In the Labyrinth

An excerpt from Adam Ouston’s Waypoints

This is an edited excerpt from Adam Ouston’s Waypoints, published by Splice on March 18 and available for pre-order now.

Luckily — and I say “luckily” because I am ever the optimist; despite everything, I still consider myself lucky, for the whole thing (ie. life, etc.) could have been a lot worse! — luckily, Houdini’s visit was very well documented at the time; the media, whipped up no doubt by the efforts of promotor, proprietor and comic baritone extraordinaire, Harry Rickards, who took every opportunity to tell anyone who’d listen about the enormous expense to which Houdini’s visit was putting him, the media was clambering over itself to get the latest on the famous escapologist’s visit, plans, shows, thoughts on Australia, local intentions, would he be tossing himself into the Yarra, what did he eat for breakfast, because despite the great advances in technology — really, journalists don’t have to ask these questions anymore because all you need to do is look it up, it’s all there at our fingertips — the questions put to celebrities have been the same for the last hundred years and no doubt even longer (what’s worse, the answers have remained the same too), which is to say that while Houdini’s plane vanished after leaving Australia (in fact Houdini would never fly again, anywhere) there were still mountains of articles, interviews, reports, manuals, signed statements, books, photographs and testimonies to help us in our research, most of which had been digitised and scattered throughout the vastness of the internet — it was all there, all of history, and during my research I’d thought to myself that surely there was enough information out there that it could one day be synthesised in chronological order so that someone could read, in real time, the full history of everything, every event, every non-event, every drama and every boring Tuesday afternoon, all documented and digitised and included in the sprawling story of existence, minute by minute, day by day, year by year, mortality being the only thing standing in the path of the poor reader, for although this story would be practically infinite our time here is not, and while it’s true that all stories end with death, in this case it would be the death of the hapless reader overcome by the sheer volume of words, the great black river of time, surging ever onwards, sweeping us all aside, or rather rolling us under like the Indonesian tsunami of 2004, or the Japanese tsunami of 2011, which by the way you could relive moment by moment if you were able to stitch together all the footage from all the cameras, both private and public, and all the testimonies from all the witnesses, it’s all there at your fingertips, stored not in “the cloud” as the marketing teams would have us believe — suggesting the information just vanishes before our very eyes while at the same time surviving somewhere in the æther — but in huge servers in both disclosed and undisclosed locations worldwide (the level of secrecy and security no doubt adding to the sense of nebulousness) including the Dalles, Oregon; Atlanta, Georgia; Reston, Virginia; Lenoir, North Carolina; and Moncks Corner, South Carolina; as well as Eemshaven and Groningen in the Netherlands and Mons, Belgium, while it is believed that Google’s Oceania Data Centre is located somewhere in Sydney (but nobody’s talking), and those are just some of the ones we know about; no doubt storing the details of practically every moment in history requires the occupation great swathes of land (during my investigations I had asked myself why they didn’t consolidate them onto those huge floating islands of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, known as the Pacific Trash Vortex or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for when I’d heard the word “islands” I’d imagined solid formations — perfect for building huge servers in which to store the planet’s knowledge — but after a cursory search it became clear that these islands are not what they seem and in fact resemble more of a murky soup of microplastics, being thus completely useless) which is partly why, of course, we are asked to pay for storage of information, because the so-called cloud is not ephemeral or semi-translucent like the PTV — information doesn’t disappear like magic into the æther — but actual bricks and mortar, fibres and optic cables and sensors and lights all talking to each other, it really is a worldwide web!, and if we could capture an image of it in operation, if we could stand far enough away to get it all in the frame at once — no doubt someone can do this; they’ve just photographed a black hole, for heaven’s sake, using images from cameras positioned all around the globe and stitching them together — so that we could witness servers chatting together from one side of the planet to the other, firing things back and forth, sending on information from huge storage facilities to suburban homes (the term “download” is quite misleading because the information doesn’t come down from anywhere; it’s shot across the surface of the Earth and over the ocean floor), then I have no doubt it would resemble the activity of the human brain when viewed via a CT scan, with its hemispheres and lobes strobed by synaptic flashes, with its various regions communicating instantaneously — the amygdala looms large in my mind now, for in grief counselling it was mentioned over and again (I imagine it as a golden membrane, glowing and pulsing) — which is to say that in whatever we create, whether art or machine or business, whatever feat we deign to undertake, we humans cannot help but recreate ourselves, mimicking what we see around us and what we feel inside, even God, who supposedly created us in his own image, but that was because we created him in ours first, for it’s precisely the sort of thing we mortals are wont to do (if the Great Houdini were to have called himself God of the Air he might indeed have had a point), so it’s inevitable that when we stand back from our efforts and get a good look at what we’ve created, from the minutest miniature to a photograph of a black hole, from a wristwatch to the vast server network that comprises the internet, from Gauguin to the Pacific Trash Vortex, there we are again and again, which on one hand is a lovely idea, that the species cannot help but depict itself, but on the other is a trap, a labyrinth, and while we’re often told that imagination will set us free, will sever the cord that ties us to the here and now and send us soaring into the clouds, there is, in the end, no such thing because any act of the mind is a regurgitation and perhaps the only way out of this maze is madness, for it is in madness that one can find relief from the bricks-and-mortar of the everyday — to lose one’s mind is to float away, to drift up, up, up into the cloud of unknowing, the cloud of forgetting, unburdened by thought, rationale or history, drifting in the æther, lost, it’s true, but blissfully lost, soulfully lost amid a haze of godliness, closer to god or nature or the universe or whatever it is that is too vast for our tiny brains — unphotographable regardless of how many powerful lenses you have in however many locations around the globe — which explains why the mad, the demented, the “touched” as they once called them, were said to be sacred, for they were the cloud, the perpetually awestruck and gobsmacked, belittled these days but formerly held in such high regard, for now knowledge is king, facts, details, the more you know the more correct you are, the more often you find yourself on the right side of things; but to be unburdened by the ever-compounding weight of information, to forget it all, to erase everything, for it to vanish right before our very eyes and to become God of the Air, how perfect — ridiculed and hidden away and even locked up, it’s true, but how miraculous to make the ascent.

About Adam Ouston

Adam Ouston is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and the recipient of the 2014 Erica Bell Literary Award as well as the manuscript prize at the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards in 2017. He holds a PhD and has worked as a copywriter, editor and bookseller. As a musician he performs as Costume. He lives in Hobart, Tasmania.