THE AFFAIR: It’s About an Author. Really.

My latest television addiction is the Showtime series The Affair. True, the primary plot of the show, as the title indicates, concerns a relationship between two folks who are married, but not to each other. Each episode is divided into two thirty-minute 
he said/she said segments which usually (but not always) show the same events from the markedly different viewpoints of the two participants in a game of Jump the Fence, carried out in the resort town of Montauk on Long Island. Both of the main characters in The Affair are Americans portrayed by British actors Ruth Wilson and Dominic West. Wilson (the unforgettable Alice in Luther) plays the role of the troubled and complex Alison Lockhart, a Montauk “townie” waitress who has married into a family with deep roots in the community. She attracts the not-unwelcomed attention of Noah Solloway, who with his wife Helen and four children are spending the summer in Montauk with Helen’s parents, Bruce and Margaret Butler. Noah is played by West (he looks like a young(er) Gordon Lightfoot), who was Detective Jimmy McNulty in The Wire.  Noah and Alison continue to happen upon each other (it’s a small island), one thing leads to another, and soon the disaffected Noah and the rumpled, damaged, but still-hot Alison are steaming up a local bed-and-breakfast, a vacant house, and various bodies of water. Yep, The Affair is about infidelity, for sure, but the plot elements also include a murder mystery, an island crime caper, and a few other things. What has really attracted my attention to the show (other than Ruth Wilson, of course) is that The Affair is about novel writing and authors.

How’s that? Noah  is a New York City public schoolteacher who, as The Affair opens, has recently published a mildly acclaimed but poorly selling novel, and he has a problem. As the saying goes, one has their whole life to write their first book and six months to write their second. While Noah doesn’t have writer’s block, he is not exactly inspired to write Number Two. What makes things worse is that Bruce, Noah’s father-in-law, is a wildly successful, well-known author whose literary work has earned him enough money to live next door to God. Bruce manages to effortlessly exude a smarmy confidence that he wears like a custom-tailored suit, particularly whenever his much less successful son-in-law is in the room. Bruce does so with facial expressions and pithy comments, among other things, and thus manages to convey the impression that he is three hundred pounds of horse manure jammed into a two hundred pound sack. He can do this while stating the truism that while everyone has one good book in them, they almost never have two, or on another occasion, telling Noah the secret of his excessive success. Bruce’s every move consists of helping Noah with one hand while belittling him with the other. Even when Bruce arranges an introduction and meeting with his agent for Noah, it’s a trap which, it is implied, will be sprung by the failure of Noah’s best efforts. Noah for his part is lacking in confidence and probably for good reason. There is, to note but one instance, a classic scene in one of the episodes where Noah has followed Alison to the town library on the pretext of “accidentally” running into her. He finds his book standing forlorn on a shelf as he lurks between the aisles. The library still uses the ink-stamp method of date-due notification; a quick glance at the inside front of his book tells Noah that no one has bothered to check it out. No words are necessary; the look on Noah’s face speaks volumes.

The Affair is a multi-layered drama, a cautionary tale about a man who gets what he thinks he wants — in a number of ways — only to find that having is not the same as wanting (as Mr. Spock pointed out in the “Amok Time” episode of Star Trek) and that some desires are better left unsatisfied (as Garth Brooks pontificated in the song “Unanswered Prayers”). In the case of The Affair, the dream, or at least one of them, is a published novel. The lesson of the series seems at this point to be that success is not a panacea for all of one’s ills, and that sometimes success is anything but

Enough of the gloom, however. What book, film, or television series concerning an author would you recommend to the rest of us? And yes, you’re allowed to mention Castle, or Murder, She Wrote.

37 thoughts on “THE AFFAIR: It’s About an Author. Really.

  1. Two candidates:

    “The Wonder Boys” which features Michael Douglas as a desolute college professor STILL working on his second novel, which has ballooned to 4,000 pages. He meets a talented student (Tobey Mcquire) who has written a brilliant first novel. Mayem ensues…

    Oh, and it has Francis McDormund and Robert Downey Jr. as the agent.

    On the dark side: “The Shining” because on days when the writing’s going badly, I feel like I want to kill someone.

    • I think a number of us can relate to both of those candidates simultaneously, Kris. But don’t tell anyone. Thanks for a couple of terrific suggestions!

