The Plot

Tags:  general-fiction, mystery, crime-fiction,

This is an exceedingly clever novel. The inside flap of the dust cover gives three definitions of the word “plot,” and this book is about all three:

  1. a sequence of events in a narrative, as in a novel, for example.
  2. an immoral or illegal plan
  3. a designated section of land for a gravesite

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Jacob Finch Bonner (aka Jake) is once-promising novelist whose career didn’t pan out. After a well-received first novel, his second book foundered. He lost his agent and his publisher, years of writer’s block set in, and by the time we meet him he’s been reduced to teaching in a second-rate writing program that even he doesn’t respect.

To add insult to injury, one of his arrogant young students, Evan Parker, describes to him in private a brilliantly original plot for a novel, one that can’t fail to sell. Bonner realizes that the plot is so good, any competent writer could turn it into a bestseller. And Parker, he soon learns, is a pretty solid writer.

Why, he wonders with agonizing envy, was this obnoxious kid chosen to be the recipient of such profound inspiration? For his first novel, no less? Why was such a brilliant story given to someone who wasn’t even trying, while Bonner himself could no longer come up with a single good idea after years of trying?

If Evan Parker can get past his own arrogance and laziness and put in the work to write this book, he’ll have a bestseller on his hands, no doubt.

Fast-forward a few years and Jake has sunk even lower. No longer able to afford his New York apartment, he moves upstate and takes a job as a concierge in a hotel that offers quiet to writers who need time and space to focus on their work. Jake notes that he can no longer count himself among the tribe of active writers. He’s finally come to the bitter realization that he’s a failed writer.

One day he has an encounter with a surly hotel guest whose rudeness and hostile manner remind him of his former student, Evan Parker. Why did I never hear anything of that book, Bonner wonders. Parker was supposedly hard at work on it in the writing program and afterward, and it was certainly the kind of story that an agent would snap up instantly. It probably would have caused a bidding war among publishers, and there would have been a film. Did Parker’s arrogance or his poor work effort prevent him from finishing it?

Jake finds his old student’s obituary on the internet. Evan Parker had died years ago, just months after leaving the writing program.

Surely a story with such a superb plot shouldn’t go untold, Jake reasons. And I know no one else knows about it because Parker was so jealous of his precious plot, he refused to share his writing with anyone in the MFA program.

Jake sits down and writes the book himself. In short order, he has a new agent, a new publisher, a number-one bestseller, and he’s sold the film rights for millions. He crosses the country on a book tour, and even manages to sell out concert halls for on-stage interviews.

Still, there’s this nagging fear in the back of his mind. What if Evan Parker did reveal his plot to someone else? What if some reader out there knows that Jake didn’t come up with this story himself? That he stole it from a young student who died a tragic death?

At the peak of his good fortune, as he’s solidifying his fame and fortune and even has the unexpected good luck of finding a woman he actually likes, his worst fear comes to pass. An anonymous reader calling himself Talented Tom starts sending ominous messages, claiming to know that Jake didn’t come up with the story, that he stole it and will be exposed.

Talented Tom doesn’t want money. He wants to undo Jake’s fortune, to humiliate him, to force his publisher to retract the book, to destroy his reputation, his fortune, his future and his psyche. All this starts happening more quickly that Jake can absorb it, with posts on social media and threats coming in via email and snail mail.

The reader soon sees that plot is about all three definitions of the word: a stolen narrative, an evil and relentless plan to destroy someone, and a plot of earth in which the buried body may not be who the world thinks it is.

This book is exceptionally well done on every level. It’s intricately plotted, with well-drawn characters, it’s well-told and the dialog rings true. Sometimes you’re a step ahead of Jake in figuring out what’s going on, sometimes you’re a step behind. The book never lags on suspense. It’s a hard one to put down.

I won’t give away the ending, because once you pick this book up, you’ll want to find out for yourself how it all unfolds. But I do agree with Megan Abbott’s remark that the finale is “both astonishing and utterly earned.”