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Originally published Friday, April 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Identity and illusion in "Wit's End"

"Wit's End" by Karen Joy Fowler, is a Rubik's cube of a book in which the bright colors of fact, fiction, past, present and Web site alterna-reality keep proving impossible to line up. This is a novel in which one name can belong to three characters — or three conflicting versions of the same character.

Seattle Times book critic

Author appearance

Karen Joy Fowler

Fowler reads from "Wit's End,"

7:30 p.m. Friday, Elliott Bay Book

Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle;

free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

"Wit's End"

by Karen Joy Fowler

Marian Wood Books/Putnam, 324 pp., $24.95

Author Karen Joy Fowler served notice that she had an interest in "cults and corruption" in the opening lines of "Sarah Canary," her debut novel set in and around 1870s Puget Sound. Later, with her best-seller "The Jane Austen Book Club," she tapped into cultish energies of a more literary kind.

So perhaps it's no surprise that the main ingredients of Fowler's new novel include 1) a corrupt cult in the coastal mountains of California and 2) a California author with a cravenly cultish following.

The other key ingredient: a mousy Midwesterner who wanders into this wacky Californian scene and tries to make sense of it all.

"Wit's End" is a Rubik's cube of a book in which the bright colors of fact, fiction, past, present and Web site alterna-reality keep proving impossible to line up. This is a novel in which one name can belong to three characters — or three conflicting versions of the same character. It's also a book that opens with a murder scene, then reveals that the female victim is "only three inches tall," with a purse "the size of an aspirin" and lipstick "slightly larger than a grain of rice."

Fowler's aim is to disorient her readers from the outset — and to get them to work out the novel's puzzles with her.

Some plot summary: In fall 2006, 29-year-old Rima Lanisell arrives at Wit's End, the Santa Cruz home of her godmother, famous mystery writer A.B. Early.

Addison, as she's known in private life, is in her middle 60s and "all bone and sharp angles, as if she'd been made from coat hangers." Rima turns to her because her own world is bereft — mother, father, beloved younger brother ... all are gone. She's also curious to learn what went on between her father and Addison when they were both young journalists. And she'd like to know Addison's reasons for naming a wife-murdering fictional character after Rima's dad.

But Rima gets more than she anticipated. It's not just all the three-inch corpses around the house (Addison outlines her books by building miniatures of their pivotal murder scenes).

Addison's fans can also get out of hand. Rima finds her own personal boundaries violated when her arrival in Santa Cruz becomes the subject of blog speculation by Addison's devotees. When Rima starts having erotic dreams about Addison's detective hero, Maxwell Lane, the lines between private, public and dream life gets blurred past recognition.

Out of the haze emerges a tale about Holy City — a white separatist commune run by a bigamist who preached celibacy that flourished in the mountains above Santa Cruz in the 1920s and '30s. Its Wikipedia entry notes that "popular fictional detective Maxwell Lane, creation of mystery writer A.B. Early, is widely believed to have grown up there." Addison keeps trying to delete the Maxwell Lane mention from the entry, but there's nothing she can do to keep Holy City off Rima's radar once Rima realizes it's the place where her dad first connected with Addison.

The book's concerns are as multiple as some of its characters: the malleability of identity, the urge to escape one's origins, the hazards of "revising" the self or seeking sanctuary in an assumed alter-ego. Fowler also delves deeply into our increasingly Web-and surveillance-shaped reality.

The narrative is collagelike at times, as Fowler slips passages from Addison's books, letters from fans and Web site musings into her text. The novel also abounds in local color, both sinister and humorous.

On the down side, the prose can be surprisingly flat — perhaps in a misguided effort to render Rima's straight-arrow essence? And a handful of intrusions by an omniscient, never-identified first-person narrator feel leftover from an earlier draft of the book.

Still, this is venturesome work. The curveball here is that Addison, so cranky and real that it hurts, is Fowler's creation, while the scarcely credible Holy City really existed. As she did in "Sarah Canary," Fowler has taken episodes from the fringes of American history and spun them into an odd concoction all her own.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com. He has been The Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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