Plagiarism, copying, theft; call it what you will. Each of these terms guarantees consequences, whether you’re a student, a politician or a writer.
Jean Hanff Korelitz explores the extent of literary plagiarism in her upcoming novel “The Plot.” The novel follows Jacob Finch Bonner, or Jake, a “once promising author” whose first novel was labeled “New & Noteworthy” by the New York Times Book Review. However, his following work failed to live up to expectations, which is where “The Plot” begins.
The premise of the novel seems enthralling, especially when taking Korelitz’s own success into consideration. Two of her novels have been adapted for the screen, including her 2014 book “You Should Have Known,” whose HBO adaptation, “The Undoing,” received critical acclaim. Starring actors Nicole Kidman (“Big Little Lies”) and Hugh Grant (“Notting Hill”), “The Undoing” was HBO’s most-watched show of 2020, and received a handful of nominations from several awards shows, including the Golden Globes. But past the storyline, “The Plot” falls short of achieving a similar enchantment.
Like “You Should Have Known,” Korelitz’s “The Plot” is a thriller. However, unlike her previous work, “The Plot” is not as engaging of a read. Jake, increasingly glum about his literary failures, is a rather insufferable character. Humiliated by his fate, he struggles to speak to other writers, and he cannot even think about them without launching into a spiral of self-pity. Unable to start or finish any sort of draft, Jake takes to teaching and meets Evan Parker, an emerging writer and obnoxious character. Evan is resolute in the fact that he has the most amazing plot that “no matter how lousy a writer he is, (no one) could mess up.”
Jake sits in front of this naïve, conceited writer and is both annoyed and amused. But then Evan leans forward and tells him everything — from the start of the wicked plot to its astonishing finale — and Jake realizes he’s right. There’s no way this novel can fail.
From this scene introducing the fantastic, titular plot, a thriller reader would reasonably expect the novel to pick up. However, the following sections of the novel move slowly. Part two moves forward two and a half years, and we find Jake roughly in the same place. He has neglected his writing, is stuck in odd teaching positions and is riddled with insecurities. Though it’s obvious Evan is an integral character, he is practically forgotten in part two. Instead, Korelitz attempts to deliver suspense through ending chapters with cliché remarks about how Jake’s life is about to change dramatically: “How many times, looking back at this night, the very last night of a time he would always afterward think of as ‘before,’ would he wish that he hadn’t been so utterly, fatally wrong?”
Mild relief from the mundanity comes when Jake finally checks back in with Evan and finds Evan dead and his remarkable plot unwritten. But that development is only followed by yet another predictable reveal. Part three begins with another time jump when Jake, the rather pathetic character we started with, is now the author of the best-selling novel, “Crib,” whose unexpected plot shocks the world. Who would have guessed that a failing author would steal the work of a character conveniently introduced and killed off several chapters later? “The Plot” wastes countless chapters complicating and dragging out a simple premise: Man steals dead student’s work. The entire first half of the novel could have easily been condensed into a single paragraph.
Korelitz’s pacing leaves much to be desired. It’s not until the middle of the novel that the real conflict is introduced. As Jake is on the rise, he receives a series of brief emails from an unknown user under the name Talented Tom, who implies there is more to Evan’s “plot” than Jake understands. This leads Jake to investigate the late student and his peculiar past. Korelitz supplements Jake’s investigation with chapters of “Crib” and reveals that the plot is worth plagiarizing, the kind of plot someone might kill for. As Jake uncovers more about Evan Parker and his late family, the excerpts from “Crib” make Evan’s miraculous plot seem less fictional with every passing day.
The inclusion of the story within the story was the best choice Korelitz could’ve made. “Crib” honors the suspenseful aspects of the thriller that “The Plot” is unable to achieve on its own. I was more excited to read the excerpts from “Crib” than I was to accompany Jake on his journey to uncover the truth, which was frustratingly foreseeable and almost too easy. I knew how the novel would end four chapters prior to what should have been the final emotional punch. Korelitz spelled too much out for us and consequently took the thrill out of the thriller.
Though I was intrigued by the premise and remained interested throughout the novel’s progression, I was disappointed by her techniques and the predictability of it all. I was eager to be shocked, startled and scared like Korelitz’s past thrillers have left me, but “The Plot” is a slow burn. Instead of striking the reader with unexpected twists and turns, Korelitz’s momentum is steady and unsurprising.
Perhaps it was my own expectations that caused the downfall of the novel, given my initial enthusiasm that Korelitz’s past work had provoked. It’s worth the read if you are interested, but it guarantees more disappointment than excitement or exhilaration.
Daily Arts Writer Lilly Pearce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.