The Plot is a Spellbinding Mystery


THE PLOT (2021)

By Jean Hanff Korelitz

Celadon Books, 323 pages.





The Plot is a psychological mystery that makes you think you’ve identified its keys, but keeps you just enough off balance that you don't trust your instincts.


Jake Finch Bonner is an author whose first book garnered enough acclaim to attract an agent for a second novel, which did not review or sell well. That agent, Matilda, continues to represent Jake, but the once “promising” young author looks like a one-hit wonder and he certainly can’t support himself on his paltry royalties. Keeping the wolf away from the door entails teaching in the MFA program in Fiction, Poetry, and Personal Nonfiction at Ripley College in its summer Ripley Symposia in Creative Writing.


Ripley is described as being in “northern” Vermont and internal clues suggest it's a composite of Lyndonville, Marlboro College, Goddard, and Middlebury's Bread Loaf program. It’s quite a comedown for a Long Island lad who went to Wesleyan. He writes and writes, but is spinning his wheels. Into his gloom comes Evan Parker, an obnoxious summer student with an inflated opinion of himself. He bruskly informs Jake that he can’t be taught anything and has no plans of sharing his work with his peers or instructors. Pretty brassy for a guy who has no publishing credits to his name. Parker boasts he has a “million-dollar plot” and only begrudgingly writes eight pages for Jake’s class. It’s little more than a brief sketch of several characters, but to Jake’s horror, it's compelling material, though he has no idea where Parker intends to take any of it.


Several years later, Ripley closes and Jake takes a winter symposium gig at a small school near Cobleskill, New York. It's so dreadful that he dreams of being back at Ripley. There’s even a student from California who can't fathom why there is no avocado toast in the cafeteria. Jake does, however, discover Evan Parker’s obituary and learns that he never published his novel.


Does Jake have an obligation to take what little he knows of Parker's idea, spin it, and see where it takes him? Would that be plagiarism, literary responsibility, or independent creation? As Jake learns, no one can copyright a plot­–not that he had the foggiest idea what Parker had in mind. Three years later, Jake riffs off what he inferred and his novel Crib is a sensation: two million sold in its first run, an Oprah pick, TV appearances, packed readings, a New York City apartment, and Matilda begging him for his next book. A book trip to Seattle involves a side visit to a joke of a radio show, but he does meet Anna Williams, the producer, and the two take to each other like condoms and sex.


What could go wrong? Writer’s block for one thing, but more disturbing are emails from “Talented Tom” that say, “You are a thief. We both know it,” and degenerate from there. Is this some kind of Tom Ripley/Ripley College reference? It can’t be Evan Parker, who died of an opioid overdose just months after Jake met him at Ripley. Who is sending these messages and why? As in many mystery tales, Jake doesn't follow the advice to leave matters into the hands of the experts such as his agent and the publisher’s lawyers. He investigates on his own in a journey that takes him north to Rutland, Vermont, and south to Georgia. Each new email causes Jake to unravel a bit more.


The truly masterful thing about The Plot is that it's extremely well plotted! In the too- crowded field of mystery writers, Jean Hanff Korelitz also stands out because she can really write. It's a testament to her craft that we begin to wonder if Jake saw more of Parkers novel than he claimed, or if his tormentor is a psycho. We feel Jake’s existential dread and experience feelings of creepiness, though nothing more pointed than emails prick Jake’s privileged bubble. This is one mystery whose resolution I did not see coming. The final twist makes sense, but it nonetheless staggered me.


Rob Weir


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