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320 pages, Hardcover
First published May 11, 2021
He'd always known a good plot when he saw one.Jacob Finch Bonner is a has-been. His first novel was well-received, but that was years ago and he knows he hasn't come up with anything good since then. He now teaches a writing course. When one of his students boasts to having a plot that will blow the literary world away, Jacob is naturally skeptical. But when he hears the plot, even he cannot deny its power. So what happens next? Best not spoil it by revealing any more.
…a few minutes later in the car, he found the first of the messages. It had been forwarded from the contact form on his own author website (Thanks for visiting my page! Have a question or a comment about my work? Please use the form!) just around the time as he was about to go on the air with local Seattle institution Randy Johnson, and it had already been sitting there in his own email in-box for about ninety radioactive minutes. Reading it now made every good thing of that morning, not to speak of the last year of Jake’s life, instantly fall from him and land in a horrible, reverberating crack. Its horrifying email address was TalentedTom@gmail.com, and though the message was brevity itself at a mere four words, it still managed to get its point across. You are a thief, it said.Buckle up. Jacob Finch Bonner (Jake) had some early success as a writer. His novel, The Invention of Wonder, received critical acclaim, the New York Times including it in its list of New and Noteworthy books. But it has been a while since that critical (if not commercial) triumph. A story collection was largely ignored and then there was, well, nada. Jake teaches at Ripley University in northern Vermont. It is not writer’s block Jake suffers, it is more like Writer’s-Great-Wall-of-China. He teaches creative writing, endures the continual delights of academia politics, and lives, literally, on Poverty Lane. But then Evan Parker happens.
All he had ever wanted was to tell—in the best possible words, arranged in the best possible order—the stories inside him. He had been more than willing to do the apprenticeship and the work. He had been humble with his teachers and respectful of his peers. He had acceded to the editorial notes of his agent (when he’d had one) and bowed to the red pencil of his editor (when he’d had one) without complaint. He had supported the other writers he’d known and admired (even the ones he hadn’t particularly admired) by attending their readings and actually purchasing their books (in hardcover! at independent bookstores!) and he had acquitted himself as the best teacher, mentor, cheerleader, and editor that he’d known how to be, despite the (to be frank) utter hopelessness of most of the writing he was given to work with. And where had he arrived, for all of that? He was a deck attendant on the Titanic, moving the chairs around with fifteen ungifted prose writers while somehow persuading them that additional work would help them improve.But when Jake learns that Evan Parker has died, and that his magnum opus appears to have never been published, he makes a decision, backing it up with large volumes of excuse-making and a cyclotronic level of self-justifying spin. Three years later he is on his long-dreamed-of book tour, promoting his hugely successful novel, Crib. He still carries guilt and paranoia about being found out. The guilt he manages (Mr. Bonner, when it pops up, take two excuses in a large glass of entitlement and call me in the morning), but I guess you can’t be too paranoid. Then the message.
...at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears. No doubt I now grew very pale; --but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased --and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound –much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath --and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly --more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale HeartAn e-mailed threat was not the only thing he left Seattle with. Anna Williams, a fan, the producer at the Randy Johnson show at KBIK, who had arranged for Jake to do the interview, chats him up afterwards. They have a coffee, stay in touch even when he returns to New York, and their connection soon become a thing. The messages do not stop.
but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed --I raved --I swore!- EAPWe ride along as Jake deals with his publisher, his agent, his fans, and his peers. There is a lot of support for him in the community, as most presume it is just a nutter harassing him in search of a lawyer-enhanced payday. But Jake knows this is no gold-digging faker. Yet he still feels it necessary to keep this from Anna for a long time, even after they are living together. Just how dangerous is TalentedTom?
I seem to be attracted to sociopathic male antagonists. I also appear to like college campuses. - from the Scoundrel Time interviewThe engine shifts into overdrive when Jake decides to stop playing defense and begins doing some serious research to identify his tormentor, and learns that his may not be the only theft related to Evan’s plot.
It grew louder --louder --louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! --no, no! They heard! --they suspected! --they knew! - EAPIn addition to Poe, I was reminded of another book-stealing novel of recent vintage, A Ladder to the Sky, with a much more flagrant, and feckless thief. In this one Korelitz drives us through Jake’s excuses and makes us consider just where fair use ends and theft begins.
The Plot may seem a little hard on writers, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone; we’re hard on ourselves. In fact, you couldn’t hope to meet a more self-flagellating bunch of creatives anywhere. At the end of the day, though, we are the lucky ones. First, because we get to work with language, and language is thrilling. Second, because we love stories and we get to frolic in them. Begged, borrowed, adapted, embroidered … perhaps even stolen: it’s all a part of a grand conversation. - from AcknowledgementsThe only place I had issues was with the baddie’s final explanations. I cannot really go into details as it would require significant spoilage, but the motivation for what comes at the end seems thin. A name change might have raised questions at an institution. And one might have expected a greater bit of interest on the part of the authorities after one death, particularly in tracing back a specific person’s real-world movements, and someone else’s on-line activity.
I felt that I must scream or die! and now --again! --hark! louder! louder! louder! louder! - EAP
The Clive Cusslers and mom bloggers might still be persuadable that Jake was a famous, or at least a “highly regarded” young (now “youngish”) novelist, but the would-be David Foster Wallaces and Donna Tartts who were certainly present in the pile of folders? Not so much. This group would be all too aware that Jacob Finch Bonner had fumbled his early shot, failed to produce a good enough second novel or any trace of a third novel, and been sent to the special purgatory for formerly promising writers, from which so few of them ever emerged. (It happened to be untrue that Jake had not produced a third novel, but in this case the untruth was actually preferable to the truth. There had indeed been a third novel, and even a fourth, but those manuscripts, the making of which had together consumed nearly five years of his life, had been rejected by a spectacular array of publishers of declining prestige, from the “legacy” publisher of The Invention of Wonder to the respectable university press that had published his second book, Reverberations, to the many, many small press publication competitions listed in the back of Poets & Writers, which he had spent a small fortune entering, and, needless to say, had failed to win. Given these demoralizing facts, he actually preferred that his students believe he was still struggling to reel in that mythical and stupendous second novel.)
"I’m starting as an adjunct at Hopkins this fall, but I’ve never taught. I might be in pretty far over my head.”
He looked at her, his reserve of goodwill, already small, now swiftly draining away. Adjunct at Johns Hopkins was nothing to sneeze at. It probably meant a fellowship she’d had to beat a few hundred other poets out for. The university press publication was likely also the result of a prize, it occurred to him now, and just about everyone coming out of an MFA program with a manuscript went in for every one of those. This girl, Alice, was quite possibly some version of a big deal, or at least what passed for a big deal in the poetry world. The thought of that deflated him utterly.
But there was one thing he actually did believe in that bordered on the magical, or at least the beyond-pedestrian, and that was the duty a writer owed to a story.I received a free ARC of The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz from Macmillan in an exchange for an honest review.