Tag Archives: Agency

Lost in DeLillo

Newsletter 4.2 (2010)

—Randy Laist

When I finished the manuscript of my recent book on Don DeLillo, Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don DeLillo’s Novels, I knew that I wanted my next project to be a kind of vacation from the hypnotic seriousness and esoteric hyper-literacy that I had come to associate with DeLillo’s writing.  When an opportunity presented itself to edit a collection of essays about the television show Lost, my first thought was that this excursion into a madcap expression of popular culture would be a perfect change of pace.  Imagine my surprise when one of the first writers to contact me with an abstract was Jesse Kavadlo, whose book about DeLillo, Balance at the Edge of Belief, had been published by the same press that issued my DeLillo book.  As the abstracts continued to come in, it became a recurring pattern that many of the same scholars who had something to say about Lost had published on or taught DeLillo at some point in the recent past.  You might scoff and say that DeLillo is a popular enough author that there is no coincidence here, but when you add to this quasi-anecdotal evidence the startling fact that DeLillo’s most recent book, Point Omega, and the sixth (and final) season of Lost both debuted on the same day (February 2, 2010), you have a clue that neither DeLillo fans nor Lost fans – both practiced in teasing out the semantic nuances of manifestly meaningless coincidences – could possibly ignore.

This paranoid mood of radical connectivity is certainly the most obvious relationship between DeLillo’s oeuvre and Lost.  The theme that “everything is connected” is explicitly invoked in Underworld, but it runs throughout all of DeLillo’s novels, which all weave patterns of suggestive coincidences between entities that share no obvious relationship.  Think of the parallels between football and nuclear war in End Zone, Elvis and Hitler in White Noise, or between Kennedy and Oswald in Libra.  Even when such a parallel is not explicitly drawn, DeLillo’s enigmatic juxtapositions – for example, the framing of the main story in Point Omega with the narrative about 24-hour Psycho – provoke us into attempting to discover the buried logic at work.  DeLillo’s attentive prose encourages us to assume that such a logic does in fact exist, however obscure it may be.  Consequently, the reader of DeLillo is always penetrating deeper and deeper into an atmosphere of mystery that becomes more complex with every step.  This same atmosphere of vaguely sacred mysteries is the primary hook of Lost.  Of course, “mystery shows” are not foreign to television, but Lost is unique because the “mystery” the show deals with is DeLillian in nature, rather than, say, Agatha Christie-an.  The question of Lost has no specific form; it is atmospheric and generalized.  Lost’s central question, as one character expresses it in the pilot episode, is an existential one: “Where are we?”  There is a vast catalogue of particular mysteries throughout the plot, but the real subject of the program is “mystery” itself as a human condition.  In the same way that DeLillo frequently uses juxtaposition as a way of insinuating a hidden relationship, Lost’s formula of relating two parallel narratives in each episode prompts the viewer’s disposition to scan both narratives for points of contact.  As a result, the diegetic mysteries that arise on the island (who kidnapped Claire?  Who built the hatch?) are subtended by a larger extradiegetic mystery concerning the relationship between the various narrative strands.  Of course, Lost being a television show, subject to all the generic conventions pertaining to that medium, the viewers would reject the show if it were to end – Players-style – abruptly, with the supreme revelation eternally deferred, or if it ended, White Noise-style, with the characters gazing off into some haze of unanswerability, stranded with the impossible responsibility of living in an atmospheric smog of strangeness.  The more Lost plugs in agents to explain the various mysteries of the show, the less it reads like DeLillo, Kafka, and Conrad and the more it reads like Stephen King.  But the appeal of the show has always been the promise of mystery, rather than the (inevitably disappointing) moment of revelation.  In the early seasons, before the producers announced that they were going to write the story toward a definitive resolution, it was possible to read Lost as a DeLillian interrogation of answerless questions and our mechanisms for coping with them.

