Mehta Fiction

Enjoying the source of the latest plagiarism scandal

It is worth reading, I think, the actual books from which Viswanathan stole—worth overcoming an aversion to dust jackets with long expanses of shapely legs, worth paying attention to the work of the primary victim in this whole affair. The best place to start, if you are not currently a teenage girl, is the new Charmed Thirds (published last month), which follows heroine Jessica Darling through her years at Columbia. McCafferty satirizes dorm life, internships (Jessica gets to do unpaid work at a hip Brooklyn mag), academia, the literary world (the Times describes one mentor as "a gay Dave Eggers . . . only smarter, funnier . . . and better"), and more, while keeping the doings of its deeply backstoried cast of characters surprisingly fresh.

As with its two predecessors, Thirds consists largely of Jessica's diary entries, with occasional letters to her best friend, Hope, who is, perversely, offstage for all but a few paragraphs of the entire trilogy (her family moves to Tennessee before the start of Sloppy Firsts). It's a strange and affecting literary device, built of silence—she's like Jessica's superego or shrink.

Though ostensibly part of the same genre—that intersection of young-adult and chick lit—McCafferty's novels couldn't be more different from their infamous imitator. It's instantly clear that these books actually have a heartbeat. Jessica is smart, cynical, confused, and genuinely funny. (At times she recalls Bridget Jones, but McCafferty wisely avoids farce.) Obsessive and emotional, she has brainpower to burn: In one chapter she dilates on 21 psychological theories about why she cheated on her boyfriend, and in the next she fills a crossword puzzle with the titles of 20 Smiths/Morrissey songs. More than once she lets loose with a row of exclamation points on the page. There's an energy to her saga that's entirely absent from Opal's perfunctory plot, a clawing after knowledge that feels true to that time of life. Shouldn't an actual teenager, Viswanathan, be able to tap into actual teenage emotions? But memory is a funny thing, and if you're a true artist, distance can be your arsenal, sharpening the comedy and shaping the angst.

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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    Viswanathan obviously couldn't have cribbed from Charmed Thirds, but the book comments on the controversy anyway. In the most uncanny line, Jessica's former classmate, Hyacinth Wallace, says, "They should have a law against seventeen-year-olds publishing novels." (Viswanathan landed her book deal at 17.) The observation is self-directed: As "Hy," she did a brief Ehrenreichian stint in Jessica's New Jersey high school, before booking it back to Gotham and writing Bubblegum Bimbos and Assembly-Line Meatballers. In Hy's exposé (think Queen Bees and Wannabes), Jessica Darling became "Jenn Sweet." (Going back to Sloppy Firsts, Jessica learns of Hy's literary ambition by reading a hyperbolic Times article: "Miss Hyacinth Wallace, who just snagged six figures to write her first novel, which she hopes will give her the credibility she needs to get accepted to Harvard on merit . . . ") There's even a movie version—which won't see the light of day because "Miramax is tanking."

    So it is that, long before Opal, McCafferty had already inserted a mirror in her books—an alternate reality, a hilarious metafiction. And in an act of seeming desperation, Viswanathan simply stole the mirror and put it in her own book.


    IV. I don't know what, if anything, should be made of the ethnic component to the Viswanathan-McCafferty affair: A young woman of second-generation, South Asian extraction stealing from a white author. This whole thing with mirrors: What if I told you a true story about a white teenager hoodwinking a fledgling belletrist of second-generation, East Asian descent? I was the Gleaner editor who unwittingly published Kevin McGee's plagiarized work, and who discovered his deception. Last week I looked at the issue in question, for the first time in 18 years. Two other pieces bearing McGee's byline were printed in the same issue—parts one and four of something called Attritional Genocide, presumably a novel in progress. My shock at the duplicity behind "One Sentence Novels" had overridden any memory of this other McGeevian endeavor (not to mention my own grappling with the haiku form).

    Attritional Genocide: I had a sinking feeling. Googling one of the proper names in the text turned up a single sentence . . . one that appears verbatim in McGee's piece. This was Pierre Menard territory. The high schooler who had carefully retyped someone else's work and called it "Violence and Social Position in the Perpetual War of Good and Evil" had chosen an eerie way to encode the surreptitious moral violence of plagiarism: Attritional Genocide, which took up eight pages of The Gleaner, is in fact a barely modified excerpt of Eric Van Lustbader's The Ninja (1980).

    "Within seconds the shadow had disappeared," writes McGee/Lustbader, "leaving no trace of its ever having existed at all." McGee, Viswanathan, and that whole breed of deceivers can hope as much for their transgressions. But memory is a funny thing.


    Ed Park is the editor of VLS.

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