Mehta Fiction

Enjoying the source of the latest plagiarism scandal

I. In 1988, in a city in western New York, a high school senior named Kevin McGee submitted an unusual story to The Gleaner, the student literary magazine. The classmate-editor who read his work was surprised that the affable, unassuming McGee was revealing himself as a fiction writer so late in his high school career. If his peers had to lump McGee in a group, it would be with the jocks, though more by default than stereotype.

His "One Sentence Novels" consisted of 10 brief narratives. The shortest, "Sex," read in its entirety, "She was like driven slush beneath the galoshes of my lust." Others ran on, goofy fantasias buttressed by inspired punctuation. When the editor praised the humor and expressed delight at McGee's newfound calling, the author modestly replied that he had other writing projects under way, which would hopefully have the same polish.

"One Sentence Novels" appeared in the May 1988 Gleaner, the final issue of the academic year. Shortly thereafter, the editor received as a graduation present Son of "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night" (1986). The humor book featured entries to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, devoted to "the best opening sentences of the worst novels never published." His casual reading was disrupted by the realization that Kevin McGee didn't write "One Sentence Novels." The micro-narratives came, nearly word for word, from the book. His main contribution was the deadpan titles, the longest of which exceeded the text of "Sex": "Violence and Social Position in the Perpetual War of Good and Evil."

McCafferty: The original of Opal
McCafferty: The original of Opal

Details

How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life
By Kaavya Viswanathan
Little, Brown, 314 pp., $21.95

Charmed Thirds
By Megan McCafferty
Crown, 361 pp., $21

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    The editor—now ex-editor—mentioned the plagiarism to a faculty adviser, but practically speaking, McGee had gotten away with it. High school was over. College awaited. The editor resolved to be a little wiser in future dealings with Homo scriblerus. And from time to time he would wonder what possessed McGee to lift his literary debut.


    II. Violence and social position: This might encapsulate the high school experience. In Kaavya Viswanathan's debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, the narrator, a well-to-do second-generation Indian American high school senior, cold-bloodedly schemes to get into Harvard—where not coincidentally Viswanathan is currently a sophomore. Opal's plan, triggered by a disastrous campus interview ("Tell me about your best friends" sends her into a panic) and developed by her Cantab-crazed parents, tenuously transforms the brainy, overextended grind into a va-va-voom member of the exclusive Haute Bitchez.

    The fact that Opal misconstrues the Harvard dean's advice to "find some balance" as Unleash your inner conspicuous consumer and align yourself with the most hateful people in your classis just one of the novel's troubling spots. But the book, as we all know, has run into problems beyond issues of literary merit. (Indeed, it met with some mystifyingly positive notices, including a New York Times feature on Viswanathan's charmed life.) The Harvard Crimson made a convincing case that several passages in Opal strongly resemble Sloppy Firsts (2001) and Second Helpings (2003), two novels by Megan McCafferty. Subsequent discoveries turned Meg Cabot, Salman Rushdie, and others into instant precursors. And book packager Alloy Entertainment's involvement in Opal's genesis ratcheted up the Who wrote what? level. On April 27 Little, Brown recalled Opal, as if it were an SUV that tends to flip over when making sharp lefts. Its shelf life was under a month.

    Forbidden, silenced, the novel now becomes readable, as gripping as a mystery. The bizarre tonal changes suddenly make sense: The whole thing isn't a cloying fantasy of having it all, but the nightmare of answered prayers. Paragraphs dripping with entitlement conceal not only purloined prose, but also clues that sound, chillingly, like a cry for help. "They would probably have to move my file from M: Mehta to P: Psychotic," Opal muses during her interview meltdown. "I know the secret you're keeping," someone yells at her in a dream—through a megaphone, no less. Most bizarre is Viswanathan's pinch from Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories(1990): The oddly inflected doggerel of public-health posters (spotted in a train station) becomes the handiwork of the (white, J. Crew-genic) student council president. "You didn't write them yourself?" an impressed Opal asks him. He answers, "Well . . . I suppose I did." (Feeling guilty about her novel's nonsensical racial caricatures, did Viswanathan need to repent by tacitly invoking . . . the most famous Indian writer in the English language?)

    Sean Whalen, the classmate on whom Opal develops a crush (complicating her planned conquest of a Princeton-bound young Republican), asks if she knows "that the words amnesty and amnesia come from the same root." It's as if Viswanathan foresaw the need for forgiveness, a clean slate. Put another way: Perhaps she wanted to get caught. Opal's long wait for her dream school's yea/nay scans as the author's own anticipation of getting busted: "Why hadn't I heard? When was I going to know?"


    III. On his blog, Blink author Malcolm Gladwell essentially tells Kaavya cavilers to get over it already, that "calling this plagiarism is the equivalent of crying 'copy' in a crowded Kinkos [sic]." "It is worth reading, I think, the actual passages that Viswanathan is supposed to have taken from McCafferty," he writes, with plummy condescension. "Let's just say this isn't the first twenty lines of Paradise Lost." (My gut tells me Blink isn't, either.)

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