To Wit’s End Postmodern Fiction?

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I was sent Karen Joy Fowler’s new novel Wit’s End (published in Great Britain under the titleThe Case of the Imaginary Detective) by someone from Penguin, who had noticed from my own website that I was interested in postmodern literature. She promised that this novel was about author ownership, and whether a character belongs to readers or authors—ontological questions which seem prominent in postmodern literary fiction. But the novel has left me wondering whether, in fifty years time looking back to the present, literary critics will remark that postmodernism ended when nobody noticed it any more, because it had slipped into the mainstream. Writing in The New York Times last year, Stanley Fish observed that, with hindsight, the cultural battles of postmodern thinking turned out to be “A bunch of people threatening all kinds of subversion by means that couldn’t possibly produce it, and a bunch on the other side taking them at their word … Not comedy, not tragedy, more like farce, but farce with consequences.” Wit’s End may not be farce, but it certainly exploits the comedic potential in some of the features of postmodern fiction, without ever announcing itself as an ostensibly “postmodern” novel. In many ways, the most interesting thing about this book is the fact that its postmodern elements are so unremarkable. I do not mean that Fowler is not capable of writing in an interesting way, but rather that the postmodern has lost any radical edge it once had, becoming essentially normative, so that Fowler, writing a mass-market novel, probably never even realized she was writing in line with its codes.

In the 1960s and 1970s, postmodern novelists set out to disrupt the conventions of realist fiction through devices like metafiction, nesting stories within stories, or by making their novels into deformed patchworks of different genres and forms, embedding letters, poems, computer print outs, different fonts within the one novel. But at the present time, the disruption of the strict conventions of realism or carefully plotted fictions might itself have become conventional. Many of these characteristics are included in Wit’s End and, like much postmodernism, the novel is really interested in the process of writing itself.

The story centers around a bestselling detective fiction author, Addison, who creates doll’s house murder scenes to conceptualise her narratives, and her goddaughter, Rima, who has been forced to live with Addison following the death of her brother and both of her parents. Rima sets out to uncover the biographical experiences that Addison has encoded in her popular novels as a sort of cathartic project, and this main thread of the plot runs at an ironically subdued level compared to the bloody murders that happen in Addison’s own novels. Such as it is, the detection in Wit’s End is Rima’s quest to uncover Addison’s involvement with a strange religious cult and Addison’s relationship to Rima’s father, and to find out who has stolen one of Addison’s dolls, in a peculiar kind of doubly-fictive kidnapping. Off this thin plot, though, hang the many different voices and genres that lend the book its primary interest.

Embedded within the main plot, we get snippets of Addison’s Maxwell Case novels, letters from her obsessive fans, blog posts, and Wikipedia entries. It is all merrily metafictional. But whereas a more cerebral postmodern writer would make this metafiction the centre of our attention—so that something like Salman Rushdie’s massively meandering Midnight’s Children, which integrates numerous discourses from political speeches to pop songs via a self-conscious narrator, becomes about the process of writing a nation’s history, rather than about the history of Pakistan and India in its own right—here the postmodern elements just sit there, part of the scenery of a popular fiction. Without meaning to be patronising, the fact that postmodern elements can sit within a popular fiction indicates that ideas and ways of writing that had been largely the preserve of a literary intelligentsia and centred around university literature departments, have now become so common and universal that they today operate at a level where they do not need to be remarked upon. It does not take a trained literary critic to be interested in the process of writing. Having become acquainted with postmodernism (which was in any case never as clever or innovative as it pretended to be) over the last quarter of a century, it does not put a mainstream audience off if novels are no longer rigid pages of prose with well-defined plots, but include different typefaces, integrate lots of different genres and styles, and drift in and out of the singular thread of a thriller.

