Monday, May 26, 2014

#747. The Mystery Box

I've just finished S. from J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.  Put simply, it's amazing.  Put less simply, it's kind of the answer to all the questions you ever had about a J.J. Abrams project.

The project you ought to keep in mind, if you ever read it yourself, is Lost.  You know, that mesmerizing, confounding puzzle of a TV show that fans alternately love and hate.  There're so many elements to S. that it seems a rank injustice to single out only a few, but a lot of them seem tailor-made to anyone still trying to figure out what happened on that mysterious island.  It's the answer to what's inside that mystery box that seems to be at the heart of every Abrams story.

And it actually helps put Abrams into better context than ever.  I started ticking off all the associations I could easily make: Christopher Nolan, M. Night Shyamalan, Orson Welles, Frank Miller, Dean Motter, J.K. Rowling, Grant Morrison.  All his stories involve people trying to sort out the vagaries of identity while pushing up against powers much more frightening than they ever wanted to confront.

Getting back to Lost, however, and how S. offers such rich parallels, it reminds me all over again how drastically the series changed after its third season, the one the fans hated so much it forced a course-correction and abbreviated run of only three more years.  The third season is the one where the fans thought things started to drag, become less inspired, more predictable.  But I never really saw that.  The opening suite of episodes are especially electric.  Jack, Sawyer, and Kate are being held captive by the Others.  Finally, we're finding out what the enemy actually looks like.  And other than Jack's initial predicament...it's pretty mundane, actually.  It plays out a lot like the action in S., in which an amnesiac man finds himself thrust into a war of attrition between two sides who operate below the public radar, both completely convinced about the legitimacy of their actions and committed to eliminating the other.  He keeps ending up on the same boat, and struggles to connect with the woman of his dreams.  Just from the first moment we meet Jack in Lost, you can begin to see parallels.

The whole book is like that.  The approach, however, delves deeper.  It speaks to what Abrams might have thought as fans followed Lost's developments, whether in the series itself or the ephemera that gave secret clues about what lay ahead, such as the earliest references to the Dharma Initiative.  And just what did the mysterious organization turn out to be?  That's what the third season was headed toward, the same one where Jacob was referenced for the first time, who would eventually embody the war of black and white pieces Locke shows Walt from backgammon all the way at the beginning.

The moment the series acknowledged the wishes of the fans, I think Abrams felt it was the moment to give the series over to his collaborators.  The shift is so obvious, the approach altered in ways more profound than the length of seasons.  It becomes a lot more mythologized.  By the end of the series, the fans, who had become aware that they could affect the shape of the Mystery Box, felt it was appropriate to be disappointed when they realized the answers they thought they wanted didn't materialize.  And who is to blame?  The fans.  They scared off Charles Widmore.  The Dharma Initiative that showed up in the fifth season was as ineffectual as Widmore's role in the sixth.  I daresay both would have been far different with Abrams still steering the course.

None of this is to say I personally was disappointed with the series.  Abrams has explored the same story over and over, from Alias to Fringe to Person of Interest, the last of these most successful at hiding in plain sight the Mystery Box.  The Smoke Monster had different permutations, too, in Super 8 and Cowboys & Aliens.  Once Upon a Time took a different approach to the same fantastic lives ordinary people experience when they encounter open the box.  Abrams (and the creators who will be forever linked to Lost) likes characters with daddy issues, surrogate families, and conspiracy theories.  I think all these things come to their best form in Fringe.  Fans can pick their favorite.

S. is a way of affirming that Abrams can be a genre all to himself.  You can enjoy the book on its own merits, for its own accomplishments.  You can approach it by way of Lost (and come to different conclusions if you like).  But I think you'll enjoy it, one way or another.  It's ambitious.  It's a way of approaching Abrams as a pure storyteller, someone who clearly enjoys what he does, no matter his motives or proclivities or the demands he asks of his audience.  That he asks anything at all has always been one of my favorite things about him, the moment the name "Milo Rambaldi" was uttered for the first time.  I like a challenge in my entertainment, and Abrams is one creator always game to provide one.  I'm glad his efforts exist in book form now.

1 comment:

Pat Dilloway said...

Abrams never sticks with any project too long. Star Trek is the most recent one he's abandoned. He'll probably abandon Star Wars if someone makes the right offer.

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