Mehta Fiction


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.”

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 class is 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.)

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.

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.