At a glance, the first question Adam Ouston’s Waypoints confronts me with is: does the book justify its formal construction? Page-long sentences make up the unbroken walls of text, daring you to read the whole thing in one sitting, otherwise forcing you to pause mid-thought, mid-unending-paragraph, the book being the product of a monologue by our obsessive hero, Bernard Cripp. Within the initial pages you’ll discover Cripp’s penchant for repetition, his fixations causing him to return again and again to certain things with an OCD-like thoroughness. Luckily, the way Ouston employs these repetitions is legitimately funny, and any sort of formal humor is worth championing, given the scarcity of such a thing. When a fact pops up that is relevant to any of these cycles, it joins future repetitions, the accumulation of facts requiring Cripp to repeat more and more each time, like a game of snake. Ouston has described the book as “Wikipedic,” and it has drawn comparisons to W. G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard. This green reviewer has never read either of those authors, but I found it shares similarities to Benjamín Labatut’s brilliant When We Cease to Understand the World, another tangential-focused work attempting to make sense of modernity; but whereas that book started with big ideas, like the dark side of progress, and zeroed in on specifics, Waypoints starts with esoterically specific facts and expands outwards, like a tree and its branches, to paint a picture of grief; grief as experienced by the truly modern, secular individual.
It begins with the focus on Cripp’s obsession with recreating the (purportedly) first flight on Australian soil by one Harry/Erik/Ehrich Houdini/Weisz/Weiss, AKA the Prince of the Air, a project which is really just a monomaniac solution for distracting himself from the death of his wife and daughter, in which his true obsession is to be found: uncovering the truth about the fate of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, his wife and daughter having been aboard when it disappeared. This morphs and evolves into yet another obsession, one which does much of the philosophical heavy-lifting in the book. Cripp becomes increasingly “optimistic” about future technology’s ability to rid the world of mystery, for us to tap into the bottomless information we have at our fingertips, for our constant recording and surveillance and cataloging and storing to become instantly accessible and illuminating, for us to never have to wonder what really happened (“it was all there, all of history…I’d thought to myself that surely there was enough information out there that it could one day be synthesized in chronological order so that someone could read, in real time, the full history of everything”). Cripp wants omniscience, and speaks of our consciousnesses being connected with supercomputers as a kind of utopia, wherein the immortality of consciousness is the ideal (“some take an overly precious, holier than thou approach to consciousness, but scientists have proven that what we know as thoughts, patterns, processes, a sense of humour, anything that contributes to our overall persona, is pure science, all eminently traceable, observable and, importantly for us, replicable, and therefore not, as many believe, some nebulous, ineffable, God-given magic; there is no magic, only craft, only logic…all of which poses great opportunities for the human race, not just in terms of managing physical illness but also in terms of the quest for immortality, for if we are in agreement that our consciousness is the core of our identity…then all we need do is transfer the computer-generated replica of out mental and emotional processes into another vehicle… in order to eschew the principles of cell decay…and live on for eternity. Couple this with the tracking, surveillance, and data-storage technology we have already, and you get the possibility of being able to animate a being…with the stored information of any one particular consciousness, which is to say that we are not far off being able to bring people back from the dead…”). It’s Nietzsche’s void born of the death of God being filled up by algorithms that suggest YouTube tutorials our brains instantly digest, brains fit with implants that “enhance our cognitive abilities…rather than functioning as a replica of the mind this technology would improve the performance of any given mind via a brain-computer interface which could…connect your brain to the internet…and that would mean access to untold information, a super brain capable of infinite knowledge…the crowning glory of all the technological developments made throughout the twentieth century, one that could launch us headlong into the future armed with every ounce of knowledge ever generated by the human race; undoubtedly the ethics will be a nightmare”; while the Earth is filled with servers, entire mined mountains plugged back up with information, the modern gold. It’s a vision of the future that, to any sane reader, appears not utopian but borderline dystopian, and it’s a major highlight of the book to have this future, which is very possibly our future (as some of it is really happening) – old mines filled up with servers and digital storage, transhumanism, biodigital convergence being explored – be presented hopefully and excitedly from the perspective of a traumatized, broken man (“…Harry (Houdini) wanted knowledge, but