Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Lost, X-Men, Narnia, Agee

As a child, I knew I wanted to be a writer: I wanted to write X-Men. A few years on, I still wanted to write X-Men, but I also wanted to write The Chronicles of Narnia. I worried about how I'd get the books I loved -- The Great Brain series, Susan Cooper's eerie folk nightmares, The House With the Clock in its Walls -- once I was too old for them. I imagined standing at the counter of the Open Door, the bookstore in which my mother and I spent hours, as a grown-up, with a stack of children's novels: "For my nephew," I'd lie.

What I liked most about many of these stories -- X-Men, The Dark is Rising, The Chronicles -- is that they didn't seem to end. The X-Men, never. The Dark is Rising, not really. The Chronicles, yes; but it was so dull compared to the rest of the story that one could imagine the last book as nothing more than a giant typo.

I drifted away from writing in high school, and went off to college determined to be an actor or a biologist, maybe a forest ranger. (I would have made a great ent.) Instead, I read James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and I was back to writing. What was remarkable to me wasn't that the book didn't end; it was that it never really began. Or rather, it began over and over, each start a crescendo and a failure, proof of Agee's contention that language was a lie, forever inadequate to the "cruel, radiant symphony of what is."

I still like X-Men -- at least, when Joss Whedon was writing a series -- and I return now and then to Agee. But I no longer need endless stories to make me feel safe -- children fear endings -- nor Agee's angst-filled failures to make me feel honest. Writing is mediation; a negotiation.

But television? Its adolescent stories keep hope and nihilism alive. That is, most series are conceived with no clear end in sight. That's the hope. And most are built around a repetition of crescendoes -- none moreso than Lost, the series that has lost hope (the end is in sight). Each new season, almost every new episode, implied a new beginning, as the story returned us to the events that had set the story in motion, each time flogging us for failing to understand what had been right before our eyes and promising us that this time it would be different, this time we would proceed with the necessary information, this time the story would have meaning. And, of course, that was a playful deception, too, because the story always had meaning; it just kept changing. Every episode was an illustration of Faulkner's chestnut: "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

But maybe, sometimes, it should come to an end -- so that it can avoid ending. So argues Graham Hilliard on KillingTheBuddha.com.
There’s a moment in the third season of Lost, ABC’s soon-to-conclude serial drama of time travel and philosophy, that might have made a perfect ending to the series. Jack, the surgeon-cum-tribal chieftain whose impetuousness drives much of the show’s conflict, has delivered himself into the hands of his enemies, “The Others.” A rescue party of his friends has arrived at a gated camp to find Jack sprinting toward them, eyes ablaze. Before they can react—before they can move toward him or aid his escape—Jack looks over his shoulder, raises his hands, and catches a football. He grins at the captor with whom he’s been playing, and he spikes the ball. Cue credits.

It’s a devastating scene—one of the finest in the show’s history—and a stunning conclusion, had it been allowed to serve as one, to a narrative whose success was built not on revelation but mystery. Though Jack has long been established as the series’ central protagonist, the notion that he has switched sides is just possible. We’ve seen the creeping petulance that has marked his behavior since midway through the first season, and we’ve begun to question our own loyalties. Jack has been alone with the Others for days, furthermore, and their motives and practices are unknown to us. That Jack may have turned is both shocking and quietly plausible. In its mastery of timing, characterization, and narrative momentum—the very ingredients that made the show successful in the first place—the moment is a tour de force. It’s an exclamation point. A bang of an ending rather than a whimper.

Read the whole essay at this blog's big sister site, KillingTheBuddha.com