Every so often there’s a television show that’s worthy of “binge-watching.” I felt HBO’s “The Undoing” was one. Starring Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman, it’s a diabolical story of a New York City murder that unravels the marriage of a wealthy couple. It was adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel “You Should Have Known.” I hated to see that series end, but, fortunately, Korelitz has a new book out titled “The Plot” (Celadon Books), which is as readable as “The Undoing” was watchable. A twisty tale of literary paranoia, in “The Plot” the author turns her writer’s eye on writers themselves and produces a witty thriller nightmare.
Jacob “Jake” Finch Bonner, the novel’s protagonist, always wanted to be a writer. He read constantly as a kid and replaced his given middle name with Finch, “added in high school as an homage to the novel that had awakened his love of fiction.” He earned creative writing degrees from impressive programs and wrote and published “The Invention of Wonder,” which was judged “New & Noteworthy” by the New York Times.
A few years have passed since his celebrated debut, and Jake’s star has faded. “Jacob Finch Bonner had fumbled his early shot, failed to produce a good enough second novel or any trace of a third novel, and been sent to the special purgatory for formerly promising writers from which so few of them ever emerged.” That agony is a faculty position at a low residency MFA creative writing program at Ripley College, a small, failing private school in northern Vermont.
When the story opens, Jacob has just arrived at his office on campus without having read the writing samples his new students have sent to him in advance: “Because, after all, what was there to know? … These particular students, these ardent apprentices, would be utterly indistinguishable from their earlier Ripley counterparts: mid-career professionals convinced they could churn out Clive Cussler adventures, or moms who blogged about their kids and didn’t see why that shouldn’t entitle them to a regular gig on ‘Good Morning America’ or newly retired people ‘returning to fiction’ (secure in the knowledge that fiction had been waiting for them).”
Jake is barely making a living between teaching and freelance editing and consulting, and he is deeply tormented about his odds of ever writing another good novel or any other novel at all. One summer session, a student named Evan Parker struts into his classroom, and Jake is stunned by his arrogance. Evan has never published a word, but he’s absolutely certain that he’ll become one of the top-selling authors ever – New York Times Bestseller List famous, Oprah’s Book Club famous, movie version famous. He thinks he’ll become so famous that he’ll have to protect himself from adoring fans. He’s even considering changing his name to Parker Evan “for privacy.” Evan is openly disrespectful of his fellow students and condescending toward his teacher. In class he refuses to talk about the novel he’s working on – which is sort of the point of a writing workshop.
Jake reads the sample chapter Evan has submitted, and he hopes it will be bad. But, it’s not. Then one night Evan appears in Jake’s office and discloses the source of his overconfidence: the plot, he says, one that is fail proof and he tells Jake what it is. “The breadth of it, the wallop of it, this out-of-nowhere and outrageous story,” Jake thinks. “Evan Parker had been entirely correct: the worst writer on the planet could not mess up a plot like this. And Evan Parker could write.”
A few years later, after the creative writing program has gone fully online, Jake is still downwardly mobile and loaded with insecurities. For no apparent reason, other than self-loathing, he searches the internet for his old student, Evan, wondering what happened to him. Yes, he was an abhorrent jerk, but that plot of his novel-in-progress was fabulous. To his shock, Jake discovers Parker’s obituary online. Evan probably died of an overdose, shortly after that summer session ended. There’s no novel, so wouldn’t it be a crime to let that fantastic story disappear?
Evan’s dream then comes true. “Crib” is a monumental bestseller and Oprah’s pick, Stephen Spielberg signs on, and the author’s appearances fill auditoriums and halls. The author, however, is not Evan Parker, or Parker Evan; it’s Jake Finch Bonner and he’s feeling pretty good about things until a book tour takes him to Seattle. He does a radio interview with a clueless host who’s probably never read any book, much less his. Afterward, Jake opens an email from the “horrifying” address TalentedTom@gmail.com, “and though the message was brevity itself at a mere four words, it still managed to get its point across: ‘You are a thief.’” Jake’s new life could easily crumble.
The author coyly alternates the story of Jake’s desperate quest to find out who this unknown accuser is and how he knows about Evan’s idea with chapters from “Crib” – just enough to fuel curiosity about what exactly this fabulous plot device is. Alert readers may guess some of the twists in advance as Jake follows the trail to Evan’s family home in Vermont and slowly realizes Evan didn’t invent this shocking story but took it from the real life of someone who is extremely angry about it. Only the shrewdest readers will predict the final jaw-dropping revelation.
Author Korelitz constructs her story ingeniously, dispersing it with intermittent chapters from Jake’s book “Crib,” creating suspense in the two separate stories. She explores not only the problems of plagiarism but a more pervasive issue: the that writers of fiction often take their material from the lives of others and that borrowing can have unexpected consequences. It sure does in “The Plot.” Don’t miss this one!