Bewildered by the death of her father, a woman named Rima finds her balance by plunging into a thicket of half-true tales and half-real avatars on the web. Online, she meets her father again — or at least, the many constructs of him he's left behind via a website he's devoted to his writing, and in the fan fiction people have written about a fictional murderer named after him in a series of mystery novels. Karen Joy Fowler's unsettling, wistful new novel Wit's End offers us a present-day world that is science fictional in the same way William Gibson's recent present-day novels are: Her characters' lives are so deeply bound up with technology that it's hard to tell where human connection ends and internet connectivity begins. The author of brilliant scifi novel Sarah Canary, and more recently of non-scifi bestseller The Jane Austen Book Club, Fowler is back in fine form with Wit's End.
Rima, our main character, begins the novel as the last surviving member of her family at the age of 29. Her mother and brother died before her father did, and she still hasn't quite gotten over their losses either. Grief-addled, she decides to stay for a while with her godmother Addison Early, a famous mystery writer who named a murderer after Rima's father Bim in one of her novels. A fan of Addison's writing, Mira decides to figure out what actually happened between her father and the novelist to inspire her strange fictional homage to him.
In the process, she plunges into an edit war on Wikipedia, discovers distorted descriptions of herself on LiveJournal because Addison's fans are obsessed with everything related to the author, and learns that there are whole communities devoted to writing slash fiction about Bim-the-murderer and Addison's detective character Maxwell Lane. Her relationships to the the electronic ghosts of her father, her godmother, and herself are in some ways more compelling than her real-life relationships with them. It's as if Rima is already living partly in cyberspace, forging alliances with constructed identities that take on lives of their own.
As she puts together the puzzle of her father's past, Rima discovers that a mystery of the fictional Maxwell's childhood is tied to a mystery in her father's past — a mystery involving a white supremacist commune near Santa Cruz called Holy City, led by a guy named William Riker. Making all of this weirder is the fact that Holy City was a real place (Fowler actually quotes at length from the actual Wikipedia entry about it, though she adds a fictional edit war to it). And yes, the commune was actually run by a guy who happens to share a name with a famous character from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Of course, the Star Trek franchise shows up in the plot too. And Rima has to go boldly to various places she's never gone to finally make peace with her family — both its fictional incarnations and the parts of it that remain in real life.
Fowler tells her story of fragmented, multiple identities in a charming, clear voice that never takes itself too seriously. As a result the novel manages to be cyber-surreal while also coming across as rather homey and sweet. I suppose that's what you get from a Jane Austen fan who is addicted to the internet.
While there are no aliens here, or artificial intelligences who come to life, Wit's End manages to skirt the edges of science fiction themes beautifully, hinting at the ways our lives have become the stuff of science fiction without us noticing. It takes a book like this to remind us that the high-tech fracturing of our identities is also, weirdly, something that can make us whole.