In this relatively new context, then, we ask: does Wit’s End do what more ostensibly “intellectual” postmodern fictions sometimes fail to do, and satisfy readerly pleasures? On the whole it does, which is surprising given that the principal detective plot (who stole the doll?) is so inert in comparison to the detective fictions that Addison writes, offering cheap thrills that Wit’s End might similarly have embodied. Rather than carrying us by its urgent discovery of clues, Wit’s End works by allowing itself to be read with a sense of the ironic gap that separates characters in fiction from readers in reality. It is the sort of ironic reading encouraged, but in a more explicit way, by other postmodern fictions, such as John Fowles’ “Victorian” romance, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, in which the author participates in his own novel as a puppeteer dominating his unwitting characters. In Wit’s End, we watch a number of characters who attempt to author plots: Addison’s friends divulge secrets about her;Addison writes detective thrillers and in envisaging them she constructs intriguing, miniature representations of murder scenes; Rima starts to write letters to manic fans in the voice of Addison’s fictional detective hero, Maxwell Lane. She is exerting the kind of control shelacks in her own life as an orphan who was the unwitting subject of her father’s newspaper stories for many years.

At a different, non-literal level, Rima fantasizes a control or authorship over her housemates. In one carefully paced scene, Rima, Addison and Tilda (Addison’s close friend, who is secretly writing a memoir about Addison), are drinking hot tea in the kitchen. Rima is hungover and the atmosphere is sulky,

The color of [the] rippling light gave Rima the sense of being trapped in amber, the three of them breathing more and more slowly as the air around them thickened. A hundred years from now they would be found in just these postures.

And then this end-of-the-world scenario was suddenly too comforting, so she re-created all three of them from their DNA—hangover, scalded tongue, hand with half-washed angry-pig stamp and all—and forced them to live again.

As we watch these characters attempt to control others through the power of their imaginations, we recognise what the characters cannot possibly know: that they themselves are authored and within a plot, even as they try to author others. This lends to the reader a sense of smug satisfaction. It allows us to feel vicariously the sort of joy of ownership and god-like power that we imagine writers like Addison (or Fowler herself) must possess when they sit down to craft fiction, creating their doll worlds. It is the reader, in collaboration with Fowler, who forces characters to “live again,” and it is this pleasure that compensates for the fact that this detective fiction does not really offer the mystery and relief of revelation that comes with the thriller stereotype.

However, the irony relies on the real, flesh-and-blood author, Fowler, remaining secretive, so that we can cleverly intuit something—that this author actually exists—that the fictional characters cannot possibly have any way of knowing for themselves. Even while characters in the fiction try to dominate each other within the novel, the knowledge of who is in ultimate control outside the novel should go only one way, from reader to characters. The trouble is, Fowler’s own voice sometimes seems to break through to the narrative level of the plot itself, so that it as if Fowler is speaking through her characters, and we sense that the characters are saying things that they would not naturally say if they were truly free individuals. It is as if these puppets might suddenly become aware of the strings that attach them to their author, reversing the flow of knowledge and power. One key moment when the strings become visible occurs in relation to the US elections (which I take to be those of November 2006). Addison, a left-winger, stays up all night to see the Democrats take the House of Representatives. We are told that several of Addison’s close friends “blamed the absence of a new novel on the delayed shock of having seen the Supreme Court, with no pretense of legal standing, hand George Bush the presidency, and everything that had happened since.” Now it could be that Fowler intends this to be read as free indirect discourse, as the third person narrator talking with some of the traits of speech; we might well imagine Addison and her friends sitting in front of the television, muttering about “no pretense of legal standing.” But in the moment of reading, what we actually hear is Fowler inserting, intrusively, a political aside, perhaps even a comment on the effect of politics in her own work. Contrast this with a later moment when Addison drinks a whisky as the Democrats look to have won the Senate: “In truth, Addison had a whisky most nights; if she wasn’t celebrating, then the Bush administration was driving her to drink.” This later sentence is more subtle. It might be telling us about the celebration on election night just so it can slip in the idea that Addison is really an alcoholic, election or not; and it tempers its politics by the comedy of “driving to drink.” This more witty narrator is present throughout the novel, but in those other moments of blunt politicking one would not be surprised if, suddenly, Addison were to follow the strings that connect her to a divine hand in the heavens of reality and complain, “Hey, stop making us feel these things, Fowler. I know that’s what I do to my characters, but you stop doing it to me!” And with this knowledge, the irony that we know the characters are truly the ones being controlled, and that the control they claim to exercise over each other is merely a semblance, fails.

