The front jacket flap for Jean Hanff Korelitz’s new, twisty thriller offers a trio of definitions for the word “plot”: 1. a sequence of events in a narrative, as in a novel, for example; 2. an immoral or illegal plan; 3. a designated section of land for a gravesite. All three definitions will be brought to bear at one point or another in the course of Korelitz’s serpentine story. The novel falls into a robust subgenre of current thrillers involving literary folk behaving badly – other examples include Alexandra Andrews’s debut Who Is Maud Dixon? and Alex Pavesi’s forthcoming Eight Detectives. Korelitz’s contribution revolves around Jacob Finch Bonner, a writer who made a splash with his first novel but whose star has fallen precipitously in subsequent years.
“Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising” wrote Cyril Connolly back in 1938. The gods must truly have wanted to destroy poor old Jake, since after being listed among the “New & Noteworthy” in The New York Times Book Review for his debut novel, The Invention of Wonder, he was forced to publish his second book, a collection of linked stories called Reverberations, with an obscure academic press. There has not been a third book. At the time The Plot opens, Jake has been reduced to teaching to teaching a sessional creative writing course at Ripley College, a third-rate institution that offers a “low-residency Master of Fine Arts Program in Fiction, Poetry, and Personal Non-Fiction (Memoir).” As a professor in the fiction stream, Jake is forced to babysit a succession of wannabe writers, most of whom “were far less gifted than they believed they were, or possibly every bit as bad as they secretly feared they were.”
The exception is Evan Parker, an overconfident blond A-type male who antagonizes Jake from the time they meet at the symposium’s opening night dinner then refuses to engage in classroom discussion. Evan does not appear to have any interest in being at the Ripley symposium and clearly disdains his fellow aspiring writers. What Evan does have is a story – in fact, Jake thinks it may be the story to end all stories. When his recalcitrant student attends the despondent professor’s office hours for their mandatory one-on-one, the young man outlines the plot of his work-in-progress, a plot that even Jake is forced to admit can’t miss. One would not even have to be a competent writer if armed with this story: its sheer, inborn power – carried on the back of a twist that no reader will possibly anticipate – guarantees a massive audience, adaptation into film, and surefire riches for its author.
Needless to say, Jake is made insanely jealous by the prospect of such an arrogant and – even more unbearable – talented student being in possession of such a goldmine. So when he discovers, purely by accident once the course is over, that Evan has died, he does what any self-respecting author would do in the circumstances: steals the story and writes it himself.
It should go without saying that Jake’s novel, not-so-subtly titled Crib, is a huge bestseller and catches the eye of Steven Spielberg, who signs on to direct the film. All of a sudden, the formerly washed-up Jake is the toast of the global literary scene, with money in the bank, foreign translations by the score, a lucrative film deal, and adoring fans who line up for an autograph wherever he goes. It should equally go without saying that this kind of fame brings out the haters, and soon Jake is being hounded by an online troll who goes by the name @TalentedTom and who begins leaving anonymous messages on social media accusing Jake of having stolen the plot for his worldwide bestseller.
In addition to the title of Jake’s novel, a reader will not be able to overlook the allusion in @TalentedTom’s online handle, nor its relationship to the name of Ripley College. Tom Ripley is, of course, the antihero in a series of thrillers by the late Patricia Highsmith. Ripley is a con man and a murderer, so the implications for Jake – whose renewed success is the result of his own literary larceny – are clear and far from comforting.
Korelitz’s novel is a brisk read and the pace is never sluggish. Especially in the early stages, the author provides some sharp satire about the culture of MFA programs and the pangs of literary failure. Jake, who appended his middle name to his given names as a nod to his favourite literary character, Atticus Finch, is self-deluding and self-flagellating simultaneously, constantly reminded of his tax attorney father’s admonition that writers don’t make money (“Except Sidney Sheldon”) and depressingly unsurprised by his workshop students, who include “a man who already had six hundred pages of a novel based on his own life (he was only up to his adolescence) and a gentleman from Montana who seemed to be writing a new version of Les Misérables, albeit with Victor Hugo’s ‘mistakes’ corrected.”
By the time @TalentedTom’s threats begin to make their way closer to home, imperilling Jake’s livelihood and his newfound relationship with a radio producer named Anna Williams, Korelitz more or less dispenses with satire in favour of a swiftly moving plot that relentlessly turns the screws on her hapless protagonist, with each torque heightening the sense of claustrophobia as Jake goes to ever greater lengths to uncover his antagonist’s identity before his entire world is blown apart.
Interspersed with Jake’s story are isolated pages from Crib, which, taken together, lay out the foolproof plot that Evan conveyed in that fateful office meeting. (The early scene ends just as Evan begins talking, so the reader uncovers the details of the plot piecemeal as Korelitz’s novel unfolds.)
While the The Plot is crisp and tightly calibrated, it is heir to a number of structural problems that unfortunately detract from the reading experience. First, the novel-within-a-novel is forced to convey the bulk of Evan’s story in a very few pages, so what we are presented with is a lot of exposition and very little of what might conventionally constitute novelistic writing – character development, pacing, setting, full scenes, etc. This creates a problem where Jake’s character is concerned. He was acclaimed as a promising writer on the back of his first novel, which we are given to understand was of high literary quality, but the writing in the pages from Crib is perfunctory at best, there only to provide necessary information in the context of Korelitz’s own narrative. There is no indication from what we read of Crib that Jake is much of a writer.
But more egregious is the trap that Korelitz has set for herself in this novel. In order for the story to work, the reader must believe that the twist in Crib is so astonishing, so unbelievable, yet so inevitable and logical, that no one will see it coming and everyone will be wowed by it. For this to pay off, Korelitz must not only deliver, but also come up with a twist in her own story that will trump it. Unfortunately, she overplays her hand and shows her cards too early: anyone possessed of a passing familiarity with Highsmith’s Ripley novels will know where this story is going, and in case you’re unfamiliar with those books, Korelitz helpfully provides a thumbnail explanation to bring you up to speed.
When Connolly used the word ”promise,” he was talking about people like Jake. But the word has another connotation. A novel like The Plot makes a promise to its reader: it promises revelations and reversals that will knock the reader backward. But this necessitates twists a reader is unable to see coming. In a book like this, the author should be two steps ahead of the reader at all times. Korelitz has laid out her story and its literary referents in such a schematic fashion that it is the reader who is constantly two steps ahead, with the story lagging sorely behind.