Lost is notorious for featuring extremely subtle cultural references; perhaps one of the best examples of this is Flann O'Brien's novel The Third Policeman. The writers have specifically referenced this book as providing "ammunition" which may aid with interpretation of the plot of Lost.
The Third Policeman is a novel by the Irish author Flann O' Brien (a pseudonym which Brian O'Nolan adopted for the all his published work). It was written in 1940 but published posthumously in 1967, at which point it gained almost instant critical acclaim.
Flann O' Brien was an Irish novelist and political commentator. Born in County Tyrone, and raised in Dublin, he entered the Irish civil service in 1937 and formally retired in 1953. From 1940 until his death, he wrote a political column called "Cruiskeen Lawn" for The Irish Times, under the pseudonym of Myles na Gopaleen; his biting, satiric commentaries made him the conscience of the Irish government. As Flann O'Brien, he published three wildly funny novels, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939, rep. 1960), The Dalkey Archive (1964), and obviously The Third Policeman (1967). He also published a play, Faustus Kelly (1943).
- The unnamed protagonist of the novel is tragically orphaned, and later sent to boarding school where he first becomes acquainted with the work of the bizarre philosopher, De Selby, who is referenced constantly, both via footnotes, and in body of the novel itself.
- Obsessed by the philosopher's somewhat odd theories, the protagonist sets out on a catastrophic quest to publish a definitive commentary on the philosopher. To fund this ambition, he plans to murder and rob a rich man - although in a strange way, fate seems to guide him in this direction, whether he likes it or not.
- De Selby is a natural skeptic of all known laws of physics, who casually dismisses the evidence of human experience. He contends, for example, that "the permanent hallucination known conventionally as 'life' is an effect of constantly walking in a particular direction around a sausage-shaped earth, and that night results from 'accumulations of black air'".(Possibly an allusion to the black smoke).
- The protagonist finally gets hold of his victims' black box only to discover that the box does not contain money, but “omnium” , a substance once described as: “the essential inherent interior essence which is hidden in the root of the kernel of everything”, and which is literally everything one desires. The former holder of the box has been using it to take the muck off his leggings and to boil his eggs just right, but naturally the narrator has more grandiose visions of his future omnipotence.
- In the novel, the first two policemen share an underground structure with the narrator. Without spoiling the ending, the narrator is being punished for his "bad" deeds. One can draw a parallel with this and the new idea that Islanders in danger of being taken by the Others are either "good" or "bad".
Desmond appears to be reading The Third Policeman when the Hatch is finally infiltrated by the mid-section survivors, at the start of season two. The book is visible on Desmond's bunk in the Swan. ("Man of Science, Man of Faith")
Influence on Lost
According to a BBC report & an article in the Chicago Tribune on September 21, 2005, The Third Policeman was to contain key insights into the show, a fact that led to it selling more copies in the 3 weeks following the episode's airing than in the 6 years that preceded this.
- Lost script writer Craig Wright said the book was chosen "very specifically for a reason."
- However, head writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse admited that they have never read the book in the Official Lost Podcast, but heard from Craig that it is a very interesting book.
While many possible connections can be drawn, most of these are tenuous at best. This section is concerned with elements of the book which have a strong similarity to the events in Lost - and to present the possible "ammunition" referenced by the writers.
- The underground labyrinth described in the book has a strong resonance with the portrayal of the Swan in Lost;
- I saw a long passage lit fitfully at intervals by the crude home-made noise machines….the walls of the passage seemed to be made with bolted sheets of pig-iron…there was a mass of wires and what appeared to be particularly thick wires or possibly pipes….here I saw a dial or an intricate nest of clocks and knobs resembling a control board…
- Policeman MacCruiskeen and his partner are obsessed with taking readings from their underground bunker, and assuring that these readings are within "safe" ranges. They are constantly having to adjust the readings into these safe ranges - and we find out later in the novel that the "third policeman" himself (Policeman Fox) has in fact been constantly modifying these readings into the unsafe range for his own entertainment - This sounds very similar to what happens in the Hatch as far as resetting the clock every 108 minutes - especially when combined with the information concerning the Pearl. ("?")
- The strange, abstract map created by a spreading crack on the roof of the cell in the book is somewhat similar to the blast door map in Lost;
- A map!...When I looked carefully at the ceiling I saw that Mr. Mathers’ house and every road and house I knew were marked there, and nets of lanes and neighbourhoods that I did not know also. It was a map of the parish, complete, reliable, and astonishing…And he lay looking at the map for five years more before he saw that it showed the way to eternity.
- On one of the occasions when Policeman Fox modifies the readings into the unsafe range he either purposefully or unpurposefully saves the narrator from being hanged by Policeman MacCruiskeen as he suddenly has to attend to lowering the readings; there is a similarity to the events of the season 2 finale here;
- In the book, the protagonist finally gets his hands on the coveted black box, only to discover that his money isn't inside it. Instead, the box contains omnium, a substance which creates anything the beholder desires.
- The narrator of the book discovers that items so created (via the interaction of his will with the omnium) cannot be removed from the labyrinth and taken back to the outside world.