that books trump film, and answers are judged right or wrong by reference to Tolkien's work rather than Peter Jackson's. And Addison bemoans the rise of online writing: "Why must everyone write? ... Why can't they just read? There are so many very good books, already written. Written and published." (p. 87). When she meets an honest-to-god fanfic writer (who gushes about being 'an M-and-B shipper') Addison reminds her that these characters are copyright. Though at the end of the book, she's saying (over a glass of whiskey) that "the only man I ever truly loved is the one I made up." Rima thinks "couldn't you argue she'd made up Bim too? The real one as well as the fictional one?" (p. 280)

By the end of the novel, Rima is interacting with Maxwell Lane in waking life (though you could say she's been doing that since she first read his correspondence). She knows a bit more about Addison's past, and Addison's relationship with her father, and perhaps why Addison and her father stopped being friends. She knows who Addison's father was, and she's starting to construct a new family for herself. Perhaps she's less blank: perhaps the blankness was absence of hope, or absence of social framework, or absence of her own story amid those of her father, her brother, her fictional crush.

I like to think she'll get herself a blog.

NB: The novel has been aggravatingly repackaged for UK publication with a chick-lit style cover and the title The Case of the Imaginary Detective. It is not chick-lit: don't be put off.

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