Literary Conceits


A spate of recent movies—films as disparate as Wonder Boys, Adaptation, The Door in the Floor, Sideways, and Sylvia—all share one thing: a failed or troubled writer as protagonist. There are excellent reasons for this. Who wants to accompany, say, John Updike through a day of fervid composition and phone calls from magazine editors offering choice assignments, topped off by the National Book Award ceremony at night? The tormented writer, on the other hand, opens up vistas of agonized drama. His creative dreams crash against the immovable wall of failure, generating violent energies that engulf those around him. The writer played by Jack Nicholson in The Shining attempts to murder his family literally; others do it psychologically and emotionally.

This murderous rage is the subject of Noah Baumbach’s fourth film, The Squid and the Whale. Set in Brooklyn’s Park Slope in the 1980s, the movie charts the disintegration of the Berkmans, a family headed by not one writer, but two, Bernard and Joan (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney). Bernard has done little in the decade since he last published a novel. No publisher wants his current manuscript, and at readings he still performs from a tattered copy of his first...

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.