  2. As for movies about writers, gotta put Sunset Boulevard at the top of my list. But there’s a little film that passed largely unnoticed but is well worth a view: It’s called The Whole Wide World, about pulp writer Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian and the Steve Costigan boxing stories) who died by his own hand at the age of 30.

    As for books about writers, the undisputed classic, IMO, is still Martin Eden by Jack London.

    • Jim, thanks so much for The Whole Wide World recommendation. I was unaware of it, but it must be a wild movie. Howard has been one of my favorites since I was twelve years old and collecting those Conan paperbacks with the Frazetta covers.

  3. The one that came immediately to mind was the late Donald Westlake’s book, A Likely Story–about a guy pitching a book he wants to edit (The Christmas Book) while he tries to straighten out a fouled up personal life. What I liked most? I recognized the maneuvers the author/editor went through. Besides, it made me laugh.

    • Any mention of Donald Westlake is most welcome here, Richard. I miss him — a lot — but love pouring through his bibliography. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. As a movie, I love Stranger Than Fiction. I watched it, in spite of having Will Farrel as the lead, because it had two of my favorite actors, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, in it. I must say, in their company, Mr. Farrell was a pleasure to watch.

    The story is about the perfect ending to a book and the consequences such an ending will mean in one man’s life.

    As far as books are concerned, i think of Alcott’s Little Women. I think often of Jo March with her ink stained fingers and dreams of being published. She is a companion from my youth who still whispers encouragement in my ear.

    • Wren, Little Women is a terrific choice that I would not have reflexively reached for, which is strange because it is such a groundbreaking novel. I read it a couple of years ago when my younger daughter was in a high school production of it and it still holds up. Thanks!

  5. My world was expanded a lot when I read FEAR OF FLYING by Erica Jong, decades ago. It caused quite a stir back in the day with its frank discussion of female sexuality. I believe the main character was a poet.

    • Kathryn, it did indeed, especially with its discussion of the zipless something or other. Have I got the right book? And indeed, the main character was a poet. That book was published in 1973 and I can still remember the first woman I met who had read the book. Thanks for reawakening old memories!

  6. I really liked “Julia,” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

    Tonight, we’re watching “Contempt,” a 1963 French New Wave film directed by Jean-Luc Godard, starring Brigitte Bardot. My husband says you can’t go wrong with that combination.

  7. Joe, I had to think for awhile on this one. For a movie – Miss Potter – the story of Beatrix Potter, with all the challenges of a writer not living up to her parents’ expectations, breaking into the publishing world, and overcoming personal grief. And it’s always enjoyable to learn the history behind a legendary writer.

    Thanks for making us think.

    • And thank you, Steve, for coming up with a very unexpected and very worthy example. I at one point owned a set of the entire Potter library (Beatrix, not Harry) and those were beautiful books, indeed.

  8. For TV Show:

    If you don’t mind a profusion curse words and shallow characters, I recommend “Californication”.

    No in-depth plot or lessons to take away, but it will have you laughing so hard you’ll see stars. Having a writer’s block or a so-so mood and just want something light and fun? Watch an episode of Californication, only 30min per episode. It’s really crude, but downright hilarious.

    For Movie:

    One of my all-time favorite movie is “Midnight in Paris”. It’s AWESOME. I love, love, love that move. Have watched it a gazillion times.

    Here’s the synopsis copied from IMDd:

    Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a screenwriter and aspiring novelist. Vacationing in Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams), he has taken to touring the city alone. On one such late-night excursion, Gil encounters a group of strange — yet familiar — revelers, who sweep him along, apparently back in time, for a night with some of the Jazz Age’s icons of art and literature. The more time Gil spends with these cultural heroes of the past, the more dissatisfied he becomes with the present.

  9. I’ll have to check out Midnight in Paris, Ann. As for Californication, it’s a great, cringe-worthy series. And, as we have come to learn, the part of Hank Moody was not apparently not much of a stretch for David Duchovny. Thanks!

  10. Ruth Wilson! Your fine review makes me want to see “The Affair” even more.

    After a somewhat overstuffed pilot, I found “Ray Donovan” very engaging. When Liev Shreiber, Paula Malcomson, Elliot Gould (!) and Katherine Moennig aren’t being great there’s Jon Voight chewing up the scenery.

