Summer Fiction: Impostor Syndrome

Two new books out this spring offer variations on the ideas of plagiarism and identity theft. I highly recommend both, along with a classic of this peculiar genre, published twenty years ago but still cruelly sharp-edged, deliciously mean-spirited, and delightful.

Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot features a down-at-heel writing professor named Jacob Finch Bonner — he added the Finch for some Americana cachet — whose MFA seminar student, a smug jock named Evan Parker, flouts the plot of his work-in-progress in an after-hours meeting. The kid knows the story will be a best-seller. He can’t write, but so what? With a plot this good, fancy writing just gets in the way. He’s only in class for the connections. He’ll need a good agent when the book comes out.

But Evan Parker dies, and Bonner steals the plot for a novel of his own. When we finally discover what that plot actually is, we have to admit – the kid  had a point. It’s a hell of a story, and will probably make Jean Hanff Koreletiz’s book, which contains it, a best-seller too. But the kid’s plot isn’t fiction. It’s real, and when Bonner steals the story, he’s also stealing someone’s life.

That never ends well.

The narrative takes several sharp, shocking turns, and I finally had to read ahead to the ending, just to silence the deafening tinnitus of suspense. Going back to where I left off, knowing all the book’s secrets, I still found myself caught up in the swirl of events, crying out “Stop!” and “Don’t do it!” as fate closed in.

The heroine of Alexandra Andrews’ Who is Maud Dixon attempts a similar trick. Frustrated by a young life of failure and frustration, working at a publishing house where even her fellow office drones seem to be getting published left and right, Florence Darrow leaps at the chance to become the mysterious Maud Dixon’s personal assistant. The woman behind the pen-name is Helen Wilcox, an arrogant mercurial recluse. When she dies in a car crash on a research trip to Morocco, Florence seizes the chance to take over her identity … and her pen name. But Helen’s best-seller, like Evan Parker’s, was drawn from real life, and the ghosts Helen exploited to make her fiction are coming back to haunt her … and the girl who has stolen her identity. The surprises come faster and faster, escalating with each new revelation. By the end, Florence will be dead, or on death row for crimes she never committed, or, with a little luck and a lot of ruthless ambition, living the life of her dreams.

Reading the two books back-to-back made me think of John Colapinto’s About the Author, another wild ride on the dirt-bike track of authorial fame and fortune. Cal Cunningham arrives in New York with dreams of becoming the next Jay McInerney or Brett Easton Ellis. Instead, he winds up working in a bookstore, partying and clubbing every night, and sharing a tiny apartment with one Stewart Church, a mild-mannered law student who spends his evenings clicking away on his laptop – case notes? Diary entries? Something tedious, no doubt. The mornings they spend together, Clay regaling his shy roommate with his late-night adventures. Clay has a flair for it – he’s a natural raconteur. But it never translates into words on the page. He’s hopelessly blocked.

After Stewart dies in a bicycle accident, Cal snoops his laptop and sees that Stewart was writing, in fact had completed, a novel of his own. Or, not exactly his own. Every detail in the book has been drawn from Clay’s anecdotes. Stewart has written the autobiographical epic of drunken debauchery that Cal was meant to write! And it’s good, that’s the worst part. It’s very good, infuriatingly good.  But isn’t the book at least partly Cal’s?

This question of the ownership of a life’s experience runs like a dangerous current, a downed powerline, through all three of these novels. As Joan Didion once remarked, “Writers are always selling somebody out.”

Of course, Cal plagiarizes Almost Like Suicide, and signs with the big-time agent whose last client wrote a book called Zeitguy. Cal is on his way to becoming the new Zeit-guy, but he has a few problems to cope with on the way: the drugged out hippy girl who stole Stewart’s lap top; and the love of Stewart’s life, to whom he has sent the only printed copy of the novel.

Cal’s efforts to keep his secret safe become increasingly nerve-wracking, funny and – in the case of his unexpected romance with Stewart’s old flame – touching. Of course, it all comes crashing down, in the most satisfying way imaginable, but Cal rises from the ashes of his humiliation with another book to sell – yes, one more true story.

And we’ve just been reading it.

All three novels recall such masterpieces as Patrician Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger,  and reach even further back to Moliere’s Tartuffe and Gogol’s The Government Inspector.  The essential implausibility of these tales, along with the morbid wish-fulfillment that fuels their plots and the slapstick intrigues of their desperate protagonists, make any of these novels an excellent companion when the binge-watching TV shows run out, or the summer beach beckons.