Written by Books

Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

The Plot cover

Having just read one novel, where there’s a book-within-a-book as a key part of the plot, I turned to The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, in which the fictional book within is even more fundamental to the story. And it’s no surprise that Stephen King happily gives this book a blurb on the cover even though both titles are being published around the same time!

The book opens with Jake taking up what he no doubt finds a slightly demeaning teaching job, teaching a short creative fiction course to paying students over the summer. Jake got his first novel into the “New & Noteworthy” column of the New York Times, but sadly his literary career did not take off, and his second book fizzled much less. Further titles sort of followed, but he was basically unable to get them published at this point. Hence the teaching gig.

One of his students, is a fairly obnoxious type, and he claims only to really be attending the course so that he can meet prospective agents at the end of it. He says he has a plot for his book that is so good, that all he basically has to do is write the book, and the rest will take care of itself. Jake isn’t too sure about that, but when the student does indeed explain the plot that he has, Jake has to admit that it’s excellent, and that he has indeed got a sure-fire bestseller on his hands, almost regardless of his ability to actually write.

We fast-forward a couple of years, and Jake’s literary career is in tailspin. He’s now essentially a hotel receptionist at writers’ retreat. But every so often he remembers his former student, and is surprised that he’s not see the resulting book hit the bestseller charts. So he starts Googling and discovers that there’s a reason the book hasn’t been published – his former student died of an overdose a couple of months later.

Jake has a killer plot, and the orginitator of that plot is gone, with no obvious way for his book to ever appear. You can guess what Jake’s next move is do resurrect his career…

That’s the essential set-up, but Korelitz is careful not to reveal too much too soon. We, the readers, don’t know what “the plot” actually is. The story widens out and there’s an element of blackmail that comes into play, but it’s all a bit unfathomable.

In the meantime, we get delivered a few pages here and there of Jake’s resulting novel, as that book’s plot is slowly revealed to us.

I’m not going to say much more about it, because it’d spoil things enormously. This is technically a thriller/whodunnit, although I’m sure most readers will have guessed at least some of the resolution before it’s delivered. That’s really the book’s only shortcoming, because it is smart, and looks at writers in an insider-ish kind of way. There are plenty of asides that I’m sure those in the book-world will laugh at.

And yes, as readers, we do get a resolution that includes a reveal of The Plot, which is only fair.