The Fourth Wall (novel)

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The Fourth Wall is a 2012 thriller written by American science fiction author Walter Jon Williams.

This is the third book in the Dagmar Shaw series. It is written from the first-person perspective of Sean Makin, a former Hollywood child star, who is hired by Dagmar for a role in one of her projects.


Once a highly successful child star, Sean Makin has fallen on hard times. After the television series that made him famous was cancelled, he acted in two movies, and when both movies flopped badly, no one would hire him as an actor any longer. His parents looted his bank accounts, including the Coogan trust fund that, by California law, was solely his money. His mother joined a cult and moved to India; his father disappeared after moving millions of Makin's dollars into offshore "investments". Still dreaming of success, Makin has hung around the fringes of Hollywood, taking whatever bit parts and commercials came his way, but he is hampered by an unusual appearance; his head and face have remained infantile due to a genetic condition. At the start of the novel, he is acting in a reality television show, Celebrity Pitfighter, in which similar has-beens are pitted against each other in gimmicked fights; taught to kickbox, he is put in an arena filled with cottage cheese, and loses the match when he is nearly drowned in it by his opponent -- who is then disqualified due to ketamine use, thus forcing Makin to continue acting on the show. The show is humiliating, but he is willing to do it to retain some hope, however minuscule, of someday breaking back into stardom.

Makin also has a deeply buried secret: in his desperation to remain in Hollywood, he accidentally killed one of his close friends in a drunk-driving accident. Makin and several of his coworkers from his child-acting days have remained close friends, getting together for parties from time to time. He makes plans to get media attention by having a minor one-car accident, while badly drunk, after leaving one such party; such accidents have worked for other fallen actors, and he hopes he will get sympathetic media coverage. Instead, one of the friends goes out for a drive, and when Makin leaves for his intended accident, the friend is returning to the party; they swerve to avoid hitting each other, and the friend's motorcycle goes off the road and down a canyonside. Frightened and thinking he has killed her, Makin leaves the scene; as it turns out, she lived for several hours before slowly dying of her injuries, and could have been saved. Although investigators suspected another vehicle caused the fatal accident, they never learn of Makin's involvement.

Makin's agent, another near-failure, calls Makin about a new prospective acting role: the lead in a serial movie being produced by Dagmar Shaw of Great Big Idea. (Dagmar was the main character in the first novel in this series, This Is Not a Game; her history is given a brief mention. She was trapped in Indonesia during rioting after an economic collapse, several of her friends were murdered by an old boyfriend of hers, she was involved in the overthrow of a government. Her past is one of turmoil and danger -- and Dagmar is now pregnant.)

Several of Makin's old friends are involved with the movie, and one suggested him for the role -- Joey, the director, who was married to Timmi, the woman killed in Makin's accident. Makin is eager to try anything; his agent nearly costs him the job through bad negotiating tactics, but Makin manages to land an audition. The audition goes well, and he is cast in the lead role as an interdimensional traveler stranded on Earth. Another old friend, who was also at the party, is the costume designer; and another child star who was at the party, Natalia, is acting in a minor role in the movie.

Makin soon realizes that this serial movie is more than a little odd. The people leading the project are from the video game and technology world, not Hollywood. The movie is designed to allow interaction by the audience; filmed in segments, with multiple plot branches after certain key points, each viewer can decide what action the characters take -- for example, whether the main character flies to New York or is smuggled into Indonesia after being rescued. The film is being distributed by webcast, and both video software and hardware are being produced and sold to enable viewers to watch. The setting is global, as is the cast. The people running the show are not movie producers; they are from the gaming industry -- and there seems to be more going on than meets the eye.

Shortly after starting production, another of Makin's old friends, a costume designer who had been at the fateful party, is murdered. Production continues, and Makin gets deeply involved in his role. Joey helps with suggestions on how he wants the character to play, and the crew has a psychological consulting group, led by psychologist Carter-Ann, who makes further suggestions to help the movie appeal to a wider global audience. Carter-Ann and Joey get into conflict, with Joey's artistic ego being wounded by Carter-Ann's occasional cultural-appeal suggestions; Joey flies into a rage and is fired from the production just as the first part of the serial is completed.

The first segment becomes a viral hit, and Makin is back in the spotlight as a successful actor. However, he is also having some security problems: someone torches his car, he is receiving threatening messages from someone involved in his mother's cult, and a black SUV seems to be following him around and trying to run him over. Dagmar gets him some security guards. The next segment of the show is produced and released, becoming an even bigger hit. Meanwhile, he is still fighting matches in Celebrity Pitfighter. Not wanting to be injured, which would force him off the serial movie, he fixes the next two fights; although Makin is willing to lose and drop out, his opponent in the second bout already has work lined up and wants a way out of the reality show, so they agree not to injure each other and not to strike at each other's faces, and Makin "wins" handily. By the third bout, Makin has decided he wants to win the whole series, so he offers the other fighter a job on the serial in exchange for losing.

Throughout production, Makin continues to notice odd things involved with the serial. Some deeper conspiracy is going on, involving the technology that is being used to distribute the movie. Meanwhile, Makin also becomes the target of the tabloid celebrity gossip media; one stalkerazzi hires a prostitute to seduce Makin when he goes out to a dance club, and she puts audio bugs in Makin's home.

Security on the movie becomes more critical after Natalia is murdered. The entire cast of the movie moves into a hotel, with posted security guards. Makin, believing her murder is connected to the costume designer's, realizes that both were at the party at which he accidentally killed his friend. He also realizes that another party attendee had died in suspicious circumstances. Makin begins to suspect that Joey is killing people in revenge for his wife's death, trying to kill whoever might have been in the car that ran her off the road.

Then Joey becomes the next victim of the murderer stalking the set. He is found with several bruises to the head, but the cause of death is a massive overdose of heroin that had been injected into his thigh.

After release of the fourth segment of the serial, Makin is attacked by a knife-wielding thug who turns out to be the cult member who had torched his car and left the threatening messages. Makin, having been trained in fighting for the Celebrity Pitfighter show, successfully defends himself.

While wrapping up the movie after the last scenes are shot, during a meeting with Makin and a few others, Dagmar suddenly doubles over in pain, screaming. They rush her to the hospital, where the doctors manage to save her and her baby, who is fortunately nearly full term. In the chaos, Sean finds Dagmar's husband's laptop computer has been left behind; he takes the computer for safekeeping, and in looking at some of the files on it, discovers the conspiracy behind the movie.

Sean goes back to his changing room on the set, where he is attacked by the murderer. He manages to kill the club-wielding attacker, but, like Joey, has been injected with heroin to make it look like he might have overdosed on his own. He falls unconscious, but is rescued. At the hospital, Dagmar and the other leading project members explain their conspiracy and force him to join it.