he was not democratic with it…for he was very well aware that if you control knowledge you control mystery, and without mystery one could say goodbye to bums on seats… they would simply clasp their hands over their stomachs, lean back and say, ‘Ah, well that makes sense then,’ and this would be the death of mystery, the death of wonder, a double-edge sword, but one that I, Arthur Bernard Cripp (Bernard to those who know me) would happily wield, come what may!, for I would happily put all awe and wonder to bed for the sake of complete knowledge – give me the apple and I’ll take a whopping bite out of it…with open arms I ran towards the age of absolute knowing, I’d have us fill up every underground tunnel, every old mine, every cave, every hidden source of water, pack them full of blinking servers, racks and racks of hard drives, ship them out to the desert in a never-ending convoy of roadtrains…wonder be damned, for as long as there was hope that we were on the brink of the age of knowing, I could forestall to some degree the anxiety of not knowing…”). This anti-mystery stance, this desire for information and all it implies, “the great debunking,” the removal of all ignorance about everything as the goal of society, is hoped for because it means that one day, Bernard Cripp might know what actually did happen on that flight, know every last detail of what happened to his family as that plane went down (“…a pure coalescence of biology and technology what would turn us into all-knowing, all-seeing entities; it would be the end of wars, of prejudice, of all sorts of binary thought processes that lead to suffering. What’s more, we would know the fate of that flight”). This loss is the emotional core of the book, a black hole that every tangent and fact orbits around. It’s very moving, and without it, Cripp’s mysteryless future appears clinically terrifying. Science killed God, but with that, meaning – the more we explain the less it all means – but for Cripp, science itself is the new religion, complete with its own form of salvation; which is the only way a man could be driven to embrace this cyborg horrorshow because “if we can’t know absolutely everything what point is there in knowing anything at all? surely it’s worse, ie. more painful, to know only part of the picture – indeed it is, I can tell you”. His optimism is bitterness in disguise, and a kind of psychological layering is achieved, where the ideas Cripp is communicating are not the same ones Ouston is.
Ouston’s main subjects – the flights being just two of many, too many to elucidate here (for example, everything discussed in the previous paragraph is also related to and influenced by Bernard’s father having dementia, this medical issue being the reason Bernard took over the family business, a circus, in which his wife was a trapeze artist (another connection to flight), etc., etc..) – not only constitute the foundation for the book and carry the themes but also serve as a springboard for all the many digressions and tangents, the branches. Despite this plethora, swirling around itself, and despite no chapters or even breaks in the text, the book surprisingly progresses in distinct sections. At about page 50, the focus is shifted from introducing the Houdini recreation to flight MH370, which is arguably the most engrossing stretch of the novel. Near the end of this narrative within the narrative, the discovery of the first piece of MH370, a part of the wing, is recounted, wherein one of the book’s most compelling ideas is to be found. As anyone who has ever talked with me about art knows, I frequently decry the pedestal subjectivity is put on – that “all art is subjective,” or worse, that everything is, thus all opinions and interpretations are equalized. But here, with this piece of scrap metal, we see the true power of subjectivity at work: for Cripp, this piece of MH370 is the most valuable thing in the world, because for him, some closure is found in it, and a large chunk of the mystery is demystified (“to say it was worth all the riches on the planet doesn’t even really come close”). And then there is me, the reader, and the subjectivity involved in my valuing this idea over most of the others within the novel, both on the surface and those waiting to be excavated. This is but one example of the complexity at work within Waypoints’ pages (an idea emphasized again via explorer David Wynford Carnegie discovering water on the brink of death in the desert (though he would later find himself in this same position and not be so lucky) – speaking of the water, “not even the King of Metals could ever hope to shine with such lustre or be of such incredible value”), and the poignancy Ouston infuses them with. And that doesn’t end with the ideas and themes themselves, or the psychology of his character Bernard Cripp, and how these things work to support its formalism; thorough thought has been given to all details, impressively reflected in the time period(s) central to Ouston’s work. Houdini’s flight marks the beginning of a new era, of modernism – including rapid changes in technology, such as flight and large shifts in art and entertainment, such as cinema (which, of course, displaced vaudeville, ending Houdini’s world – a main reason why he is trying to set flight records in the first place). This is an intentional and important symmetry to the future Cripp espouses in the book’s final stretch.
