Reviewed by Harriet
Jean Hanff Korelitz has appeared twice on Shiny before, both times reviewed by me. The first novel was You Should Have Known (reviewed here); you may not recognise the title, but you could well have seen the recent TV adaptation with Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman, retitled The Undoing. That novel was published in 2014, and the review was one of the first I wrote for the newly created Shiny New Books. The other was a superb campus novel called The Devil and Webster, back in 2017 (here). You can see from this that Korelitz is not a prolific writer, so I was very pleased to see that her long-awaited (by me, anyway) next novel had just been published.
The Plot is the story of a writer, Jacob (‘Jake’) Finch Bonner. The author of The Invention of Wonder, a hugely successful debut novel, he had found himself totally without inspiration for the follow-up – he did manage to write something that satisfied the publishers, but the novel sank without trace, and subsequent attempts have not even reached publication. Disheartened and depressed, he manages, on the strength of his earlier success, to get a job tutoring students on the ‘low residency Master of Fine Arts Program in Fiction, Poetry and Creative Non-Fiction (Memoir)’ at the very downmarket Ripley College in Vermont.
No, Jake was not looking forward to the about to begin session of the Ripley Symposia. He was not looking forward to reconvening with his dreary ind annoying colleagues, not one of them a writer he genuinely admired, and certainly he was not looking forward to feigning excitement for another battalion of eager students, each one of them likely convinced they would one day write – or perhaps had already written – the Great American Novel.
Most of all he was not looking forward to pretending that he himself was still a writer, let alone a great one.
So, predictably, he cannot raise any interest in his students, who are admittedly a pretty sorry bunch with rather sad and obviously completely unrealistic aspirations. All of them participate enthusiastically in tutorials apart from one Evan Parker, who holds himself aloof and rarely mixes with anyone else. He behaves with extreme arrogance in the first class, declaring that he doesn’t believe he can learn anything from the course: ‘don’t expect me to change what I’m doing for anyone else’s eyes and ears, or noses for that matter. I know what I’ve got here. I don’t think there’s a person on the planet who could mess up a plot like mine’. Then, one day, Parker approaches Jake and asks him to read a few pages of a novel he hopes to write. Jake is not impressed: what exactly is this stunning plot that Parker is so certain will succeed? Everyone knows there are only a limited number of plots, and writers always use one of them. Or so he thinks. Then, at the end of a combative private tutorial, Parker reveals the plot.
When his student had finished talking, Jake wanted to hang his head, but he couldn’t show what he felt, the horror of what he felt, to the justly arrogant asshole who would one day, he now felt certain, become Parker Evan, the pseudonymous author of this stunning first novel, catapulted to the top of the New York Times bestseller list via viral word-of-mouth.
So Part One ends with Jake knowing the plot but the reader still in ignorance. The second part, two and half years later, finds Jake out of work, existing on scraps of freelance writing, and longing for the inspiration to write another novel. He’d always wondered why he hadn’t heard of Evan Parker’s astonishing novel finding its way into print, but then some googling reveals that Parker is dead. Dead, and his amazing plot with him. But does the plot have to stay dead? Hours of self-justification later, Jake convinces himself that he has every right to use the idea of a man who is not in the position to use it himself. And so he does, and naturally he is catapulted to the top of the best seller lists, gets a movie deal, is invited everywhere for interviews. Does he enjoy his success? Of course, to some extent. But he’s in constant terror or being found out – and then the worst happens: a four-word email arrives. ‘Its horrifying email address was 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”’. And that’s only the beginning of a relentless campaign which destroys any peace of mind Jake may have left.
This is, of course, a psychological thriller, and you can expect a twist at the end, though I suspect I’m not the only person to have seen it coming. But that’s not really the point of this excellent novel, which manages to reveal so much about the state of mind of the protagonist while withholding till almost the end what the extraordinary plot actually is and where it originated. Korelitz is especially gifted in her portrayals of academic and, as in this case, literary worlds, and there’s much excellent satire here. But the novel does also invite the reader to question the rights and wrongs of the issue it explores: can it ever be OK to borrow/steal an unpublished plot from a dead man? Maybe by the time you’ve spent many eventful hours inside the mind of Jacob Finch Bonner, you’ll have reached some conclusions on this yourself. Or maybe not. In any case, it’s so well worth finding out.
Harriet is one of the founders and editors of Shiny New Books.
Jean Hanff Korelitz, The Plot (Faber & Faber, 2021). 978-0571368099, 336pp., paperback original.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)