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  • Ninay Desai

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

The Plot is a novel about Jacob Finch Bonner, a struggling writer who, frustrated with his dwindling status and its attending indignities, steals a riveting plot narrated to him by a student who dies before completing his novel based on the same plot. Jacob’s book ends up becoming a blockbuster and he, a celebrated author. Life is good as a best-selling author with cross-country promotional tours, talk of his novel being made into a movie and the promise of a hefty cheque for his next novel. There is, however, one tiny fly in the ointment - someone knows his secret and is threatening to reveal it to the world.

A copy of The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz lies on a grey and white checkered tablecloth. Photo by Ninay Desai.

Jean Hanff Korelitz paints a brilliant portrait of an unsympathetic protagonist with no major redeeming traits and a fair number of affectations – starting with the pretentiousness of his self-given middle name ‘Finch’ in a nod to Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. With this little touch, Korelitz shows us not only his vanity but also places, in his very name, his antithesis. Atticus Finch has been deified in the pages of literature as the epitome of integrity and fortitude - traits Jacob sorely lacks. The feigned modesty of Jacob’s carefully curated but seemingly off-the-cuff “famous author is an oxymoron” quip and his lack of interest in anyone’s life apart from his own doesn’t do much to bolster his likeability. However, that is also what makes him believable because he is so painfully ordinary even at the heights that he has managed to scale.

The Plot explores the theme of what defines originality in art which is as good as stated in its epigraph –

“Good writers borrow, great writers steal.”

The fact that even these six words are attributed to both TS Eliot and Oscar Wilde is apt and poetic. Korelitz eschewing the advantage of a sympathetic protagonist makes the book stronger because its inquiry into the blurry line that separates inspiration from plagiarism, is forced to stand on its own merit instead of being supported by an affable main character. Readers are often willing to forgive likeable or sympathetic characters some fairly heinous acts. Don’t believe me? Just ask Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Rodion Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. You’d probably get wry nods of agreement from them. Sadly for Jacob, he is not a character that inspires that sort of clemency. The only saving grace for Jacob is that his antagonist is much worse than him – a fact that is revealed slowly and becomes more horrifying as you turn the pages.

The writing is engaging and the narrator’s turn of phrase and ironic tone elevates the story injecting it with humour and insight while also allowing the reader to maintain a psychic distance from the protagonist. The exposition, in the initial chapters, of Richard Peng Hall and the history of Ripley College sets the tone for Jake’s dismal life post his shot at literary fame. Some readers might be put off by the lack of action in the protagonist’s decidedly downward spiral from a “new and noteworthy” author to a part-time professor at a third-rate college to the glorified administrator of a writer’s resort. To me, however, showing Jacob’s worsening circumstances is important to establish his reasons for doing what he does. It’s his ambition combined with his descent into that special hell of impecuniosity and professional irrelevance that forms his motivation to steal his former student’s story idea.

The plot of the novel is somewhat predictable since I guessed the two main twists - the climactic revelation in Jacob’s book and the identity of his blackmailer. In the end, what stayed with me was the theme of the novel – what constitutes originality? After all, even Disney’s The Lion King is a rendition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet but surely, we wouldn’t call it an act of plagiarism. I am reminded of a quote I read many years ago,

“Ideas are nobody’s property. They belong to whoever expresses them best.”

Finally, as anyone who has studied the craft of writing fiction will tell you, there are only seven basic narrative plots in all of storytelling which operate as scaffoldings for the construction of all stories. However, the myriad details of setting, characterisation, motivations, conflicts and narrative style make them individual pieces of expression. So, is Jacob’s novel his own work or plagiarised in its entirety? Read The Plot and let me know what you think.

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1 Comment

Jun 02, 2023

Sounds intriguing. Might check it out.

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