Review: 'The Plot,' By Jean Hanff KorelitzJean Hanff Korelitz's tale of dirty deeds in the world of letters skewers pompous male authors with sly humor — but her approach to the central mystery might have you guessing the ending too soon.
Of all the things to enjoy in Jean Hanff Korelitz's new mystery novel The Plot, one of the best has to be one of the earliest, which is the encounter between Jacob Finch Bonner and his student Evan Parker (who intends his nom de plume to be "Parker Evan"). These two cishet white male writers have brief literary fisticuffs during a class held for one Ripley College's low-residency MFA program.
Ripley, located in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, is a waystation for Bonner, whose early success as a novelist has dried up and left him searching for places where he can simultaneously disappear from the powerful literati while maintaining the fiction that he's working on something new. He's so much a creature of his own imagination that even his middle name is an invention, taken in homage to his favorite novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
But for Evan Parker, Ripley offers an open door, a way for him to use a big, shocking idea as premise for a debut novel that Parker claims ". . . will be read by everybody. It will make a fortune. It will be made into a movie . . . " Anyone who has ever taken a writing class will recognize Evan Parker's braggadocio, the student who believes he has already outrun the teacher, the classmate who has nothing to share. (Later in the story, one of those classmates will tell Bonner "Evan didn't share, not pages and not feelings.")
Bonner reads what Parker has written, and realizes the posturing young man has reason for his confidence. Evan Parker's plot is something new, dark, twisty, and unforgettable. So much the latter that when Parker dies unexpectedly, Bonner decides to steal his story. What's the harm?
Considerable, as it turns out, and here is where it's important to stop and separate The Plot's wheat from its chaff. Which is painful, since Hanff Korelitz (The Devil and Webster, Admission) is an erudite and elegant writer whose steady tone in each of her books is outdone only by her steady hand with, yes, plot. As long as she's focusing on Bonner's easy ethics and early success (his book, titled Crib, sells two million copies in nine months and Steven Spielberg buys the film rights), her steadiness, underlaid by sly humor, promises a takedown that will topple all the big and pompous male authors of our time.
However, the question "What's the harm?" does need answering, and it's in cooking up a response that Korelitz falters, because she makes this a fair-play mystery, meaning the kind that scatters clues throughout like bread crumbs, allowing readers to solve the dilemma if they so choose.
Unfortunately, one of those clues had me guessing the ending — correctly — before I'd even reached the book's midpoint. It was a red flag, and even though I want to add a counterpoint to that phrase, I'm more committed to not giving spoilers than I am to my own cheekiness. Suffice to say plenty of readers will also guess.
Some may not care about that clue at all. Just as it shows up, Jacob Finch Bonner finds himself distracted from his success by a threatening email. Someone has made a connection between his novel's plot and Evan Parker's idea, and even though his literary and personal lives grow happier and happier, his interior worries overwhelm him.
That threatening email is from TalentedTom@gmail.com, which lets Bonner know that there must be a Ripley College connection, due to the reference to Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, whose con artist extraordinaire protagonist is named Tom. He decides to return to the Northeast Kingdom and investigate Evan Parker's backstory, which involves a small town called Rutland and several of its denizens, from cat-fanatic married lesbians to barflies buzzing around the Parker Tavern that Evan once tried to revitalize.
While Bonner very slowly pieces together Parker's history, the person behind the TalentedTom email handle attacks more and more viciously, with online posts accusing Bonner of plagiarism and theft that lead to meetings with his publisher's team and legal declamations of innocence. Bonner's suffering, for sure; one of Korelitz's funniest details is how he holes up in Manhattan with a dozen cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery and a fifth of Jameson as he worries about his anonymous stalker. She also has more than one gossipy item about the literary world in general, like a parenthetical mentioning a pair of now-divorced writers who have publicly shared their grievances.
Unfortunately, grace notes like that aren't enough to overcome some of the more pedestrian passages in which Bonner, like a plodding Captain Hastings without a Hercule Poirot in sight, attempts to figure out the Parker-family puzzle. It might be, from a writer of Korelitz's talent, that I wanted and expected a more fiendish and psychologically driven book. Instead, this Plot falls flat.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets@TheBookMaven.