The parcel is a literary thriller in two important ways. First, it’s fun for people who love publishing jokes, author insecurities, and terrible creative writing programs at small colleges in America. It’s also a meandering page turner (yes, I stayed awake most of the night to finish it off) built on the disputed property of a novel, or at least the plot of one.
Our protagonist in Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel (hero is perhaps too strong a word) is Jacob “Jake” Finch Bonner, a man in love with the idea of writing fiction, but weaker on the execution of this one. Such was his initial determination to be a great writer that he added the “Finch” to his name as a teenager, in “homage to the novel that awakened his love of fiction”.
Delightfully, Bonner is introduced to the reader as “the once promising author of the novel ‘New & Noteworthy’ (The New York Times Book Review) The invention of wonder”.
When The parcel opens in 2012, that first promise fizzled out, and Bonner was exiled from New York to Ripley College, in a rainy corner of Vermont, where he teaches mature students in a Masters of Fine Arts Creative Writing course. . They are all doomed to failure.
Hanff Korelitz, a veteran of literary and academic scenes herself, knows how to make them extremely funny. “Her workshop contained not one but two women who quoted Elizabeth Gilbertas their inspiration.
Among Bonner’s students is a “narcissistic jerkoff,” Evan Parker, who has a plot for an all-out book and confidently says, “Like, Oprah will pick him for her book. We’ll talk about it on TV shows. … This book, there is no way it will fail.
Bonner is skeptical but once Parker gives him a verbal summary of the plot, he has to agree. “It was new to him, as it would be new to every person reading it, and it was going to be a lot of people.” At this point, readers are teased with the originality of Parker’s tale. All we (and Bonner) can see are a few manuscript pages about an unhappy mother and daughter trapped in mutual resentment.
A few years later, Bonner, now manager of a hotel reinvented as an artists’ colony, was short of ideas and luck. Then he finds out that Parker passed away in 2013, shortly after Ripley’s class. This brilliant plot is unused. So Bonner wrote the book, justifying himself that “he would hardly be the first to take a story out of a play or a book – in this case a book that had never been written!”
This is Hanff Korelitz’s seventh adult novel, and one that would play brilliantly on screen. It has the form here: Admission (2009) about a moral dilemma facing an Ivy League admissions officer, was adapted into a 2013 film starring Tina Fey. More recently, You should have known (2014) was adapted for television as the HBO Lockdown hit The defeat.
As The parcel progressing, extracts from Bonner’s novel which sold several million copies in 2017 Baby bed appear as another layer of the story. In the reworking of Parker’s idea, Baby bed is the story of Samantha, a brilliant college student who becomes pregnant at 15, and her daughter, Maria, whom she reluctantly raises while doing odd jobs. It was Maria’s fate to have the brilliant college career that was denied to Samantha.
Now we follow Bonner into his new life: “An audience, piles of books, that magical ‘1’ next to his name on the legendary list at the end of the New York Times Book Review. Bonner, however, cannot profit from his success, lest he be discovered as (somehow) plagiarist.
Sure enough, someone called “TalentedTom” (the “Ripley” reference isn’t lost on Bonner) is starting to send emails and posts on social media. “Blinded by this big twist in Baby bed? Here’s another: Jacob Finch Bonner stole his novel from another writer.
During a visit to Parker’s hometown, Bonner realizes his mistake. “It was a much more intimate theft: not Jake’s at all, but the one Evan Parker himself had committed. It turns out that the brilliant twist of the plot isn’t fictional at all. Saying much more would risk spoiling it, but Bonner’s life becomes a quest across the country to uncover the real events behind Parker’s story, while trying not to ruin his relationship with his new wife, Anna.
Hanff Korelitz is often ahead of his themes – his latest book, 2017’s The Devil and Webster, is a pre- # MeToo, pre-Black Lives Matter tale that centers on a liberal college principal grappling with student activists who threaten to undermine her reputation, while acknowledging their fervor as something she once shared.
The parcel is one of the few novels of this year, including that of Chris Power Lonely man and that of Sam Rivière Dead souls – to probe the moral gray areas around plagiarism. If Hanff Korelitz’s record continues, his book could herald a new era of accounts with “borrowing” of intrigue and accusations that writers are appropriating the real lives of others. Hopefully it doesn’t turn murderous.
The parcel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Faber £ 8.99 / Celadon Books $ 28, 336 pages
Isabelle Berwick is the editor-in-chief of the works and careers of the FT
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