by Adam Ouston
Puncher and Wattmann
Published March 2022
Adam Ouston’s debut Waypoints concerns itself with a footnote in the history of Australian aviation: in 1910 Harry Houdini tried and failed to become the first person to fly a plane in Australia. The novel is told from the perspective of a circus owner named Bernard Cripp who, haunted by the obscurity of this event, devotes himself entirely to fine-grained research so as to one day re-stage it. This he calls ‘my attempt at an attempt of his attempt’, a self-referentially disclosure of the story’s design.
Waypoints is a novel of dragnet sentences that loop and repeat in a series of playful, Shandean digressions. The novel does not unfold so much as it crawls – the way a bot can run through two hundred password combinations a second: by failing again and failing better. Fragments from early sentences appear pages later, re-contextualised in endless new articulations. Folded into Waypoints are meditations on the history of aviation, the Pacific Trash Vortex, failed explorations of the Great Sandy Desert and a detailed play-by-play of every possible biological consequence of air crashes upon impact. In between, we learn that Bernard Cripp is mourning the loss of his wife and daughter who went missing several years prior on flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. And so, the novel is about several categories of failure in ascending order of complexity. These include the failure of Harry Houdini to be the first person to fly an aircraft in Australia; the failures of Cripp’s family circus when the telos of mass entertainment is no longer to excite but to tranquilise and the failure of technology to locate his missing family members. And behind every failure that exists in the everyday realm of contingency, there are higher-order failures that the novel is attempting to name: there is the failure of Language and Rationality to contain the multi-dimensionality of grief and there is the psychological frisson we experience from our own wilful acts of self-sabotage, or the failures of Failure itself.
Bernard Cripp is preoccupied by the limitations of the soi-disant information age. Take the novel’s long opening sentence:
It’s bizarre because now, in our age of information, when any fact, datum or tidbit is literally at our own fingertips, and the price for being deemed wrong grows mightier by the day; when any idle curiosity or bagatelle can be satisfied in an instant, invariably leading to further idle curiosities and bagatelles, taking you deeper into the goldmine of a seemingly limitless supply when it’s more or less understandable that, for most of us, there really is no excuse for not knowing anything, it’s all there, all you have to do is look it up; now in an age when the sweep of history is laid out before us, not-withstanding all the caveats, hesitations and conflicting perspectives, of those who know about the airborne exploits of the Great Harry Houdini – illusionist, self-promoter, dispeller of frauds and inveterate daredevil – more people seem to know that the Master of Mystery didn’t actually get the record straight for the first controlled flight of a powered aircraft in Australia than know who in fact did.
This fact, on the primacy of facts, reappears throughout the novel like a game of novelistic whack-a-mole. Cripp observes later in passing that ‘these days facts are bountiful and there is nothing we cannot know,’ later still that ‘all you need to do is look it up, it’s all there at our fingertips’ and later yet that ‘knowledge is king, facts, details, the more you know the more correct you are.’ Much like doom-scrolling, in the uninterrupted stream of Cripp’s internal monologue, facts abound but they do not stick. What remains is an infinite factoidal regression into facts about facts or to wit, facts about what makes our endless consumption of facts possible.
Cripp spends pages dissecting the minutae of Data Centres housing the millions of facts upon which our Global Network Society subsists. This is a man who dreams of an Australia that could harness the vast sums of cavernous space left open by its history of resource extraction in ‘not so much a gold-rush as a void-rush’, that is, by occupying them with Data Centres. What begins as a preoccupation with certain facts evolves into a preoccupation with the material scaffolding that makes these facts a reality. Media theorist Sean Cubbit writes in Finite Media (2016) that data centres or server farms are the real backbone of the Internet as we know it. Google ‘has become the world’s largest manufacturer of computers, albeit exclusively for use in the server farms to keep their empire alive.’ In the search for his missing family, Cripps has only the facts that circle their disappearance: the flight path before the plane’s disappearance, the Facebook posts made by the pilot prior to the flight’s departure. He spends his spare moments trawling internet forums and stalking the pilot’s digital footprint. Beneath the thinly veiled techno-messianic belief that facts will redeem the consummate failures of humanity, is the dawning realisation that facts are actually what we cling to in the absence of all certainty.
What belies this preoccupation with facts is the failure of writing itself. For Lacan, the speaking subject is born out of the contradiction of language, that is, if communication were to succeed, we would have no use for it. We are circumstantially forced to use a language that has preceded us to articulate our desires to others and these desires are in turn shaped by the Other’s language. The thousands of Data Centres that populate our deserts are brutalist monuments to our never-ending failure to articulate those desires at 63,000 Google searches per second. The narrative itself is yet another ‘attempt at his attempt of an attempt’ – the greatest novels are those that successfully fail the least in capturing some aspect of the human experience which is perhaps itself a failed recreation of that noumenal realm of platonic forms, which like magic, or grief, rests just beyond our ability to understand it.