One of the most compelling mysteries thematized by both DeLillo and Lost is the relationship between agency and environment.  Both texts address the question of whether human choices are free expressions of the unique will of the actor or whether they are the mechanistic outcomes of inhuman forces.  Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Gladney join Lost’s John Locke and Jack Shepherd in their sense of having their free will usurped by forces that are associated with both international finance and with cosmic ontology.  In the same way that DeLillo’s characters often seem to be dimly aware that there is something artificial in the plots that they find themselves participating in, so do the characters of Lost frequently approach the realization that they are trapped in a television script that keeps relentlessly making outrageous demands on them.  DeLillo’s characters, from David Bell to Richard Elster, often respond to this intuition by dropping out, going to the desert, and starving themselves to the brink of death.  Lost characters are also typically prone to recalcitrance in the face of existential coercion.  They smash mirrors, blow up submarines, and perform various acts of narrative sabotage for the purpose of resisting the pull that the ambient plot seems to be exerting on them.  The Losties’ free will frequently seems to have been co-opted by the island itself in a manner reminiscent of that in which DeLillo’s characters tend to fall into the modes of behavior assigned to them by their American mass-culture.  The Lost island appears to be a natural, untouched wilderness, but it turns out actually to be a thoroughly colonized space that has been designed and controlled by various human (and superhuman) activities to such an extent that it hardly qualifies as a “natural” landscape.  It is impossible not to think of Jack Gladney’s sunsets, which undermine any attempt to dichotomize nature and artifice, or of the West into which David Bell drives toward the end of Americana of which he writes, “Literature is what we left behind, more than men and cactus” (349).  DeLillo’s USA and the Losties’ island are both landscapes that have a kind of conscious presence embedded within them, an uncanny consciousness that has the capacity to subsume the will of the landscape’s human inhabitants.

Arguably the most prominent mystery in both DeLillo’s novels and Lost is the mystery of time.  Indeed, all of the other mysteries in these texts can be understood as metonymic stand-ins for the ultimate imponderability of time.  As DeLillo writes in The Body Artist, time is “the thing you know nothing about” (101).  All of DeLillo’s novels are meditations on temporality.  DeLillo’s famously stagnant plots are expressions of a desire to reduce time to its barest elements and hold it under a microscope.  While Lost differs from DeLillo markedly in its preference for plot-heavy narration, Lost shares DeLillo’s obsessive preoccupation with the phenomenology of time.  DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, is built around a “flashback” chapter and a “flashforward” frame story in a way that is remarkably reminiscent of Lost.  In both cases, the experimentations with narrative temporality provoke questions about how the past, present, and future are connected to one another through the lived experience of an individual human being.  As a kind of post-apocalyptic narrative, Lost interrogates the temporality of trauma in a manner that is reminiscent of The Body Artist and Falling Man.  Indeed, The Body Artist’s Mr. Tuttle would be right at home on the Lost island, which is populated by characters whose consciousnesses bounce around unpredictably through time.  But in addition to the traumatic intrusion of the past into the present, Lost and DeLillo both consider the mysterious intrusion of the future into the present.  Underworld’s backwards narrative weaves a kind of reverse-suspense.  Rather than the conventional narrative question – What happens next? – the reader of Underworld asks, How did what I know already to have happened come about?  The reversal redirects the reader’s attention from the passage of time itself to the content of time, to the consideration of the choices and happenstances that caused reality to take the shape that it took.  DeLillo also plays with this convergent temporality in Cosmopolis, in which he narrates Eric Packer’s story and Benno Levin’s story in opposite directions, as if the two characters were moving in opposite directions through time, personifying the intersecting lines of temporality that combine to articulate lived experience.  Lost’s season four transition from flashbacks to flashforwards has a similar effect on the way we follow the characters’ stories and encourages an understanding of time not as a dot moving forward on a single line, but as an Einsteinian field in which past, present, and future are all concurrently active.

Of course, there are many important differences to be acknowledged between DeLillo’s novels and LostLost’s characters are drawn broadly out of stereotypes and caricatures that DeLillo would touch only with the ten-foot pole of irony.  DeLillo is as independent as it is possible for a mass-marketed artist to be, while Lost is a corporate commodity stamped with the Disney logo.  And Lost is consumed with the kind of meticulous plotting that both Jack Gladney and Don DeLillo hold in fearful suspicion.  At its best, however, Lost achieves the feat of communicating some of DeLillo’s complex intuitions about mystery, agency, and temporality to an audience that has been shaped by the same contemporary influences of which DeLillo is such an astute observer.  When we consider DeLillo and Lost as companion texts, the correspondences between DeLillo’s literary artistry and the television writers’ bid for commercial appeal suggest a wider set of cultural concerns about the texture of lived experience in the twenty-first century.

Works Cited

DeLillo, Don.  Americana.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.  Print.
—. The Body Artist.  NY: Scribner, 2001.  Print.