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Tower Play

Karen Joy Fowler Builds Delicate, Elaborate Story Pyramid Just to Knock It Over in Wit's End

Daniel Krall

By Adrienne Martini | Posted 5/28/2008

Some very good books are easy to describe, like "Scarlet dithers. Rhett doesn't give a damn." Other very good books require a tortured simile in order to convey their essence. Karen Joy Fowler's Wit's End is like a kid's set of nesting plastic cups, the kind where the largest cup holds one that's just a little bit smaller, which holds one a little bit smaller, and so on, until you get to the wee little cup in the center. If your hand is steady enough, you can take the compact bundle of nested cups and build a surprisingly tall tower just by stacking the next largest cup on the largest cup, then the next-next largest cup on the next largest cup, until you get to the wee little cup, which goes on top.

Then your kid comes along, knocks them all over, and laughs hysterically. The delight is the whole point of the exercise.

Fowler, best known for her 2004 New York Times' best seller The Jane Austen Book Club, has made Wit's End's outer cup a genre-typical murder mystery. Main character Rima, an almost-30 schoolteacher recently rendered familyless, drifts to her godmother's house in Santa Cruz, Calif. Her godmother, Addison, is a famous mystery writer who has some creepily off-center fans and a fascination with cults. This cup holds the most and provides a sturdy base.

Stacked on top is a cup about grief, as Rima tries to process all that has happened to her, losing her mother, brother, and father over the span of a couple of years. Her recently deceased father may have had some secrets of his own, which may find themselves bound up with Addison and the murder--or may not. But as a distraction from her own sadness, Rima aims to find out.

Rima borrows methods from Maxwell Lane, the private eye upon whom Addison has built her career. Lane doesn't exist, what with being fictional, but still gets mail from a woman who claims to know him, and certain details in her letters ring too true to merely be delusional rants from a crazy fan.

What complicates this is the next cup. The reader--that is, the one actually holding a copy of Wit's End, not a Maxwell Lane reader--is never quite certain whom the narrator of Wit's End is or how reliable she is. Addison and Rima, the two main voices, have their own agendas and secrets. A third voice creeps in, one that must be Fowler's, which offers warnings to the characters that almost function like a Greek chorus.

The cup on top of that involves the internet and how it can work to advance and inform a story, no matter whose story it may be. In many ways, this intersection of the online world and these fictional characters is what gives this book its delightful texture. Rima, when stumped by a clue in her own mystery, looks it up on Wikipedia, just like most real-life readers would. And Fowler reproduces what Rima finds, mimicking the tone of your average Wiki entry so completely that you expect to be able to find it online yourself. Which you can, sort of. Which further muddies the line between what is fiction and what is real.

If you think Fowler's last cup, the wee little one at the top, is full of all of that postmodern meta stuff that English geeks go on about, you'd be right. Fowler's meta, however, is warm and engaging. It invites you in for tea before it gently makes you question the very nature of fiction itself and wonder where it intersects with reality.

Fowler does this with good humor and clean, precise language. Her descriptions are pared down to the most apt details: "Martin's life was clotted with utterly predictable disappointments that took him completely by surprise." With that one sentence, you can see Martin. After a book full of such copy, you can see the woman who is writing it, too.

Fowler, before the breakaway success of The Jane Austen Book Club, was best known for her skill in crafting sly, witty, self-referential, and just plain fun books like 2001's Sister Noon and 1991's Sarah Canary. With Wit's End, you can feel the echoes of these books as Fowler pushes her story beyond all that she's made before. She stacks each cup on top of the other, with sure and steady hands. And then she knocks them down herself, with a broad grin, because watching them fall is just too much fun. I can't wait to see what her tower looks like next time.

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