The final volume of Walter Jon Williams’ Dagmar Shaw trilogy, The Fourth Wall (2012), may be the wildest and most entertaining yet. It also has an entirely new — and not entirely reliable — protagonist. Sean Makin was a star, once: a child actor on a popular sitcom whose youthful turn on the Hollywood A-list evaporated as soon as his show ended and his career tanked. Sean ekes out his living as a celebrity has-been, and as the novel opens he’s at his lowest point: slumming for an exploitative reality TV show called Celebrity Pitfighter. His life changes drastically when Dagmar Shaw offers him the lead role of a lifetime: in a top secret, interactive augmented reality serial, a brand new medium. Sean doesn’t quite know what he’s stumbling into with this bizarre new project, but then neither do his employers, who aren’t aware of Sean’s sordid past or shifty, ambitious nature. As filming progresses and things start going wrong, he finds himself caught in a web of dangerous schemes, some of them his own, and has to unravel the mystery of Dagmar’s project.
Written in a breezy, sleazy first-person narrative, The Fourth Wall is a slight tonal change from the earlier books: more kinetic, more zany, and way more Hollywood than This Is Not a Game or Deep State. It’s a shrewd maneuver, converting Dagmar from protagonist to enigmatic supporting character, a shady, string-pulling mastermind seen only through the eyes of an angling Hollywood schemer. Sean makes for a memorable “hero,” shallow, self-unaware, egotistical, but not without charm and a crafty, self-interested intelligence. It’s a tightrope walk of a character, for he’s inherently despicable, but he also has to be sympathetic. Williams carries it off impressively, and the narrative voice’s unreliability adds another layer of complexity to a plot already rife with hidden agendas, red herrings, and compelling mysteries. It all escalates to a wild conclusion that ties up all the threads, making for a satisfying wrap-up to this inventive series.
While I was reading that, I remember wishing that Walter Jon Williams would pull a Neal Stephenson and give us another 400 pages of “middle” in that book: more long digressions into the technical aspects of being a working actor, more contract negotiations, more being in front of the camera, more dealing with fans, more practicing martial arts.
That doesn’t happen very often, I can tell you. But it did with that book.
Hah, yes — I hear you! So much entertaining detail, there…and I particularly loved the blog posts, gamer chats, and email exchanges with his parents.