“Where did you get the idea for your book?”
If you’ve ever been to an author event or a book signing, you’ve heard that question. If you’re a published author, you’ve heard it many, many times.
For some authors, it’s welcome and flattering. For others, it provokes an inner eye-roll.
But the followup can make authors uncomfortable: “Let me tell you my great idea for a book!”
That innocent-sounding offer has been known to lead to plagiarism lawsuits. I saw Stephen King respond to it at a book signing by sticking his fingers in his ears and chanting “La la la” until the fan desisted.
But a lawsuit would be a picnic compared to what happens to a novelist named Jacob Finch Bonner in The Plot, the sleek new thriller by Jean Hanff Korelitz.
Korelitz is adept at twisty stories — her 2014 book, You Should Have Known, was made into the hit HBO series The Undoing, starring Nicole Kidman and her famous green coat.
In The Plot, Korelitz turns her writer’s sharp eye on writers themselves. Her protagonist can’t remember when he didn’t want to be a writer. Jake Bonner touches all the bases, reading intensively as a kid and fleshing out his given name with Finch, “added in high school as an homage to the novel that had awakened his love of fiction.”
He diligently earns creative writing degrees from prestigious programs and, in due course, writes and publishes The Invention of Wonder, deemed “New & Noteworthy” by the New York Times.
But several years have passed since then, and, Korelitz writes, “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.”
That purgatory is a faculty position at a low-residency creative writing program at Ripley College, a tiny, failing private school in the far reaches of Vermont. Jake is barely eking out a living between teaching at Ripley and freelance editing and consulting, and he is deeply depressed about the odds of his ever writing another good novel — or any other novel at all.
Then Evan Parker swaggers into his classroom. Or Parker Evan — “I’m thinking about reversing it, professionally. ... For privacy, yeah.”
Jake is gobsmacked. Evan has never published a word, but he’s absolutely certain that he’ll become one of the bestselling authors ever — Times bestseller list famous, Oprah’s book club famous, movie version by an iconic director famous, so famous he’ll have to protect himself from frenzied fans.
Evan is openly contemptuous of his fellow students and utterly arrogant toward his teacher. What’s more, 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 it’s not bad (though Jake hopes it will be). Then one night Evan shows up at Jake’s office and reveals the source of his overconfidence: the plot.
He has a plot, he says, that cannot fail. 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, Evan’s dream has come true. Crib is a massive bestseller and Oprah’s pick, Spielberg is attached, and the author’s appearances fill 2,000-seat halls.
But the author is not Evan Parker, or Parker Evan. It’s Jacob Finch Bonner.
Jake is feeling pretty good about that until a book tour stop to do a radio show in Seattle with a dolt of a host who’s probably never read any book, much less his. Afterward, Jake opens an email from the “horrifying” address (think Ripley) 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.”
I’ll say no more; the plot of The Plot shouldn’t be spoiled.
Korelitz crafts it beautifully, interspersing it with occasional chapters from Jake’s book Crib, building suspense in the separate stories. The tension is counterpointed with mordant humor about authors and, especially, the publishing industry.
Korelitz explores not only the writerly sin of plagiarism but a more widespread issue: the fact that fiction writers, even those who would never plagiarize another writer’s work, often take their material from the lives of others, sometimes those closest to them, and that borrowing can have unexpected consequences.
It certainly does in The Plot.
By Jean Hanff Korelitz
Celadon Books, 336 pages, $28