The softball question tossed to authors, “Where do you get your ideas?” has suddenly acquired a sinister curve. The Plot, a tension-filled mystery thriller by Jean Hanff Korelitz, whose novel You Should Have Known was recently made into an HBO series, opens with a winking quote from T.S. Eliot (or was it Mark Twain?): “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.”
The story opens on Jacob “Jake” Finch Bonner, a “once-promising author” who now teaches at the Ripley Symposia in Creative Writing in Vermont, which isn’t as distinguished as it sounds. The view from his “temporary cinder-block” office features “a vaguely collegiate walkway” but has little else to recommend it.
Bonner is, or was, the celebrated author of the artsy novel The Invention of Words, but a follow-up failed to find an audience. As for his current project: “The novel-in-progress on his laptop was not a novel, and it was hardly in progress.”
He’s creatively snowbound, with nothing to look forward to, save an “appalling evening” with a load of surely putrid student manuscripts. If that wasn’t depressing enough, his obnoxious student Evan Parker claims to have a killer novel idea that will not only earn him an agent and a publisher, but be a bestseller.
Jake doesn’t grasp any killer hooks in Parker’s annoyingly well-written but low-key eight-page sample outlining a mother-daughter conflict. During their one and only student conference, Bonner cajoles Parker into outlining his supernova of a plot, and after hearing it (we the readers are kept in the dark awhile longer) Bonner can only agree about Parker’s supernova of a twist: “It was something new to him, as it would be new to every single person who read it, and that was going to be a lot of people.”
Evan Parker — or Parker Evan, if that would sell more copies — rebuffs Bonner’s respectful suggestions for gilding the lily, since, after all, “Anybody can be a writer.” That phrase is thrown at Jake like an epithet several times.
Two and a half years pass. Laid off from Ripley, Bonner finds himself the program coordinator at a writers retreat, with still no new novel or prospects for one.
At a low point, dimly conscious of the fact that his former student’s surefire idea had not appeared in print yet, he searches Parker’s name on the web and is shocked to discover Parker has died. In fact, he had died just a few months after describing his “silver bullet” story, which had presumably died with him.
Bonner marshals arguments as convincing as they are convenient. Aren’t all authors magpies, taking what they like and making it their own? Isn’t every work of art in a running conversation with every other work? A duty to the craft, really, to save such a golden story from going untold. Besides, the jerk was dead. Who was to know?
Flash-forward three years, and it is Jake Finch Bonner who is riding atop the New York Times best-seller list with his novel Crib, every word of which is indeed his own, but whose energizing idea was acquired (or swiped?) from the late Evan Parker.
His life is objectively much improved: Rapturous book signings, Oprah’s “selection of the month,” interest from Steven Spielberg, a new apartment he’s hardly seen while enduring the “strange, almost disembodied life” of an extended book tour. Yet there’s a cloud hanging over his tumultuous triumph — the ever-present fear of being found out.
Then, from out of the ether, comes a terse email: “You are a thief.” Such a message, while guilt-triggering, could have conceivably been dismissed as the rant of a crank, if not for the tell-tale clue in the sender’s handle: TalentedTom.
As in Tom Ripley, the devious character from Patricia Highsmith’s series of novels including The Talented Mr. Ripley. But also as in Ripley College, wherein the stunning plot had first tickled Jake Bonner’s ears.
Whoever “TalentedTom” is, he knows about Evan Parker’s story too, and instantly Bonner’s dreamed-for life is transformed into a slow torture of anxiety as the drip-drip messages from his secret tormentor continue.
Bonner luridly conceives his world crashing down, foresees his pathetic attempts to explain himself, forced to do penance before Oprah, James Frey-style, while worrying that “Every day might be a day the infection of @TalentedTom crossed the membrane into actual life and his actual relationship.”
Inevitably that day arrives, in a letter addressed to his new wife, whom he met cute on the book tour. He has to bring things to a stop, one way or another, for his reputation and sanity. But what does his nemesis want, exactly?
Author Jake employs his research resourcefulness to try and discern who else the cagey Evan Parker could have told his knockout story to, and unearths some staggering history that seems to point toward a suspicious string of deaths. Or is Jake missing the plot entirely? The clenched tension never lets up.
Happily for readers, Korelitz reveals Parker’s idea in excerpts from Crib. The twist is indeed a corker and perhaps unique. One is tempted to ask, facetiously, where does Korelitz get her ideas?
The intrigue is appealingly small-bore: Bonner hangs out at a tavern in Parker’s hometown. He dives into the archives of local libraries. Along the way he has perhaps a few too many fortuitous encounters with people who tell him just what he needs to know. But that frictionless progress keeps things moving, and the doubled storylines, which may or may not have noteworthy parallels, add momentum.
As the title’s double — or triple? – meaning comes into chilling focus, the reader almost incidentally finds himself pondering philosophical questions on creativity and storytelling.
The grimly satisfying denouement includes the ultimate indignity for a conscientious writer. A surprise jolt of poignancy at the end gives an added dimension to a tale that can occasionally feel heartless.
A few nitpicks: The main cast feels underpopulated for a story that is basically a search for suspects. The love interest feels slightly artificial. Still, The Plot is an ambitious high-wire act that makes it all the way across, and it is executed with such apparent ease that it should give hope to other would-be authors with their own knockout ideas.
After all, “Anyone can be a writer.” Right?