Another idea, one that is returned to throughout the book, is that of people scribbling down letters and notes in the face of imminent death – as a plane crashes (“…with enough time for passengers to acknowledge what’s happening to them…they scramble about for pen and paper and commit their deepest feelings and thoughts to the page”), as one dies dehydrated and starving in the desert (“though not before, as Carnegie reminds us, writing with “dying fingers”…messages for those who would be left to mourn them…to impart a sense of the love they felt, the love that might redeem the situation, the only thing that could hope to redeem the situation”), an act we’re told is “a testament to impossible hope that reveals to us something about writing itself…and that is this: it is a form of communications that refuses to acknowledge the boundary between the living and the dead,” and it’s possible to draw a parallel to this and the purpose of Cripp’s monologue. Looked at this way, the outpouring of long sentences, the urgency, the simple prose, is all linked to the mental state of Bernard Cripp. We are entirely inside the subjectivity of this character, entirely in his world, the world of a character who at no point claims to be a writer, but rather is writing in a sort of act of desperation, out of pure intuition that he is “getting close to something,” to “keep riding the dark wave until it breaks,” to “cut through something…to achieve something like an explanation”, and likens the book to “a message in a bottle perhaps.” The reasons for this are numerous, like how he’d give anything to have communication like this from his wife, the kind Carnegie’s cousin was graced with when he found the explorer’s diary among his remains, “demystifying their final days, explaining what went wrong.” a “voice from beyond the grave… telling them that everything’s okay.” Not least of all, there’s the simple fact that Cripp might very literally die in a plane crash, that he might be orchestrating this crash for himself as he gets closer to the Houdini event, that the plane could even be going down in the moment of his writing. And being inside Cripp’s subjectivity creates a validation for much of what one may criticize the book for stylistically, for matters of taste; namely most of what is described above, and small things like the repeated use of the word “bizarre” to describe anything that is in fact, well, bizarre. I am by no means suggesting this validation of the chosen prose style creates any obligation to like it, but it’s a far cry from ineptitude, or worthy of dismissal for lacking a diverse vocabulary. Still, the fact we are inside the mind of Bernard Cripp is obvious, and whether or not its formalism is justified as I initially posited is ultimately going to hinge on the quality of its many ideas. At this point in the review, it should be no secret that I believe the book to be a success, that its form is justified, and even if it wasn’t, the sheer amount of delightfully idiosyncratic facts and ideas do sustain it. Because that’s the true gift of this book: it covers so much ground that different parts will resonate with different people. Nevertheless, one task of a writer who takes the reader down very specific tangents and has many stretches of narrow focus is to make the reader interested in the material; although of course the reader is implicated here and should make an effort to uncover what the book holds for them, the craft should propel them the rest of the way. Moby-Dick is perhaps the best example. Labatut surely succeeds at this, but his tangents, while often esoteric, relate to larger questions we all ask of ourselves and the universe. Ouston, although evidently reaching for this often as well, deals in a Melvillian specificity relating to things like aviation, which will be new to most readers. Lacking (understandably) Melville’s gift of descriptive powers and, frankly, of prose (albeit intentionally), not having even an inkling of curiosity in what Ouston indulges in will likely derail significant sections of the novel for you – and should you put the effort in to try and unlock its gifts, I must unfortunately report you will not find enough to sustain you otherwise. This book, despite appearances, is not difficult, and the simplicity of the prose allows the unbroken walls of text to be digested more easily even if they also threaten to render the construction as novelty. This book is not for the incurious, or more kindly put, anyone who has successfully rid themselves of any habits of procrastination, but it is very much the sum of its parts.
With that small speculative criticism out of the way, I can say with confidence that Waypoints is, in fact, very good. How many books (or art in general) truly attempt to grapple with our Godless digital era? Or our sci-fi future, which is swiftly doing away with “fiction”? And how many attempt to confront death and grief with religion loosening its hold on the West? I’d venture to say that with these being the primary themes of our times, not nearly enough, at least not well; but even so, Waypoints is refreshing for attempting to stare all of this down, and much more, in a mere 180 pages.
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Matthew Taylor Blais is a filmmaker currently based in Vancouver, Canada. Learn more at Sital Cinema.