by Adam Ouston
Over the past year I’ve struck on a new landscape. It is dark. Its features do not change. You are careful. You walk through it with your hands out. And you are in a constant state of déjà vu. Until recently I could fall asleep on a handrail. Anywhere. Anytime. And deeply like a distant cousin of the dead. There was the odd hiccup—those nights we all have from time to time—but on the whole insomnia was no more than a horror movie trope.
These days I can’t go a week without at least a night of sleeplessness. Welcome to the zero landscape. And it is a zero landscape not only because of the darkness and the silence and the ringing ears and the fact that you might as well be the last living thing on Earth, but because the mind—my mind, at least—becomes trapped in a perpetual loop. I’ve seen this place before. Songs go round and round. (I’ve had the new Future Islands offering on repeat in my head for the last month or more.) The fridge kicks in and out. A loved one rolls over. You talk to yourself in the same voice, dishing out the same advice. Get up. Read. Do some work. Watch a film. Sex. Sex. Sex. Sex. Sex (a la Faithless’s ‘Insomnia’: ‘Tearing off tights with my teeth’). After half-a-dozen episodes of this same show, featuring the same lines from the same players, night after night, singing out the punch lines before they happen, you grow excruciatingly bored and irritated. And come sunrise you feel like your veins have turned to sand. The interminable departure lounge of the soul. It’s knowing what to expect that makes it insufferable. The fact that there can be no surprises. It is as it was as it will be. The stuff of nightmares. Minus the somnolence. The Minotaur’s labyrinth. And so you flick on the light and read until you get that long-haul critical mass in which you can absorb no more and you cannot talk or listen or watch or nod off and so you simply exist like a lost cosmonaut. Maybe it’s a courage thing (or lack of it). Montaigne gives us the three great sleepers of all time: Alexander the Great, the Emperor Otho, and Cato the Younger, each of whom, right before significant battles (the latter before his own suicide), had to be woken by their friends. The only battles I wage are against the vast expanses of blank pages in front of me, and even then it’s just a lot of sighing and fist shaking. Is sleeplessness the fate of the lily-livered? The uptight worry-warts? The afeared? What is to be done? In a chat I had with Robert Dessaix recently, he said this: the thing about islands is that they force you to expand your inner world. Otherwise, he said, you’d go mad and you’d asphyxiate yourself. He was talking about Tasmania. But he might also have been talking about another remote territory: insomnia. That marginal landscape. And the thing about marginal landscapes is that you get to invent your own rules. You get to invent. You get to invert. You have to because the established rules don’t work here. The values are different. There aren’t the distractions. The voices that come to you by night are not the same as those that come to you by day. You’re half-in half-out of existence, after all. They have a deeper timbre. They are the voices you do not want to hear, the voices you shut-up by day, sequester. But they are the voices of your inner world, not the white noise of your daytime life. The slogan life. They are the voices that will not be assuaged by sunshine or money or acquisitions or power. The voices that will keep coming. To listen, then, to remember, to drag them out, blinking, into the light. This is why you lie awake, or walk, stumbling through your dark island, touching things to know their limits. To expand your inner world. To bifurcate. Kaleidoscope. To transport these voices across. To write by them, the blackness against the vast white. Suddenly it seems more courageous to stay awake and not drift off in those moments before battle. Suddenly it seems more courageous to sit with the giant and hear the giant’s voice. Better to retain your insomniac speak, your lingua franca, with its weird intonations and strange ways. The colossal midnight man with an invisible face. The sand in your veins dredged up from the beaches: the grapes of terra incognita. Sure, you feel like shit but there’s an upside. It is the sediment of your nightvoice. The hangover. An echo from the pit, where you come from.
Adam Ouston is a writer, academic and musician working in Hobart. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Island, Voiceworks, Islet Online and The Review of Australian Fiction. He has recently completed a PhD on mortality and identity in the travel writings of Robert Dessaix. He is the vocalist for the band All Fires and tries to maintain a blog at Adam Ouston.