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Fiction into fact into fiction

November 19, 2005|David L. Ulin | DAVID L. ULIN is the book editor of The Times.

THIS SEASON, the TV drama "Lost" will make pop culture history when it becomes the first show ever to have a character write a book in the real world. Hyperion (a division of Disney, which owns ABC, which airs "Lost") plans to release "Bad Twin," a mystery novel credited to one Gary Troup, who, the publisher informs us, was a passenger on "Oceanic Flight 815, which was lost in flight from Sydney, Australia, to Los Angeles in September 2004."

Although that air disaster is the genesis point of "Lost," the event from which the entire series unfolds, Troup is hardly a central figure in the action -- in fact, he's not a living presence at all. He died in the plane crash, leaving behind the manuscript of his private-eye story, which will be found in the wreckage during an episode this spring. The discovery of this manuscript will magically overlap with the novel's release date.

Television, of course, has long been a source of publishing tie-ins. Back in college, I used to swear by "The Twilight Zone Companion," and there are all those "Star Trek" books. "Lost" exists in this tradition. Barely a year after debuting, it's already spawned several spinoff novels as well as "The Lost Chronicles: The Official Companion Book."

"Bad Twin," however, is a different sort of project, a novel that neither explains nor expands upon the show but seeks to be an authentic artifact. In the Hyperion catalog, it merits a two-page spread, complete with invented blurbs from nonexistent writers ("Sure to be a classic of the genre," says Bob Miller, which happens to be the name of the president of Hyperion), and bio information that lists the fictional Troup's credits and sales.

As to who actually is writing "Bad Twin," no one at the imprint will discuss it, although the buzz on various "Lost"-related websites is that it's the work of mystery novelist Ridley Pearson. That conjecture is supported by a catalog reference to "The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer," a novel Pearson wrote for Hyperion as the prequel to ABC's 2002 miniseries "Rose Red."

On the one hand, "Bad Twin" represents a further twist on horizontal marketing, in which a media company uses one holding to sell another. This is how we live now, in a world where everything is commodified and the bottom line has become, well, the bottom line.

Still, I can't help but be reminded of the scene in Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" when the fireman Montag finds his wife studying her part in an interactive soap opera to be aired on the walls of their living room.

"They mailed me my part this morning," she enthuses. "I sent in some box tops. They write the script with one part missing.... When it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me out of the three walls and I say the lines."

That's an awful moment, sad and haunting, and in its edge of longing, it evokes contemporary culture's alienation, which has expanded exponentially since Bradbury examined it half a century ago.

WHAT BRADBURY was getting at -- and what "Bad Twin" hints at also -- is the ever-thinning boundary between reality and illusion, a boundary that grows more tenuous every day. "Lost," such a construct tells us, takes place in our landscape, a fiction that bleeds into fact. If that's the case, though, how long is it until reality becomes a fantasy and we believe we are characters in the drama ourselves?

This is how a show like "Lost" wants to operate -- framing its viewers as a community and itself as the centerpiece of a shared point of view. There's nothing inherently wrong with that; in fact, it illustrates the nature of fanhood, the way our affinities help us find purchase, a sense of identity in the world. At the same time, there's something creepy about the nudge-nudge, wink-wink insistence that "Bad Twin" was found instead of manufactured, and it goes beyond the idea of writing as a commodity, a gimmick, a ploy.

In fact, the marketing of the novel suggests something far more insidious -- that we, the audience, exist not only to be manipulated but to participate in our manipulation by seeing it as cool. This is the kind of thing that literature has traditionally stood against.

But if the strange story of Gary Troup has anything to tell us, it's that for marketers, and increasingly even for ourselves, real life may be turning into a reverie in three dimensions, a mere template for a larger fiction.

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