Bernard Cripp is quick to dismiss the supernatural: ‘there is no magic, only craft, only logic’. He mentions time and again that Houdini himself proclaimed that magic is the cultivated illusions of technē, that the magicians of his time were nothing but elaborate tricksters whose proficiencies were hidden behind a sleight of hand. Today, the ‘magic’ that constitutes 24/7 capitalism is much harder to comprehend. When we behold the spectacle of our global information system of wireless technologies and the Internet of Things, the spirit of Houdini speaks to us: that the computer is performing an algorithm far beyond our level of comprehension at a speed that we’re incapable of even registering such that its seamless flows of data moving between machines appears before our eyes like an infinite string of silk scarves being pulled from a magician’s hat. Cripp believes that for his wife and daughter to reappear, every problem must have a technological solution; he forms this belief out of psychic necessity given the yet-to-be-fulfilled promise that the whereabouts of his wife and daughter may still be disclosed to him through technological means. He spends several pages delivering a sermon on his hopes that innovation can save humanity from itself, that there would be ‘no more mysteries, no more guesswork, a pure coalescence of biology and technology that would turn us all into all-knowing, all-seeing entities.’ Cripp even fails at his own techno-utopianism because, as anyone who has ever found themselves in conversation with an interlocutor hell-bent on destroying you with Facts and Logic would know, when you believe in your own disbelief hard enough, it begins to take on a religious – dare I say mystical – quality. Cripps cycles through every possible conspiracy concerning the fate of his family because Waypoints is also a novel about our failure to understand and articulate grief – but not strictly the grief of losing loved ones to mysterious circumstances because as we warm our hands against the dumpster-fire of post-enlightenment rationality, every death is its own species of disappearance.
In JG Ballard’s 1978 novel Crash, James Ballard is drawn into an underworld of mechonophilia lead by an eccentric Dr Robert Vaughan, who studies celebrity car crashes in order to replicate them. The novel is concerned with the erotics of technological self-annihilation and the post-humanist death-drive of advertising as a ‘calibrated act of machine fellatio’. Coinciding with the release of David Cronenberg’s film adaptation, Ballard writes in a 1995 introduction to Crash that ‘just as the past, in social and psychological terms, became a casualty of Hiroshima and the nuclear age, so in its turn the future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the all-voracious present. We have annexed the future into the present, as merely one of those manifold alternatives open to us.’ Ballard’s novels influenced Mark Fisher’s writing on hauntology, or, the burial ground of failed utopias that comprise the present moment. Waypoints too is haunted by the spectre of ‘lost futures.’ For Cripp, the only possibility for the future is in live-action role-playing the past, ‘to a time in which a miracle was a machine getting up, up, up into the air as opposed to vanishing completely from it.’ He hopes to ‘touch something, a feeling, a waypoint in a time of wonders and miracles, when history could be made and time did not stand still…’ Today it seems artists are haunted by the poverty of their own imaginations – the most successful of whom are able to compose the most compelling mood-boards from the Pinterest of their hearts. Waypoints reads like a defanged J.G Ballard novel, or a failed Thomas Bernhard text (it is perhaps telling that the protagonist Bernard Cripp is missing the hard ‘h’ that makes Bernhard’s novels so scathing.) What was at least possible for Ballard’s protagonists were insignificant acts of transgression whereas in a cultural moment marked by total permissibility with little possibility, we are not even afforded the capacity to exist through singular moments of self-immolation. That’s not to say that Waypoints itself is a failure. On the contrary, it successfully captures the melancholic dimension of a post-Ballardian world in which we can only persist as spectators to our own inadequacy.
Of all that has been written about the failures of a society that adulates success, not enough has been said about the successes of a society that adulates failure. Freud repeatedly made clear that the goal of psychoanalysis was ‘transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness,’ that the psychoanalytic project succeeds as a breed of failure, and towards the end of his life, he wrote of how the analysand would seek comfort in regressing to old patterns of self-destructive behaviour. Capitalism thrives on our inability to recognise the dissatisfaction we obtain from being satisfied and conversely the satisfaction we obtain from our own dissatisfaction. As Todd Mcgowan puts it, ‘capitalist subjects experience satisfaction itself as dissatisfying, which enables them to simultaneously enjoy themselves and believe wholeheartedly that a more complete satisfaction exists just around the corner, embodied in the newest commodity.’ The point, precisely, is to succeed at failing because only then can the ultimate failure – the insurmountable emptiness of the commodity – remain postponed for some future confrontation.
Waypoints is finally also about the jouissance found in everyday acts of controlled demolition, in our ability to constantly reproduce a state of wilful failure so as to sustain the unfulfilled – and ultimately unfulfillable – promise of future success. Waypoints belongs to a lineage in contemporary literature that Enrique Vila-Matas calls ‘artists of refusal’ or those that operate from ‘the labyrinth of the No’ – from Melville’s Bartleby to Walser’s Jakob Von Guten to Canetti’s Peter Kien – characters that tarry with the contradiction of their own desire towards failure and who intuit that failure may just be part of a broader psychological project towards some kind of negative transcendence. Cripps is incapable of staging the infamous failure of Houdini’s flight because he must continue to ‘prefer not to’ or to fail at failing the failure because it is only when our best laid plans are continually deferred to some imminent waypoint in time that the future can remain possible to us.
J.G Ballard, Crash. Harper Perennial: 2008.
Sean Cubbit, Finite Media. Duke University Press: 2017.
Mark Fisher, Ghosts of my life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and lost futures. Zero Books: 2014.
Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria. Penguin Classics: 2005.
Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: a selection. Routledge: 2005.
Todd McGowan, Capitalism and Desire. Columbia University Press: 2016.
Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby & Co. Harvill Press: 2004.