'Lost': 'N.' is for Numbers
So I've been on the road a lot this autumn, more than I have since that time I stole Benjamin Linus' passports and spent all his Others' wealth on a Tunisian bender in my own version of a "Lost" fortnight. Chicago, New York, Nashville ... the wife and I have been scurrying about for a variety of reasons. So, naturally, I've had a lot of time to catch up on my reading. And one thing in particular caught my eye.
The connection between "Lost" and Stephen King is well-documented. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse go out of their way to name-drop the King of Horror whenever possible when citing influences upon their show. And while I highly encourage each and every one of you to read "The Stand" and "The Dark Tower," to me the two "Must Reads" when it comes to understanding what Season 6 might look like, those are long. Like, even longer than my typical blog post. I KNOW. That long. But while flying back from Chicago after a successful Zap2LockeCon, I found another King story that is 1) much shorter, 2) equally applicable to "Lost" and 3) demonstrated not King's influence on the show so much as the show's influence on King.
The story in question is called "N." I found it in his short-story collection "Just After Sunset," a collection I will handily admit I did not know existed until it stood out to at me in a small bookstore near Wrigley Field. King's stated influence for the piece is Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan," but to me, it's got "Lost" written all over it. Why?
It deals with curious energy just below the surface of the earth/reality.
The story is structured as a series of journal entries, extending outward from a man who suffers from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. He's convinced that his system is the only thing that's saving the world from utter destruction.
It involves a caged monster.
In "Lost," we have a circle of ash that may or may not be related to the smoke monster. In "N.," we have a circle of rocks in a field that may or may not contain a monster from another universe trying to bust in.
It concerns the inherent (and very real) power of numbers.
The patient, dubbed "N." by one of the story's narrators, relates the power of certain numbers to the doorway between the universes in this otherwise ordinary field. See, at certain times, "N." sees eight stones in the field. But other times? Only seven. This cannot be, and yet it is. Eight stones contain the beast, but seven do not. This knowledge doesn't come from anything more than feeling, an intrinsic link between the power of the universe and a man-made way to describe the physical world around him. His obsession with "good" numbers cripples him, pushing him into ever more obsessive-compulsive actions as a way to systemically ward off the awful creature that will inevitably escape should the wrong number stay in play too long.
As I read "N." and its various descriptions of "good" and "bad" numbers (the number 19, itself at the heart of "The Dark Tower", is still a very, very bad number in this novella), my thoughts turned naturally to Leonard, Hurley, and the Numbers that have haunted "Lost" over the past five years. The Numbers are perhaps the greatest example of The Island's propensity not to promote mind over matter, but mind into matter. And that subtle difference matters.
I think both King and Darlton are exploiting what has been to this English major a continually perplexing problem: Just how can numbers, a man-made organization and description system, accurately describe and even predict events that started millions of years before the invention of the wheel, the discovery of fire, or hell, humans? This Shakespeare-loving lad finds that correlation downright terrifying.
The terror undoubtedly explains my inability to ever correctly solve an equation in chemistry class, but it's also at the basis of the numbers in "N." and The Numbers in "Lost" striking such a primal connection in their respective/overlapping audiences. After all, if these numbers can reach out and touch the universe, occasionally the universe will touch right back.
In dealing with numbers that assume a power beyond their ability to balance the sides of an equation, it's often posited in popular science fiction that maybe, just maybe, man didn't need to solve that particular puzzle after all. Maybe "mystery" is sometimes best left as such. The history of those coming to The Island is littered with those seeking to solve the answers of the Island as opposed to merely living in harmony with it. Men of science versus men of faith, you might say. And The Dharma Initiative was simply the latest and perhaps most dangerous iteration of the former.
I don't care if the show ends without describing in excruciating detail the true nature of the energy at the core of The Island. Don't you dare midi-chlorian that power source, Darlton. But I don't think you will. Why? Because you punished the DI, whose search for the true nature of it endangered the freakin' world, that's why. All I know is that in addition to springing a leak only (perhaps) stopped through the detonation of a hydrogen bomb, the energy at the heart of the Island reached out and touched the numbers on the side of the initial Swan hatch. And in touching those numbers, it imbued them with a part of that energy.
In this scenario, the repetition of the Numbers in various flashbacks and flashforwards isn't simply clever Easter egg placement, but a very subtle way of showing that The Island is somehow calling out to these particular people through ostensibly benign digits. If the energy on the Island is one of many similar (albeit individually distinct) pools of energy spread across the world, is it really that hard to believe that the power imbued on the Island couldn't translate and transmit worldwide?
After all, it's not like we don't have our own version of this phenomenon in real life: lucky numbers. For me, it was 21, a number I wore throughout my days playing youth soccer. That number still feels "right" to me, whatever that may mean. But it speaks to me in the way that the number of stones speaks to the nameless protagonist in "N." and Hurley in "Lost." And apparently, they speak to Stephen King and Darlton too. Next season, we'd be well served to listen in a little closer to The Numbers and hear what they are trying to say.
Or whisper, as it were.
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