The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to make it rich as a bad art friend

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post)

Last October, Robert Kolker wrote a story for the New York Times Magazine about two writers locked in a messy legal battle. Ostensibly, their dispute revolved around a claim of plagiarism: Dawn Dorland asserted that Sonya Larson had stolen her real-life description of donating a kidney and used it as the basis for a short story.

But Kolker’s article — “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” — lit up social media because it was about more than an arcane plagiarism argument between two unknown authors. In a feat of superb reporting, Kolker captured something unsettling about our tenuous ownership of life experiences and the vampiric practice of fiction writing.

In the hall of mirrors that is literary culture, Andrew Lipstein has now published “Last Resort,” a novel about a bad art friend. No one is accusing Lipstein of plagiarizing Kolker’s article — his novel was finished long before the Times piece appeared — but “Last Resort” offers an uncanny dramatization of the issues Kolker explored. Clearly, we live in an age sweaty with anxiety about authenticity.

The story opens in the middle of every writer’s dream: Caleb Horowitz has attracted the attention of a big-shot agent who thinks his manuscript is terrific. This could be Caleb’s chance to stop working for a payday loan app he doesn’t understand. Spanning the high-brow/low-brow divide with a gymnast’s dexterity, he has produced that most sought-after treasure: a scandalous literary novel. His steamy plot revolves around an orgy on a Greek isle with a dying woman and a pair of honeymooning Americans.

At an elegant luncheon to seal the deal, Caleb hears how his debut novel will be blurbed and feted by everyone from Terry Gross to Seth Meyers. Soon enough, New York publishing houses are bidding $45,000, $85,000, $220,000 and much, much more, and Caleb is destined to be crowned “one of the greatest commercial literary successes of the year.” Not bad for a 27-year-old writer.

There is, alas, one small impediment to this life-changing triumph: Caleb lifted the outline of his novel from an old college friend named Avi, who had written a story about his erotic adventures in Greece. In retrospect, Caleb should have mentioned to Avi that the story had inspired him to write a novel. At the very least, Caleb should have changed the people’s names . . .

If you’ve ever wondered where writers get their ideas from, “Last Resort” is wicked fun. If you’re a writer, “Last Resort” is heartburn in print. Splayed across these pages is the dark terror that lurks within any creative person’s breast: the embarrassing facts that might demolish the glorious claims made in the name of literary invention.

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Caleb narrates this novel in a voice that braids confession and self-justification into tight knots. As Lipstein skewers the pretensions and delusions of literary ambition, he reveals the mental tricks that allow writers to imagine that they care only for art, not money or fame. And he exposes the extent to which novelists will go to ignore, obscure and even deny their sources.

As the implications of Caleb’s predicament screw down on him, he sounds more and more like a man trying hard to remain calm. “This was a work of fiction the same way historical fiction is fiction,” he tells himself while pacing around New York. “The truth is just scaffolding, something you throw away once the thing’s been built.” But alas, that metaphor is not technically or even metaphorically true.

Imagining Avi picking up a copy of his novel, Caleb thinks, “I took so many liberties with his story, how could he read mine and see anything but the differences?” There he is, so sure of his innocence, even as he madly googles “plagiarism” and runs his novel and Avi’s story through a computer program that detects similarities. Good news: “2% Similarities.”

“I considered this an acquittal,” Caleb says with a sigh of faux relief.

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Yet even in these moments of blustering confidence, Caleb can’t help grasping for praise, fantasizing about the glow of his victim’s gratitude. “His characters didn’t have backstories that could illuminate their present selves,” Caleb thinks. “His plot had no arc. I wondered if he realized all this, if he recognized the thought behind my manuscript, the craft — above all I wondered what he thought of it as a whole.”

On cue, Avi texts him: “Are you around to get coffee tomorrow?”

Uh oh.

With that stomach-dropping moment, “Last Resort” expands into a deliciously absurd comedy about literary fame. This is Lipstein’s first novel, but he has somehow already acquired a bitterly accurate understanding of the tiny arena in which reviews, blurbs, book signings, Goodreads comments and puffy author profiles can coalesce to make a writer rich — or notorious.

It’s all here: the cute headline in the New York Times that doesn’t quite track (“E.L. James, meet E.E. Cummings”), the cerebral takedown in the New Yorker by James Wood (“The first third of the review didn’t even mention the book”), and the packed reading at Greenlight Bookstore where the author can “display self-effacement worthy of the breakdown stage of a cult.”

But “Last Resort” is ultimately about the difference between what we say we want and what we pursue at our own peril. And that’s a conflict any of us can relate to, even if we haven’t stolen a friend’s story — yet.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts

Last Resort

By Andrew Lipstein

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pp. $27

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