The plot criticism: partly an enthralling page turner, partly a literary satire

Good writers borrow, great writers steal. The epigraph to The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz is attributed to TS Eliot, who may have stolen it from Oscar Wilde; it soon becomes a practical mantra for Korelitz protagonist Jacob Finch Bonner, who, during this dark and witty novel, pushes Eliot’s aphorism to its limits.

Years after his first novel was selected as a “New and Outstanding” release by the New York Times, Jake (the “Finch” is a minor act of literary theft, pinched from the protagonists of To Kill A Mockingbird in an attempt to sound more like a writer) now resides in “special purgatory for once promising writers.” His second book, published through a specialist university printing house, was met with no fanfare – “countless copies had been dutifully sent for review (resulting in not one) ”, We learn in one of Korelitz’s barbed asides, capturing the stings of literary humiliation. His follow-ups remain stubbornly unfinished – and entirely unplanned – leaving Jake financially dependent on a depressing job as a tutor in creative writing at Ripley College, a disappointing liberal arts institution that takes advantage of budding writers.

Most of his students come to him with ideas that are neither new nor remarkable (one student is determined to “write a new version of Les Misérables, albeit with Victor Hugo’s” mistakes “corrected”) – until which Evan Parker walks into his office and shares the kind of plot that is, as he puts it, “a sure thing”, destined to sell millions of copies, ending up on the “book thing” of Oprah and beget a film adaptation by “someone really important, like a leading director.” He is so convinced of his future success that he has already reserved a pseudonym to protect his privacy (his chosen pen name , however, is Parker Evan, which rather goes against the point).

Even the chronically jaded Jake is impressed. When he later learns that Parker is dead, apparently without engaging in printing his plot, he steals his former student’s story, turning it into a novel called Crib (although a writer would really choose one. such title quite on the nose?) which fulfills, surpasses even the wildest predictions of its creator. Spielberg’s bestseller lists, book tours, and movies attract him, but he can never really enjoy those hits – because Crib, the story of a broken mother-daughter relationship hinged on a twist that makes people pant in public transport, is “a story that might not have been entirely up to him to tell.

Whatever mental gymnastics Jake uses to justify himself, citing “Miss Saigon from Madam Butterfly.” Mrs. Dalloway’s hours. The Lion King of Hamlet, for God’s sake ”as examples of the malleability of other people’s stories, readers’ harmless questions about inspiration petrify him. When an anonymous email sent from [email protected] lands in his inbox and threatens to reveal what he has done, his worst fears come true. The post, with its nod to his old teaching job, prompts him to become an amateur sleuth and return to Parker’s Vermont hometown to learn more about the man whose he poached. conspiracy, before Talented Tom exposed him as a literary fraudster.

Even without the Ripley references, The Plot has all the propelling twists and growing fear of a Patricia Highsmith novel; the passages in which Jake finds himself trapped in his own head, paralyzed by the fear of being “relegated forever to the circle of shameful writers with no hope of recourse” are claustrophobic but difficult to read. Her story is cleverly interspersed with Crib chapters, which unfold like something Gillian Flynn; Along with the revelation of the book’s much-vaunted twist comes a few real-life revelations.

Korelitz’s 2014 novel You Should Have Known was adapted by HBO under the title The Undoing last year, starring Hugh Grant, Nicole Kidman and a whole wardrobe of fancy green coats, and it’s not difficult. to imagine that its latest release will also receive the miniseries treatment. Hollywood certainly has no shortage of middle-aged prominent men who could play a washed-up literary has-be.

Will The Plot’s final curve cause gasps, like Crib does? Maybe not, as Korelitz has charted his own story so rigorously that there are plenty of signposts (some of which are literary) if you look closely enough, but the reveal is so well executed that it remains deeply satisfying. His scholarly expeditions to the literary world – and the industrial complex of creative writing – are also a sarcastic delight. It’s both a page-turner and a literary satire – an unusual mix, but an exciting one.

The plot of Jean Hanff Korelitz (Faber, £ 8.99)