Book Review The Plot

Book Review | The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Jacob ‘Finch’ Bonner – the affected middle name adopted due to his love of Harper Lee – is a struggling writer. After the modest success – in literary circles – of his first book, he’s in his thirties and finds himself  ‘sent to the special purgatory for formerly promising writers, from which so few of them ever emerged’.

Failing to come up with any new ideas, and feeling left in the dirt as the stars of his contemporaries continue to rise, he takes up a position at a small MFA program, teaching creative writing. Among his students is the insufferable narcissist Evan Parker, determined that writing is not something that can be taught (leaving Jake questioning, understandably, as to why Evan has bothered to attend the program). But despite his personal faults, Jake can’t deny that Evan has achieved that elusive goal – he’s got a damn good plot.

A few years pass, and Jake expects to hear about Evan’s book as it is undoubtedly picked up by a big publisher. But nothing happens, and a Google search brings up Evan’s obituary – his debut unpublished, confined to the recesses of history. So Jake steals the plot, and it catapults him into the hallowed halls of success he’s always dreamed of. Soon, he’s selling out thousand-seat concert halls and is plagued by adoring fans at book signings. He justifies his plagiarism to himself, of course:

 ‘Every single work of art was in conversation with every other work of art: bouncing against its predecessors, drawing form its contemporaries, harmonizing with the patterns… And that was a beautiful, thrilling thing.’

But he can’t quite shake his guilt and fear that the past will come back to bite him – and his worst fears are confirmed when he begins to receive anonymous, threatening messages.

In an interesting (and effective) structural choice, Korelitz weaves passages from Jake’s bestselling novel into the pages of the The Plot, running concurrently with Jake’s own narrative. Far from feeling disjointed or disruptive, this adds an extra dimension to the story.

I picked this one up because I loved the HBO adaptation of The Undoing, based on the book You Should Have Known by Korelitz. I also read John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky earlier this year, and really enjoyed it in all its wicked psychological drama and wit – and sensed immediate comparisons with the themes of literary theft and fame. The Plot isn’t as good as either of the above – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit. It begins as a slow-burn psychological drama, which feels consistent but plodding throughout – the pace hardly picks up even when it really needs to for the sake of the plot. The twist is pretty easy to see in advance, even if we’re not quite sure how we’ll get there. But the story really shines as an exploration of the torturous nature of writing and elusive pursuit of success, and the nebulous ownership over the stories we tell.

‘The superstition held that if you did not do right by the great story that had chosen you, among all possible writers, to bring it to life, that great story didn’t just leave you to spin your stupid and ineffectual wheels. It actually went to somebody else. A great story, in other words, wanted to be told. And if you weren’t going to do that, it was out of here; it was going to find somebody else who would.’

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. The Plot will be published on May 11th, 2021.

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