What The Third Policeman Can Tell Us About Lost

Among the many declarations they release into the stratosphere on a daily basis (a recent favorite: 'it boggles my mind when people ask me, "What do the numbers mean?"'--executive producer Damon Lindelof*), the Lost producers announced that Flann O'Brien's 1967 novel The Third Policeman--seen half-open on the bed of crazy-guy shut-in Desmond in the second season's third episode--would play 'a key role' in the show. Your intrepid host immediately set out to read the book, eager to better serve you, her beloved readers (and not, I hasten to point out, because she's a sheep who allows a stupid television program to dictate her choice in books. Not even a bit).

So, one fortuitous used bookstore find and 172 pages later, what can The Third Policeman tell us about Lost?


No, seriously. In terms of plot, The Third Policeman has about as much to do with what we're seeing on the screen as last year's similarly overexposed Watership Down--which is to say, a vague and superficial similarity (both books center around a group of refugees who set out to establish a new society) overpowered by significant differences between the texts (the rabbits in Watership Down leave their home voluntarily to escape a disaster, the survivors on Lost are brought together against their will because of a disaster; the rabbits have known each other their entire lives, the survivors are strangers; the rabbits travel around, the survivors stay still. Frankly, I agree with the TWoP recapper who pointed out that Battlestar Galactica has more in common with Watership Down than Lost).

The plot of The Third Policeman, to use the term generously, revolves around a rather foolish and self-centered man, the narrator, who has dedicated his life to studying the works of an even more foolish and possibly insane scholar named De Selby. The narrator's hired man, who has obviously been cheating the narrator for some time, convinces him that in order to get the money necessary to publish a monumental critical work about De Selby, they have to kill a reclusive old neighbor for his money box. Which they do, but the hired man promptly hides the money box and for three years refuses to reveal its location. Finally, the hired man leads the narrator to where he says the money box is hidden, but says that he himself will wait outside while the narrator retrieves the money (look, I said the guy was stupid, didn't I?).

No prizes for guessing what happens next, except that the narrative seems genuinely convinced that we wouldn't guess it. For the rest of the book, the narrator explores an illogical world in which everyone speaks to him in riddles, he sees impossible things, and far too much time and space is expended on the love that a man can feel for his bicycle. It's obviously meant to be a surprise when we discover, at the book's end, that the narrator has been dead and roaming around (a rather ineffectual, almost benign) hell**, but in fact it's been blazingly obvious, which is part of what makes The Third Policeman such a frustrating and ultimately unrewarding read.

In short, The Third Policeman is a not-particularly-well-written novel with a twist ending so hackneyed that it is only a step or two above 'Betty's been dead for twenty years!' As such, it makes a perfect accompaniment to Lost. In fact, to read The Third Policeman is to experience in miniature the entire emotional life-cycle of a Lost fan. First there's confusion, quickly followed by excitement as you try to piece together the various odd and mysterious discoveries that the characters make. As the irrational events compound and overtake each other, however, excitement quickly gives way to numbness and apathy. You come up with a blazingly simple solution--nothing makes sense because nothing is actually happening--and then quickly dismiss it because the writers would never do anything that trite. Which of course leads to a profound sense of disappointment when you discover that yes, yes they would, and then stare at you like four year olds who have come home from kindergarten with a lopsided, half-baked ashtray as a gift for a non-smoking parent, wondering why you haven't told them how brilliant they are.

But what I find most interesting about the connection between show and book is the fact that The Third Policeman is only a small part of a huge synergistic campaign. It's not just that if you search for the book on Amazon you'll be offered searches for Watership Down, A Wrinkle in Time, and A Turn of the Screw--all books that have been featured prominently on the show (and isn't it just a perfect metaphor for the changes that the show has undergone that last season's featured books were so good and this year they're both underperforming and dull?). There's also Oceanic Airlines, a website apparently as full of cryptic clues and mysteries as the show itself. Two tie-in novels are already available, centering on the experiences of survivors we haven't met on the show, and the producers are planning to publish a mystery novel supposedly written by one of the dead passengers (the book's publication date coincides with the air-date of the episode in which the survivors find the author's manuscript). A series of cell-phone shorts also centering on survivors we haven't met on the show is also in production.

Now, in themselves, novelizations and tie-in novels and websites full of puzzles aren't unheard of or even uncommon for a mega-successful franchise like Lost. Star Trek novelizations, to name but one example, have existed for decades, catering to fans who want to spend more time in that invented universe. But right there is what's interesting about these various expansions--the fans who consume them aren't interested in spending more time on the island. They probably don't even want to spend more time with the characters. They're reading the tie-in novels and exploring the website and watching the mini-episodes because they hope to glean clues that will help them solve the show's main mysteries.

Which seems to me to be an approach dependent on the truth of three very dubious assumptions: one, that the answers exist, two, that the questions exist, and three, that the writers have any intention of revealing either one.

What we're seeing here is a mindless consumption of information, with no regard given to whether it's of importance to the story. It's a tragic inability to tell the difference between signal and noise; the same mindset that convinces the writers that it's vitally important to reveal whose shoes those are in the corridor and how they got there, but not what happens when you don't press the button.