Similarly, whilst the integration of different discourses works well as part of the novel’s ironic metafiction, the tendency to draw on a contemporary lexicon is taken too far, and one suspects that this novel will show its age quickly. Here we not only get mentions of George Bush, but also Harry PotterLostBorat, The Simpsons, the Patriot Act, TiVo, wi-fi encryption, blogs, googling, and Wikipedia. These last three are perhaps the most significant in plot terms, as characters discover other peoples’ blogs about them, search for clues online, or furtively edit Wikipedia entries.

Fowler seems determined to say something about the way writing has been changed by the web. (This suggests that postmodernism has become a straightforward genre to work within, partly because we are surrounded by technologies that provide commonplace metaphors for the decentred literary style of postmodernism. The death of the author is Wikipedia.) However, would the aging author, Addison, who grumbles about the distracting lectures that she is asked to present, and who is fed up with fans enquiring into her personal life, really be much interested in keeping a public blog? She does keep a blog, though, because Fowler wants to make a statement about the blogging phenomenon and how it has affected herself as an authorial personality (and, yes, you will find Fowler online at There is certainly a valid note being sounded here about the way in which twenty-first–century readers are, increasingly, becoming writers also, and how writers can no longer anticipate a single readership but must cope with everyone from crazed fans to reading groups to the blogging and Twittering masses. But in drawing attention to this aspect of modernity, it is not possible for the novel to maintain both the source of its enjoyment and its didactic edge simultaneously.

On the one hand, the key pleasure derived from reading this novel as a self-contained, escapist, fictional world is that the characters author plots without knowing themselves to be truly authored. On the other hand, Fowler’s representation of the internet seems to contend that actually a twenty-first-century reality mediated through plot-making tools like Wikipedia is becoming the same as the micro-world of fiction. In making this sociological observation about the overlaps between fiction and the real, the emotional pleasure of using this novel’s ironic fantasy to escape from reality, to feel vicariously an author’s sense of control over characters that we cannot actually have over our own everyday lives, becomes undermined.

This inconsistency in the novel’s conceit is a shame, because generally Fowler very effectively anticipates the way in which readers will work with prose to interpret characters, whilst characters themselves remain unselfconscious; as amateur psychoanalysts, or detectives, readers love to decipher a character’s “true” motivations that they will not or cannot admit to themselves. Rima is the central figure here, as she tries to ascertain the latent meanings and hidden histories behind Addison’s writing Maxwell Lane (Rima suspects Maxwell Lane may be analogous to her own father). Her discoveries provide the ostensible plot of the novel. However, and again part of the ironic distancing between characters who plot whilst not being aware of themselves as plotted, the real emotional centre lies elsewhere: not in Rima’s interpretations of Addison’s mind, but in the reader’s interpretation of Rima’s own unreflective unconscious. Early in the novel, for example, Rima rummages in Addison’s attic and we are told that: “The boxes seemed to her sad remnants of things much larger, a book, a cause, a life. Santa Claus.” That “Santa Claus,” a specific thing placed between full stops rather than as part of the list of Rima’s associations between things and their symbolic value—“a book, a cause, a life”—is syntactically brilliant. The implication of the full stop is that Rima does not interpret the Santa Claus in the way she interprets a number of Addison’s boxes as “remnants of things much larger.” But its mention also says that Rima has noticed a Santa Claus herself (presumably she has seen some Christmas decorations), and therefore the reader is able to infer something about Rima, even whilst the passage seems explicitly to be centred on Rima’s analysis of what Addison’s boxes mean. The real revelation of the boxes is not about Addison’s character, but that Rima is noting the hoard of the adult because, deep within her own psyche, is her nostalgia for the lost innocence of childhood symbolised by Santa, when she was told stories by a literary father, rather than having compensatorily to regain a plotted control over her own chaotic life as an orphan by uncovering Addison’s secrets. This is a very delicate piece of writing, relying simply on syntax to do a great deal of psychological work.

