Monday 22 January 2024

Guest review by Jon Appleton: THE PLOT by Jean Hanff Korelitz


"We’re spared none of the agony of revelation. Truly, I felt I was being drawn through a mangle..."

Jon Appleton is a freelance writer and editor based in London.

I suspect that many readers of this blog are genetically fascinated – and appalled – by the idea of novels about writers. As if being a writer isn’t challenging enough, why invent the tortured life of a comrade to add to the maelstrom of creative woe and anxiety in the world?

Maybe it’s cathartic.

I’m about to read Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2022). Here’s the blurb:

Caleb Horowitz is twenty-seven, and his wildest dreams are about to come true. His manuscript has caught the attention of the literary agent, who offers him fame, fortune and a taste of the literary life. He can't wait for his book to be shopped around to every editor in New York, except one: Avi Dietsch, a college rival and the novel's 'inspiration.'

When Avi gets his hands on the manuscript, he sees nothing but theft - and opportunity. And so Caleb is forced to make a Faustian bargain, one that tests his theories of success, ambition and the limits of art.

Sounds juicy, doesn’t it? (I guess there have always been a lot of novels about novelists and always will be.) But the book I want to persuade you to read is The Plot, a wholly persuasive thriller by Jean Hanff Korelitz, a new writer to me, who has also written The Undoing, which is a ‘major TV series’ and a host of other novels which I’m keen to discover.

Here’s the blurb:

When a young writer dies before completing his first novel, his teacher, Jake, (himself a failed novelist) helps himself to its plot. The resulting book is a phenomenal success. But what if somebody out there knows?

Somebody does. And if Jake can't figure out who he's dealing with, he risks something far worse than the loss of his career.

A beautifully simple idea. What really impressed me about this thriller was how long it takes for Jake to not only seize upon the genius of stealing the story – it’s told to him in conversation, in a brilliantly awkward encounter between two egocentric misfits; and Jake, to his credit, is a grafter; he’s published three failed novels – before it occurs to him to write Crib. So it’s agonising to watch how swiftly successful he becomes knowing, inevitably, he’ll be undone in a long, painful, suspenseful, drawn-out exposure. And I think we know early who will engineer his downfall – the title has a clever second meaning – but we’re spared none of the agony of revelation. Truly, I felt I was being drawn through a mangle as the months and weeks passed.

The writing is grimly witty. Jean Hanff Korelitz acknowledges in the afterword that writers are ‘hard on ourselves. In fact, you couldn’t hope to meet a more self-flagellating bunch of creatives anywhere. And yet, at the end of the day, we are the lucky ones.’ She also spoke of being allowed to write uninterrupted but supported by her immediate family during the lockdowns of 2020. These ambiguities flavour the novel.

Stephen King is an admirer of the book, and we know he’s a huge fan of taking the writing game seriously but also sending it up. I hope readers of Writers Review will embrace this fantastically bracing novel and feel horror and relish in equal measure.

The Plot is published by Faber.

Jon is a regular contributor here. More of his choices:

Lonely Castle in the Mirror, by Mizuki Tsujimura, translated by Philip Gabriel

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stewart

Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett

An Honest Man, by Ben Fergusson

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