There have been a lot of complaints over the last year or so about the Lost writers' parsimony with information--I've made some of those complaints myself--but the more I think about it the more I'm convinced that the problem isn't that the show isn't giving us enough information but rather that it's giving us too much, none of it interesting or relevant.

So, to sum up, what can The Third Policeman tell us about Lost?

That the writers have bad taste in literature. That they also have a well-developed sense of irony. That they have zero respect for their viewers. That we should all be watching Veronica Mars instead.

Oh, and that people who let stupid television shows dictate their choice in books deserve exactly what they get.

* In all fairness, I'm not sure that this is as bad as it sounds. It all depends on what Lindelof means when he talks about the meaning of the numbers. If he means that the specific numbers don't have any significance--in other words, no 'eight is the number of King Jeroboam's handmaidens' then I'm fine with it, in the same way that 'Bad Wolf' doesn't have any significance of its own. On the other hand, I would consider it completely unacceptable for Lindelof not to know why the numbers are recurring on the island and in the survivors' pasts--for the numbers to be, in other words, Lost's equivalent of 47 on Alias--a number that recurred everywhere the characters went without anyone noticing or commenting on it, as a 'clever' 'joke' by the 'writers'.

** Now, the obvious conclusion here is OH MY GOD THEY'RE ALL DEAD!!!1! but the Lost producers have spoken rather strongly against this interpretation. Of course, these days I wouldn't believe the Lost writers if they told me the sky was blue, not because I think they'd try to confuse me but because I suspect that, as is the case with so many other things, they honestly don't know.


Anonymous said…
Do you think the borrowing from Third Policeman might be the access hatch into the underground realm? Perhaps there's a treasure store down there.

I haven't seen much of Lost so episodes I haven't seen might have proved me wrong.
Anonymous said…
Happy Thanksgiving!:)

Me stupid! Me know nothing of paper thingies and telli shows you mention! Wheeeeeeee.....!:)

Me enjoy "Sleeper" comic books! They are good! Keep in touch!:)

Hugs from afar!

East-Hampton NY
Yeah, Alison, I probably should have mentioned the hatch somewhere in my post. It just seems to me that the hatch on Lost and the hatch in The Third Policeman are so different - it's not just a treasure trove in TTP, it's a torture device that lets you have anything you want but won't let you carry any of it out - that their sheer presence might not count for much.
Anonymous said…
I was kinda hoping it might be a torture device in Lost too :-)

I suppose the riches-as-torture in Third Policeman is based on the myth of Tantalus, who I think was a cannibal?
Dotan Dimet said…
Tantalus was more of a cannibal cook - he cooked and served his own son to the gods in a banquet.
Anonymous said…
Its interesting that you call the use of the "he's been dead the whole book" ending as "hackneyed". The Third Policeman is more or less the first time this device was used in fiction (I say more or less - there may be contemporary or older uses of it, I don't know; but certainly not many at the time. It was an original idea that would have been quite suprising in its day.)
On a related note, if you read Shakespeare you will be shocked to find that it is full of cliches :-) Once again, these are used by Shakespeare for the first time, but have been used into the ground since. For example, forget how many times you've heard it used automatically and reflect for a minute on the beauty of the imagery in the phrase "vanish into thin air".
Ben said…
David, A certain Ambrose Bierce story -- which I will not name in case someone has not read it -- uses the device a good 50 years before O'Brien.

Nevertheless, I agree that Abigail has been too harsh. In fact, even if the reader guesses the twist immediately (most would probably have at least suspicions), the narrative is an exercise in uneasiness and unexplained pressure.

I'm sorry to hear that Abigail did not enjoy it, but clearly she went at it with some expectations that were bound to be dashed. I, too, was curious about the book because of Lost. But I recognized that a tale of Irish surrealism written in 1940 was not going to be the clef to a 21st Century television mystery.

If she no longer enjoys Lost and did not enjoy TTP, she has my genuine sympathy. I'd encourage other folks to read The Third Policeman, but forget about looking for clues to Lost.
Eugenia Loli said…
I think the corolation between the two works is the "time loop" thing itself. Jack's recent flash-forward was actually a flash-back, from a previous timeloop.
Anonymous said…
For God's sake, the whole point of The Third Policeman is not so much the fact that the narrator is dead, it is more the fact that this hellish death is to be repeated and repeated to 'Eternity'...
Jana said…
Not sure if anyone with ever see this, but a proper reading of The Third Policeman could render some insights into Lost, especially as it relates to Desmond. The book is about the incapacity of man to comprehend ultimate Truth, and the myriad ways in which he attempts to circumvent this. The parallels to Dharma and it's attempts to harness the power of the island are clear. I could go into greater detail, but I'm not sure if this is ever going to be seen. Just wanted to throw this out there for any other Googlers who stumble on this blog while researching TTP and Lost.
Peter said…
Abigail, I totally disagree with your estimation of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman. In my opinion it is a literary masterpiece. It is one of the most intelligent and funny books I have ever read.

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