As well as her narratorial voice, Fowler’s dialogue is also convincing. A scene in a club is particularly memorable for the way in which it picks up snatched echoes and fragments of speech over the din of music, and how as the evening moves in fits and starts of dialogue there is an incessant unconscious trajectory towards one character trying to seduce another. In rendering the household, too, Fowler very effectively conveys the way people run with their own currents of hidden thought, so that dialogue tangles into wires of conversation that do not quite pair together. Here, Scorch (a graduate student), talks to Addison’s dogs, whilst Rima is having breakfast and Cody (Scorch’s boyfriend) is reading the paper,

“Don’t look at me like that,” Scorch told the [dogs]. “I’m sorry, I’ll be back soon.”

And then to Rima — “Tell Addison that Maxwell Lane got a letter. Just junk. He can get a credit card or something. It’s on the table in the entry with the rest of the mail.”

“He’s in the ether again,” Cody said. “They’re rerunning the television show. The eighties one. With the moustache.”

Scorch coughed suddenly. It was a painful sound. “My throat is killing me.” She wiped one hand across her eyes. “I think I’m getting a cold.”

“We’re all going to die of the bird flu,” Cody said. He folded up the paper with a shake and a snap. “I got to get to class.”

The naturalistic speech is remarkably effective at impressionistically implying the larger consciousness of each character. Scorch’s mind is on the dogs, so she almost forgets about Addison’s post; and we can intuit that even as she is talking to Rima and Cody she is looking into the eyes of the loving pets. In response, Cody, reading the newspaper and not really paying attention, offers up an incidental detail about the Maxwell Lane television show. Scorch coughs and complains, struggling to get the attention of Cody, who instead mutters a cliché about bird flu, probably because it was featured in the newspaper that day. The obliqueness of the conversation indicates different lives, heading in different directions—something which is obvious to anyone who daily suffers the disorganised bustle of a family breakfast.

Fowler’s ability to do all the fundamentals of novel writing, putting characters in situations in which they respond in ways that seem perfectly natural, therefore sits uneasily amongst the more cerebral  issues of authorship, and the way language can be used both literally and figuratively to make people up. However, this is not because of any incompatibility between “serious” postmodern thought, and “popular” fiction. The novel as a whole still works, and it works largely because of the elements a clever critic might want to label as “postmodern.”

So probably I am the wrong sort of reader for a book with a pink cover and gold letters, in that I want to read a more serious sort of philosophy where none is intended. This is not patronisingly to suggest that Fowler is beneath my intellectual level, but rather that the level at which I operate, as a literary critic working in postmodern fiction, is not so “elevated” as I would like to pretend it is. The advent of the internet with the capacities for authorship and linguistic manipulation it allows, and three decades of postmodern novels, have shown postmodernism to be not so clever after all. The fact that I have produced a long essay out of this novel testifies to my desire to over-interpret, seeing in Fowler’s writing an attempt to write postmodern theory into an otherwise mainstream, popular detective fiction, when in fact what this book really shows is that postmodernism itself is popular—which is a damning remark, since postmodernism got its kudos from its refusal to be accessible to any but a small intellectual clique. This tendency to over-read and over-write might make me a good literary critic (at least so far as other academics are concerned), but it would make me a poor, over-imaginary detective, seeing clues to a grand authorial philosophy even though the literal path leads to a popular, fun, and well-observed novel.

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About Alistair Brown

Alistair Brown teaches English Literature part-time at Durham University, where he recently completed his PhD on Demonic Fictions: Cybernetics and Postmodernism. His personal blog and website can be found at