Review of The Fourth Wall by Walter Jon Williams

Title: The Fourth Wall
Walter Jon Williams
13 February 2012
 Orbit, a division of The Hatchette Book Group
 drama, mystery, thriller, science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Sean Makin is a washed-up actor. As a child he was a household name; now he’s getting beat up and humiliated on the crappy reality TV show, Celebrity Pitfighter. His big break comes when he gets an interview with Dagmar Shaw, who made a fortune in the gaming industry making “Alternate Reality Games”. Dagmar has now turned her attention to film. She’s got a big budget to make a revolutionary new kind of movie, and she wants Sean as its star.

It’s exactly what Sean was dreaming of, even though the production is beset by danger and tragedy from the very beginning. When Sean arrives for his interview with Dagmar, he’s almost run over by a hulking black 4×4, and that’s just the first in a series of attempts on his life. Soon, people on set start getting killed. Is it because of Dagmar? Her personal history is stained by terrorism and the deaths of friends in shootings and bombings. She also has a reputation as a woman you should never fuck with. Then again, some have noticed that all the victims were at a very memorable party six years ago, on the same night that the hostess, Timmi, was killed. Her husband Joey (whose career collapsed after his wife’s death) is directing Dagmar’s movie, which seems like more than just a co-incidence. Or do the deaths perhaps have something to do with Sean, who for years has kept secret the fact that he was the one who killed Timmi? But regardless of motive or murderer, nothing is going to stop this movie from being made, not when it promises wealth, fame and power to those involved.

This is the third book in the “Dagmar” series. I asked the publisher, Orbit, if it was necessary to read the first two books and they told me that The Fourth Wall was in fact a good option for new readers. I certainly didn’t get the feeling that I was missing something important. However, it’s obvious that Dagmar has quite a history to which this novel has several references, giving you good reason to read This is Not a Game and Deep State. Both are written from Dagmar’s perspective, whereas here she’s a secondary character.

The Fourth Wall is primarily about Sean, and he’s got the most interesting story to tell. As a child, Sean was the beloved star of a family sitcom, and spent his childhood showered with wealth, fame and all the toys he wanted. As he got a bit older he picked up stalkers, groupies and prostitutes, lost his virginity before he’d had his first kiss, and at 15 was dating 21-year-old girls who got him into clubs so that he could get them into the VIP rooms. However, this meant that for most of his childhood he had a tough fulltime job, playing a typical American child when he’d never actually had a typical childhood.

Then, at 18, his career collapsed. Sean is a talented and hardworking actor, but his career was undermined by his looks:

I have a condition called pedomorphisis. Basically it means that while the rest of my body has aged normally, my head has retained the features of an infant’s. Plus my head is really, really huge. When I was a kid the condition made me cute. I had a big head with huge brown eyes, and my extra-babyish features vastly increased my audience appeal.

But at 16, Sean “was beginning to look a little odd”. At 17, he was six foot two and “beginning to look freakish, like a sinister bobblehead doll leering unexpectedly at you from the dashboard of someone’s car”. By 18, he “looked like something stitched together by Victor Frankenstein” and his career was over.

He could have lived off the millions he’d made as a child, but his parents spent most of it and stole the rest. Now he’s so desperate for work that he’s afraid to tell Dagmar that someone’s trying to kill him, in case she fires him for being too much of a risk (you can’t have your star die during filming).

Although Sean is in many ways a victim of Hollywood, he bears it no grudge. Rather, he has a keen understanding of the way it works and though he might occasionally be critical of it, he’s completely caught up in its superficial, selfish culture. He’s ruined lives in cheap attempts to get some publicity or make a quick buck. His loyalties only go so far as suits his career. And even though he knows what it’s like to be in the gutter, he doesn’t hesitate to gloat when Dagmar’s movie makes him popular again. To add to this, he’s got a problem with alcohol, he’s xenophobic, and seems to prefer using prostitutes to having a normal girlfriend.

Sean isn’t a total bastard though. You have to feel sorry for him because of what his parents did to him. He wants so badly for other people to like him that his behaviour is often pathological. He also laments the bad things he’s done: “I keep destroying people. I never mean to, I never plan it. But my path is strewn with wreckage, all of it human.”

However, you get the sense that this isn’t entirely sincere. He’s not without remorse, but it’s always outweighed by the pursuit of fame and fortune. It seems that he’s always putting on at least a bit of an act, and this story makes it very clear that in Hollywood, acting isn’t only for film shoots. This is aided by the way the narrative is structured. All the normal ‘scenes’ have headings like “Ext. Hospital – Day” or “Int. Sean’s Condo – Night” as if you were reading a film script. The rest of it is made up of posts and comments from Sean’s blog, emails, and a few online chats. The result is that you never see Sean in a setting where he’s not speaking to some kind of audience, either the ones within the narrative, or the reader.

Whether or not you like Sean is up to you, but either way he’s a fascinating character. There’s so much to him that he carries the entire novel. It’s very much a character drama, with a mystery/thriller subplot and just a dash of sci fi. This isn’t a criticism; I enjoyed the novel for what it is and I particular enjoyed the inside look at Hollywood and the film-making industry. The murder mystery plays a big role, but it’s less important than Sean himself. The sci fi aspects are very subtle. The novel has a foot in that genre because it seems to be set in the very near future and features some sophisticated technology. However, the tech is so close to what we already have that the novel doesn’t really feel like sci fi at all. Again, this doesn’t bug me, it’s just notable.

I do have a few criticisms though. The movie Dagmar makes – Escape to Earth – becomes a worldwide hit, but sounds like a made-for-TV YA movie. Sean plays a researcher from a parallel dimension, who gets stuck on Earth where a group of villains are trying to kill him. He travels around the world accompanied by a series of children who try to help him find a way home. What’s revolutionary about this movie is that it isn’t shown in full in cinemas, but is serialised and watched by paying customers online. Viewers also get to choose some of the decisions the characters make, and then watch the resulting story unfold. I like that idea, but the plot of Escape to Earth sounds lame to me and its raging success seems unlikely, especially since it seems to be a kids’ movie and kids aren’t the ones with the credit cards.

Another issue is that, although the mystery doesn’t seem to be the main thrust of the story, its resolution could have been more interesting. The one you get is a bit flat and seems like a set-up for a sequel. But that doesn’t really bother me much. This works very well as a character drama, and given that Walter Jon Williams created such a great character in Sean, I’d be interested to read more of his work, particularly to learn more about Dagmar, who is something of an enigma here. She’s  intelligent, strong, bold and morally ambiguous – the kind of character that always peaks my interest, especially when it’s a woman.

Buy a copy of The Fourth Wall at The Book Depository


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