The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

My Shiny New Books co-host, Harriet has long been a fan of Korelitz, reviewing three of her novels for Shiny (see here). I’d noted her down as an author to look out for, but since reading and enjoying her latest book The Plot so much, I’ll be more actively seeking to read her other novels. I visited her website to find out a bit more about her, well initially specifically to check if I should refer to her as ‘Hanff Korelitz’ or just ‘Korelitz’ – her biog gives the latter, but there I discover she’s married to Irish poet Paul Muldoon, whom I’ve not read before either, but I recently picked up a book by him.

The Plot is a psychological thriller, but it’s also a really good yarn, a story of thwarted ambition and low status college life, (having now devoured The Chair on Netflix, Korelitz’s Ripley College in Vermont is even more downmarket than the cash-stricken Pembroke on TV). Her presentation of college life here is lightly satirical, but it’s also hard to see where the satire ends and the possibility of reality sets in!

The Plot concerns a writer, Jacob (‘Jake’) Finch Bonner. Jake is the kind of creatively blocked writer we all recognise – he arrived on the scene with a terrific debut, the follow-up bombed, and nothing published since. He can no longer afford to live in New York, so must seek a job elsewhere, and thanks to that debut he scores a tutoring job at Ripley College, Vermont – on the ‘low residency Master of Fine Arts Program in Fiction, Poetry and Creative Non-Fiction (Memoir)’.

No, Jake was not looking forward to the about to begin session of the Ripley Symposia. He was not looking forward to reconvening with his dreary ind annoying colleagues, not one of them a writer he genuinely admired, and certainly he was not looking forward to feigning excitement for another battalion of eager students, each one of them likely convinced they would one day write – or perhaps had already written – the Great American Novel. 

Most of all he was not looking forward to pretending that he himself was still a writer, let alone a great one.

There’s only one student of any interest on his course, and that’s only because he’s arrogant, not there to learn, only to score points and get an agent. Evan Parker claims to have a humdinger of a plot for his book, one that will make the reader reel with recognition at how good it is. Of course Jake doesn’t believe that, but when Parker asks him to read an extract, and then reveals the plot to Jake at the end of their private tutorial session, Jake is indeed left reeling. End of part one.

A couple of years later, the course has folded, Jake freelances to scrape a living, and continues to hope for inspiration. He remembers Evan Parker, and is surprised that his book was never published. He goes online, only to discover that Parker is dead. So, could he adopt Parker’s plot?

Of course he does! Predictably, Jake’s version of Parker’s plot does become a bestseller, the movie rights are sold, Jake becomes a celebrity author. But, he is always scared that one day he’ll be found out, he can’t really enjoy his new life quite to the full.

Of course that day arrives! You know it will. An email arrives from someone who calls themselves ‘TalentedTom’ (after Highsmith’s Ripley as well as Ripley college, natch). It just says, “You are a thief.” TalentedTom’s campaign will up the stakes, even pretending to have gone away at one stage which makes it worse for Jake when he returns.

The reader still doesn’t know the plot, and Korelitz keeps her cards close, leading Jake and us on a tortured and twisty ride until finally all is revealed. I did see what was coming but never worked out any of the detail, so finding how things play out was tantalising.

The psychological thriller aspect of this novel was well done, but as I said back at the beginning, this book is also a jolly good yarn. She’s good at the academic side of things too, The Devil and Webster, her 2017 book was a campus novel, also set in New England. There’s also the question looming over the story of plagiarism… Under US copyright law, you can’t copyright a plot, but if you express it using any of the originator’s materials, then that’s plagiarism. You need to read to the end to discover where Jake’s work lay.

A super book indeed. (9.5/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you. Faber paperback, 322 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

8 thoughts on “The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

  1. Calmgrove says:

    I saw this was being noised around and praised, and your review underlines why that praise is deserved, so thanks, I’ll definitely keep this on my radar!

  2. Harriet says:

    So glad you enjoyed it. I think The Devil and Webster (definite shades of The Chair here) is possibly the best of hers but they are all great. Happy reading!

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