Arriving smack in the middle of all this free-floating anxiety of authorship is Jean Hanff Korelitz’s new novel, “The Plot,” a witty nightmare of a thriller about the dangerous consequences of sticky fingers in the literary world. Purloined manuscripts used to be a staple device in traditional mysteries, but this latest wave of “who-wrote-it?” suspense stories is edgier, more socially aware. In these tales, power imbalances rooted in gender or class tempt malefactors into thinking they’re justified in stealing someone else’s voice and story.
Korelitz, of course, is the virtuoso who gave us “Admission” (2009), an academic novel-of-manners that offered readers a deep dive into the admissions process at Princeton. Her 2014 novel, “You Should Have Known,” a domestic thriller set in the exclusive milieu of New York’s Upper East Side was made into the recent must-watch HBO series, “The Undoing,” in which the buzz over Nicole Kidman’s dazzling outerwear (that fitted green velvet coat!) threatened to distract attention from the diabolical narrative. “The Plot” opens in yet another fecund setting, this one a perfect container for the vile emotions and behavior that distinguishes the suspense genre: a master of fine arts program.
The protagonist of “The Plot” is Jacob Finch Bonner, a once-celebrated young author of a literary novel called “The Invention of Wonder.” Jacob, by his own admission, “fumbled his early shot, failed to produce a good enough second novel or any trace of a third novel, and had been sent to the special purgatory for formerly promising writers, from which so few of them ever emerged.”
That “special purgatory” is the low-residency MFA program at Ripley College in Vermont, where for the past few years Jacob has taught a “prose fiction” workshop. To say that he’s become cynical about teaching would be like saying that Ulysses takes a long time to get home. When the story opens, Jacob has just arrived at his temporary office on campus without having read the writing samples his new students have sent to him in advance:
“Because, after all, what was there to know? . . . These particular students, these ardent apprentices, would be utterly indistinguishable from their earlier Ripley counterparts: mid-career professionals convinced they could churn out Clive Cussler adventures, or moms who blogged about their kids and didn’t see why that shouldn’t entitle them to a regular gig on Good Morning America, or newly retired people ‘returning to fiction’ (secure in the knowledge that fiction had been waiting for them?).”
But, Jacob turns out to be wrong. As fate would have it, there is one special student in his summer seminar — an arrogant jerk named Evan Parker who refuses to share his work with the class. “I don’t think there’s a person on the planet, no matter how lousy a writer he is,” Parker tells his affronted classmates, “who could mess up a plot like mine.”
The truth of that boast is affirmed a few years later when Jacob has slid even further down the literary chain of being. Ripley’s “low-residency” MFA program has become a fully online “no residency” program, and Jacob must make up the wage differential by working as a freelance writing coach as well as a “program coordinator” — really a desk clerk — at a smarmy “self-sponsored artists’ retreat.” (Translation: Suckers pay big money to stay at a dumpy hotel and try to write.)
Succumbing to self-loathing one night, Jacob searches online for his old student. Whatever happened to that toad? Sure, he was obnoxious, but the plot of his novel-in-progress was fabulous. Jacob should know because one night at Ripley, Parker broke his silence and boastfully described the story to Jacob. To his shock, Jacob discovers Parker’s obituary online: He died, probably of an overdose, shortly after that summer session ended. There’s no novel because Parker didn’t live to write it. But Jacob is alive, and it would be a crime to let that spectacular story vanish into the ether. Wouldn’t it?
I’ll stop there because one thing that surely would be a crime would be to divulge any more of the malevolent twists and turns of “The Plot.” The plot of “The Plot” is so ingenious that it should be assigned as required reading in the very MFA programs it pinions, both as a model of superior narrative construction and as a warning of the grim realities of the literary life to naive wannabe writers.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
This story has been updated.
By Jean Hanff Korelitz
Celadon. 336pp. $28