    • I tried watching Ray Donovan a few months back and had to quit after four episodes. The F-bombs were too much. Even the kids swore! No boundaries.

      Funny how I could tolerate Californication but couldn’t tolerate Ray Donovan. Though, I did quit watching Californication after three seasons for said reason. The swear words aren’t even necessary sometimes. They just swear because, hey, it’s HBO, anything goes!

      I mean, Sons of Anarchy is one of the most gruesome TV series, but the only ‘swearing’ you’ll on there is “Jesus Christ!”

    • Ann, while S.O.A. isn’t always peppered with the seven words you at one point couldn’t say on television, some of the original turns of phrase that come out of Gemma’s mouth (including one in the most recent episode) would make me blush if I were still a virgin in my left ear.

      BTW, for anyone looking for gratuitous sex, violence, and profane language, look no further than Banshee on Cinemax.

  11. Ruth Wilson indeed! I spent part of today watching Season One of Luther yet again! A woman who would kill to protect you…Oh, The Humanity!

    Ray Donovan is required watching here. I love (among other things) the way that they have brought veteran actors back to do star turns…Jon Voight (of course), Ann-Margret, Philip Michael Glaser, James Woods, Ann-Margret, Eliot Gould, Sherilynn Fenn, and…did I mention Ann-Margret? Great show. Thanks!

  12. It’s old and was never widely distributed, but Alain Resnais directed Sir John Guilgud in a film titled Providence, about an author fictionalizing the lives of family members. His sons are played by Dirk Bogard and David Warner, his wife by Ellen Burstyn. It dates from 1977.

    • Thank you Barry! That’s one that will no doubt send a number of us, including myself, checking Netflix, YouTube, et al. to see if we might catch a glimpse of it. Always looking for something that’s new to me.

  13. I love the spirit of Castle, and him being a writer is part of what made me start watching it, but like so many professions on TV I occasionally get a little irritated at how they portray writing. Ditto for Dr. Brennan’s writing career in Bones.

    I know, I know, they butcher everyone’s career on TV (hello forensic science!), and I try not to take it too seriously, but I also feel like the fall back to the stereotype is what helps spreads the “myths” of writing.

    For a book, I have to mention MISERY. Whenever I’m dragging my feet, I just imagine poor Paul Sheldon and thank my lucky stars I’m not writing under those circumstances.

    • I love that you mentioned Misery, Elizabeth. I read that book once a year. Interestingly enough, on those occasions where I’ve done a signing or participated on a panel, there is a part of me that anticipates being shot by some blast from my past who wants to settle a score. Hope I haven’t given anyone any ideas!

  14. Every time I comment, it erases my first comment, so this time I copied it so I don’t have to type it over. 🙂 See, I do learn!
    It seems like all I focus on here are movies and books by Stephen King. The Shining, Misery, The Dark Half, and I’m sure there are more. I really did like Murder She Wrote as well. I believe they were referring to a modern day Miss Marple type with her. I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan. She was my first inspiration to write mysteries. I wish I could have met her.

    • Thanks for the list, Rebecca, particularly Dark Half, which yes, was about an author as well. I think folks tend to remember Misery and The Shining and forget about Dark Half, which most definitely was about a writer, and indeed so was one of the later volumes of the Dark Tower series.

  15. Here’s my list in no particular order:
    My Brilliant Career
    Cross Creek (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings)
    Gothic (Mary Shelley (and Byron, P. Shelley))
    Barfly (Charles Bukowski)
    Throw Momma from the Train
    The Waltons (John Boy learns to write.)

  16. Thank you for the great list, Tina. Re: The Waltons…my wife was watching a rerun of one the episodes, and wanted to stay up to see the conclusion. I said, “I know what happens.” “What,” she asked. I shrugged and said, “‘Good night, John Boy.””

  17. The success story embodied by both “Castle” and “Murder She Wrote” is almost every writer’s dream. They don’t have money needs and stories just seem to fall in their laps. That’s no doubt the predominant reason they’re so popular. The writing is excellent.

  18. Joe, I started taping this show after reading your article. I am completely drawn in, even though I find the selfish actions of both main characters to be completely repugnant. I keep wondering what kind of moral line they’re going to cross next. Nothing would surprise me!

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