Jacob Finch Bonner is a fledgling MFA professor who can’t shake the feeling of being a failure. He regards his students with a mix of contempt and indifference. One student, however, knocks Jacob out of his lethargy with his reputedly amazing plot to his novel in progress, hence The Plot. One might say that the plot to The Plot (2021) is equally intriguing (the title even has another layer of meaning which is revealed towards the end section).
When Jake’s college becomes virtual, he picks up gigs as a freelance editor and writing “consultant.” He clearly considers this type of work beneath him, yet he finds its straightforward, transactional nature to be “refreshing.” His early success with his first novel, The Invention of Wonder, is increasingly in the rear-view mirror. For the first time, Jacob begins to regard himself as a “failed writer.”
Around this time, he remembers a story idea from one of his old MFA students. After some googling, he realizes that this student, Evan Parker, has died. Parker’s story idea, and the mere two pages which Jacob had reviewed, ignite a “spark” which gives Jacob a feeling of inspiration–which is to say he decided to steal Parker’s story.
Literary fame and commercial success follow with his publication of Crib. Excerpts from this book within a book are provided, and it’s quite good, just as The Plot is a fine novel. It raises an interesting ethical question: if Jake stole the basic plot idea, but otherwise wrote the book himself, does he deserve at least some credit? I would actually say yes.
A POV Problem
While Jean Hanff Korelitz has accomplished a captivated novel with The Plot, one issue is the POV. Namely, the novel is in 3rd person limited point of view, through the perspective of protagonist Jacob Finch Bonner, a professor in an MFA program who had brief and fleeting success in the literary world. While the character Bonner is vivid and compelling, there are times when the author fails to portray a male perspective with fidelity.
To put it simply, the “voice” of Jake at times just doesn’t read as male. Of course men can be masculine in different ways, but there is something particular about the way men see the world which Korelitz has at least some extent failed to capture with this character.
For example, Jacob repeatedly refers to one of his students, Evan Parker, as “arrogant,” an “arrogant jerkoff,” etc. It’s just not really a phrase a man would use, and this resentment of men they perceive as “arrogant” is a particularly feminine gripe. Another tell is the repeated reference to Evan’s blonde hair: “His thick blond wedge of hair nearly obscured one eye” (38). Somehow the idea of being blonde and being arrogant has become a trope, especially in film, and especially in the mind of Hanff Korelitz.
In the first half of the novel, Jake hardly passes a thought on women. Instead, he’s focused on his career and his own ego, which is hardly the male perspective. At one point, Jake falls asleep watching Rachael Maddow, and I thought, “This is not a man.”
That he named himself Jacob Finch Bonner after To Kill a Mockingbird is also a bit much. No man would make such a sanctimonious name change, and if he did, someone would need to beat him up at that point. I wouldn’t expect Korelitz to understand.
A Female Voice, the Character Anna
That Jake’s love interest is a woman with a full grey head of hair seems like wishful thinking on behalf of the author. Consider that Jake has become a best-selling author. Would this realistically be his choice in a mate? One I mean to say is that the idea that a man would find grey hair on a woman seductive or somehow charming can only be the conceit of another woman, not a man:
“He loved so many things about the way she looked, but that silver hair, it occurred to him, he loved most of all. Thinking of it swinging loose made a kind of weighty thump inside his head” (302).
To be clear, this is not to say that a woman with grey hair is unattractive, or somehow is out of line. But it just shows, once again, that the author is a little out of touch with the male psychology. Finally, when Jake marries Anna, he expresses a desire to “get closer” to her, which I would argue, again, is just not the type of thought that enters a man’s mind, but is very much a thought that enters a woman’s mind. Pity, then, that you don’t see men writing novels so much these days.
Even the novel-within-the-novel, Crib, is clearly written from a woman’s POV. Within a few pages, there she rails against homeschooling, insufficient sex-education, and otherwise uses a distinctly female diction (at least to me this was easy to detect).
A Liberal Female Perspective
The concerns expressed by the protagonist are suspiciously like those of a liberal middle-aged woman from New York City. On social media, Jake’s thoughts are thus:
“Facebook had seemed harmless until the 2016 election, when it bombarded him with dubious ads and “push” polls about Hillary Clinton’s supposedly nefarious deeds” (99).
In one scene, Jake dines in Georgia with a black coroner and a hillbilly, trying to learn more about Evan Parker’s family. The coroner describes a woman as “hysterical,” but then corrects himself, because he knows you’re not supposed to use that word. Is that an accurate portrayal of how such a person might actually think and speak, or is this more a reflection of the author’s sensibilities?
Finally, A rural Georgian character expresses a concern that his community is being disproportionately taxed to pay for Obamacare. We’re obviously supposed to scoff at this, but doesn’t he have a point? Suffice it to say that Korelitz’s political beliefs are annoyingly present in her novel.
Suspense & Mystery
The suspense makes the novel: you’re on edge to see if Jake will be discovered for having “cribbed” his best selling novel. The mid section of the book is a matter of waiting for the shoe to drop. It is deliciously suspenseful, and this waiting and dreading is drawn out deftly. Reading the novel, the sense of guilt and fear from the protagonist’s perspective is so strong that I began to feel as though I myself had plagiarized a novel and was waiting to be found out.
When Jake’s agent calls him for a meeting regarding the accusations, it is a moment of reckoning. They conclude with a sense of reassurance, but Jake is far from reassured, such is his guilty conscience.
The Plot is a revealing look into the literary industry, literary agents, story telling, and the egos that accompany this world. So just based on the subject matter the book is of interest. That Korelitz is an excellent writer and develops her narrative deftly also doesn’t hurt.
Jake decides to travel to Rutland, Vermont, a logical place to do some reconnaissance in aims of finding his online harrassar who has been threatening to expose him for plagiarizing his best-selling novel. This anonymous person goes by “Talented Tom.” Jake meets with a former student, and tries to sniff out any more info he can about Evan Parker, and with whom he might have shared his work.
The last third of the book is when it becomes a mystery novel. One is almost hoodwinked into reading a mystery novel, as the first half of the book doesn’t propose any type of mystery or who-done-it.
It’s not entirely clear what Jake hopes to discover in Vermont or how it might be useful to him in terms of the accusations of plagiarism. At any rate, the novel takes on the tone of a mystery as Jake learns more about Evan’s sordid life and demise, and these events constitute the second half of the novel, which is not quite as intense as the first half, when we are instead witnessing the rise of a fledgeling writer.
It turns out that Crib, the novel that Jake at least partially “cribbed” from Evan Parker, is based on Evan Parker’s own life. What doesn’t make sense is how Jake would have written the novel of Parker’s novel given that Jake had only seen a few pages of it and had not otherwise been informed about the plot of the book. Later it is claimed that Parker described the story to Jake, though that is not in the actual scene of their meeting. In this regard, The Plot is a little confusing. The premise that the protagonist stole his student’s novel idea is straightforward enough, but the plot twists beyond are a little convoluted.
The Plot can be seen as a metaphor for “imposter syndrome.” This is when someone feels as though they didn’t deserve their success. Jake is dogged by this feeling, despite having a best-selling novel. Yet in this case, Jake has good reason to feel like an imposter. But how often do we have this feeling even when we’ve earned our success and have no real reason to feel guilty? Call it imposter syndrome or just a free-floating sense of guilt.
Follow me on Twitter
Sign up to be informed about new posts: