Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
0001: They dragged The Absurdist Prince out into the wilderness between the train tracks and the lake, where they analysed him to death. That was the word on the street, at least. Now, standing in the place where he died, you can almost hear him as “thrumthrum elephant” is taken to mean something about the marginalized voices of animals in the conversation about their own gradual extinction. You feel sick. You fight off the need to vomit, and instead decide to look around for any clues the NIU might have missed.
0037: There’s sixty cents on the ground nearby. All the objects that floated around the Prince were gathered up as evidence. You recall the oboe, the pineapple, the googly-eyed rock he kept about him like a pet – all locked up now in an evidence room. Because of the random telekinesis, no one spent a lot of time with him, so no one really knew what was there. Sixty cents, though, might just be random enough, especially this far out in the wilderness, to have been in his orbit when he died. But what does it mean?
0012: What’s that, up in that tree?
0013: His hat! He didn’t wear it on his head, but it floated around him like a father’s belt on a make-believing son.
0014: It doesn’t seem all that odd that he wrote the words SNARE DRUM all over his hat in thick black letters. That sort of thing was his deal. You’d think nothing of it, if you hadn’t heard rumours of a vicious gang known as the Rhythm Section slowly gaining traction in the area. Coincidence? Maybe.
0023: Okay, that does it. How did they overlook the 4/4 carved into this tree? The chief needs to hear about this. His house isn’t far. He doesn’t like being bothered on Sundays but, hell, this is important! (Go to: 12 Seagull Way)
0041: He isn’t home. This is rather inconvenient. It occurs to you, however, that maybe the chief doesn’t need to know about what you’re doing. Maybe you should do some of your own investigating. You decide to return to the place where The Absurdist Prince was murdered.
0010: They dragged The Absurdist Prince out into the wilderness between the train tracks and the lake, where they analysed him to death. That was the word on the street, at least…
I think I’m stuck in a loop.
Ok, tell me where you went.
When asked by a reporter – an intern, really – whom he would later punch in the face on two separate occasions, Thomas was able to pinpoint a specific moment when the idea came to him. The truth, however, was that it was with him, albeit without words or shape, in many moments of his life leading up to that night. In bars and car parks, in beer and in boredom.
It was in him as he stood on a small stage in his friend Emily’s backyard, surrounded by friends and channelling JFK.
“And so,” he yelled as he held out the microphone to the crowd, inviting them to join in. “My fellow Americans!” Even the people who thought his choice was too much of a cliché joined in. It was a cliché because they knew the words. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can for your country!”
Nobody was really sure which came first: the portmanteau of oratory and karaoke, or the idea to base a party around such a combination. In either case, Emily had raised her head from the desk during the final class of the year, shouted the word like it was bingo, and then put her head back down. Thus Oratoraoke had come into being – loudly and in need of further explanation.
“My fellow citizens of the world!” Finally feeling included in the proceedings, suburban Australia applauded for their impersonation-in-chief. It was at this moment when Thomas caught the eye of a girl in the crowd. Not quite Jackie O, but with the same cool admiration for the man with the microphone. This is when he wanted it all to be true. “Ask not what America will do for you, but what we together can do for the freedom of mankind.”
When he finished, Thomas stepped down from the stage and accepted a shot of something from Cameron, as applause washed over him like a chaser. Someone in a Nixon mask extended his hand to congratulate him, before pulling away at the last moment – ever the sore loser, even at parties. For a few minutes he was all executive power and Boston Irish charisma, and then it was all over so suddenly: Washington to Dallas in a heartbeat. The attention of the crowd was soon focused on a fellow classmate named Hannah, dressed like a hooker and delivering Aragorn’s speech from in front of the Black Gate. The delivery was spot-on, except she replaced ‘men’ with ‘women’ whenever the word came up.
“I bid you stand, Women of the West!” she screamed. Riotous applause, and someone shouted “For Frodo!” but Thomas stood at the back, trying to appreciate the brilliance of the commentary. Instead he had spent the whole time trying to figure out a way to explain to Cameron, now quite drunk after earlier doing his best Billy Bob Thornton from Friday Night Lights, what he was feeling. He didn’t quite get there.
The idea was in him, almost on him at this point, later that night when the conversation at the party inevitably turned to what everyone would be doing next year. Cameron told everyone about a job he had lined up with a marketing firm. Cedric and Li were going to study law. Emily had gotten a journalism internship through her father, who owned the newspaper. May, no longer looking at Thomas like the First Lady, and who was the only one whose response Thomas actually wanted to hear, muttered something barely audible. When it was Thomas’ turn, he thought he sounded like someone who had gotten stoned before a pitch meeting.
“Well, I’ve been working on this location-based hypertext noir adventure… thing,” he told the circle of people. Having never explained it to anyone, except Cameron who was helping him with the app design, he wasn’t really sure what to say. “Like, you start at a location, where you find a number hidden somewhere. Then you take out your phone, put the number into the app, and it tells you part of the story. Then it might tell you to go somewhere else, where you’ll look for another number. Or you might get a choice between going one place, or another. And it records which numbers you’ve already put in, so, say 0033 will read differently if you’ve already entered 0032, than it will if you haven’t.”
There was a moment of silence before anyone said anything. Eventually Cameron spoke up. “It’s still in the beta-testing phase.”
“And are you planning to make money off this?” Emily asked. “Subscription fees? Charging people for the app?”
“No, I just… thought it might be fun. Make the place I live more exciting for people.”
More silence. Then, “I think it sounds great,” said May. “I’ll even help you test it, if you want. But,” she paused to consider what she was about to say, “are people going to, like, get it? I mean, the place you live isn’t exactly known for its… culture. It might work in Melbourne, or across the university campus, but the outer suburbs of Perth? Are you going to explain over fifty years of game, film and narrative theory before they start?”
He didn’t know how to respond to this. His attitude had always simply been ‘if you build it, they will come,’ until now.
“Just, don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work out.”
For the second time that night, he wished he had something real to tell her. He wanted to tell her that the idea was taking the suburbs by storm, or that some developers from Silicon Valley were interested in it. He would have even settled for being able to say he’d also gotten a job interview somewhere, but there was nothing. This was the closest he had come, before the night when his ambition and frustration became an actual string of words, to telling someone that he was also possibly interested in getting involved in local government, but it felt too much like a 5 year-old saying he wants to be a fireman when he grows up.
“I know,” he said, smiling. “I won’t.”
It was November, the summer of 2012, of Monsters and Men and Macklemore. Cameron was closely following the rise and fall and rise and fall of Mitt Romney, while Thomas worked on his simulacrum – his sub-suburb. He had taken down all of his posters – Jay-Z, Christina Hendricks, Batman – and covered the walls in maps and sticky notes. He wrote sub-plots within sub-plots within alleyways, obscure characters that could only be encountered with a very specific series of numbers, and toyed with the idea of adding an inventory system.
“Now we’re getting beyond my skill level,” Cameron told him. “If you want fancy shit like that you’re going to have to hire a pro.” In the three weeks since finishing his degree (the day before Oratoraoke) and starting his job, Cameron spent most of his time at Thomas’ house. There he could get high and watch the American 24-hour news networks – activities not available to him at his own parents’ house. Despite also living with his parents, Thomas was not exactly subject to any real parenting the way Cameron was. Where Cameron’s actions at home were still very much controlled by restrictions and negotiations, the Moss household was governed by the far more subtle means of awkwardness and communicative action. If caught smoking weed, his mother would merely ask how often he did it, and why, and the awkwardness involved would be enough to ensure would not get caught again.
Paul Ryan, the uneducated man’s educated man, was on screen talking about numbers that were too complicated to be talked about, when Thomas broached the subject of how much spare time Cameron would have once he started his new job.
“I don’t really know,” he said in reply. “I don’t even really know what they expect of me, so we’ll have to wait and see. But I guess that isn’t even really the truth. The answer is, probably not. But maybe you could learn to do the app stuff yourself. It isn’t really that hard.”
“Yeah, I guess I should.” He had very little interest in learning web design, despite the fact that that was the one skill anybody hired a Communications major for. He liked to reassure himself with the example of Steve Jobs not knowing anything about coding, but the similarities fell apart pretty quickly.
They would normally spend most of the day in front of the TV, alternating between CNN, FOX and the Cartoon Network, Thomas half paying attention to Cameron’s three quarters. The hypertext adventure, now given the name of Suburbs Beyond Suburbs (with all apologies to the Arcade Fire), was now almost completely written and mapped out, but not yet online. As a result, Thomas had inadvertently, perhaps almost by osmosis, become more aware of what was happening in his real community. So much so that he noticed an ad for a vacancy at the local council. Looking up from his laptop, interrupting an important speech on TV, he said to Cameron, “Cultural Development Officer.”
“Huh?” he responded.
“There’s a job opening with the local council. Cultural Development Officer.”
“And what does that mean?”
“No idea. But it sounds like me, doesn’t it?”
He spent the next day misremembering the past well enough to put together what he thought was a decent resume and cover letter. Going to bad movies and good bars made him “culturally engaged” and his Bachelor of Arts made him “ready for the challenges of public service.” He even cited Suburbs Beyond Suburbs as an example of taking initiative to improve the reputation of the town, believing that such a fresh, experimental idea would make him the clear choice for the job. He finally clicked ‘submit application’ at 3am on a Friday morning. Immediately after doing so, he realized that being that guy who is up at this hour, looking desperately for a job, was not a good look. He hoped the applications weren’t time coded, but knew they probably were.
The rejection came through, via e-mail, two weeks later on a Friday morning. It sat in his inbox for three hours before waking at midday and opening his computer. No interview, no follow-up, no feedback, just “we are sorry to inform you blah blah blah.”
If he hadn’t been so frustrated at that moment, the images on the TV wouldn’t have had such an effect on him. For the rest of the day, while Cameron was finishing his first week at work, he thought a lot about Mitt Romney. He seemed now, after his defeat, like the least powerful man in the world: almost on par with Thomas despite his millions of dollars. But at the beginning he seemed sure of himself, in an inept sort of way. Like he only needed his own support to become President, but he didn’t always have it 100%. This was the moment he described to the reporter. Surely most public figures could trace a line in their lives from wanting to give a convincing JFK performance, to wanting to impress a single person in a large crowd, to wanting to make the place they live a better place, right through to realizing that the best jobs are the ones no one has to offer you. He left most of that off the record, simply stating that “there was this guy who ran for office and almost won, despite the fact that no one really liked him. He did it because he could. Like the campaign would boost his self-esteem, and his self-esteem would boost the campaign. I don’t know.” The reporter didn’t tape the interview, and the quote became something else later.
When Cameron showed up after work they soon conceded defeat to an empty fridge and decided to go to the only bar in town. Thomas now had an actual idea to propose, but he made smaller talk for the first beers.
“So, Corporate Cam. Taking the business world by storm?”
Cameron laughed. “Yeah, something like that. It’s kind of strange though, this business world.”
“I don’t know. They talk about social media like they can sell you shit while being your friend. The internet’s just going to be one big business lunch when they’re done. They’ve got me working on this campaign – heavily supervised of course – for a housing development out in the hills. So they talk like they’re already your neighbour, welcoming you with muffins and letting you know that if you ever need anything they’re just next door.” He took a long sip of beer. “I guess I need to stop saying ‘they’. I’m the one driving the welcome wagon now. Or at least in the passenger seat, waving stupidly.”
“But you’re going to stick with it?”
“Yeah. If I do the knucklehead Facebook stalker stuff for a while then maybe I can get out and do something better.”
“Yeah, maybe. And anyway, there’s this really nice girl at work that-“
“What if we ran for mayor?”
“-I think might be into… wait. What?”
“I think we should run for Mayor.”
It took a few moments of scrutiny, and half of his pint, to make out whether Thomas was serious. He finished the beer, looked his best friend in the eye, and asked, “We?”
“Well, me. But you’ll be campaign manager.”
“Why can’t I run?”
“Because I said it first.”
Olivia had been expecting sleep to take her like the CIA. She thought she’d walk into the dark, empty house, ask aloud if anyone was there, and then all of a sudden be grabbed, softly tied up and detained in some secret serene facility without any notice. And then she’d wake up in a black room, God knows how long later, and still not be allowed to leave. This is what she had expected, after over 48 hours of flights and airports and taxis, all without a wink of sleep. Instead she just laid there in her parents’ bed, wide awake. The bed had been unmade for over a year, like each night it hoped for a resident to return. It was the most comfortable bed she had ever laid down in, but that didn’t make for a good night’s sleep.
The clock radio was flashing – 12:00 12:00 12:00 – as was to be expected. A year without a blackout was an absurd prospect, but she couldn’t set it to the correct time. She’d left her watch behind somewhere in Alaska, had her laptop stolen on the Trans-Siberian Railway, lost her mobile phone in Mexico, and lost various other cheap phones in various other cheap locations. This had made for a particularly hectic trip home, constantly having to ask sleepy travellers and overly-friendly airline staff if they knew the time. As a result, there was nothing in the house to tell her what time it was. The microwave and the oven were both flashing 12:00, and her parents, in an act of cultural martyrdom, had refused to own a TV. So she tried ignoring the blinking of the rigid red numbers on the clock and closing her eyes. When this didn’t work, she left her parents’ room and went down to her own room, with the tiny single bed she had nightly grown taller in. Like the rest of the house, it was exactly the same as she’d left it. Well, almost. Had there always been so many photos? And was Marilyn’s face always so ridiculous in that poster?
This bed, at least, gave her what felt like a few hours sleep. When she woke, still unaware of the time, the sun was up. It shone through the window like it had in years past, still seeming to suggest that she’d better get up or she’d be late. However, having nothing scheduled until her birthday, seven months from now, she decided she could stay in bed for a bit longer. Once again, she expected her body to cooperate, to give her over to nocturnal captors, but she was once again disappointed. More cramped than in the other bed, but just as awake as it had made her, she gave up on the idea and went walking around the house.
Before leaving, last November, she had given her aunt and uncle strict instructions: take anything that won’t keep, leave everything else exactly how it is. This was a good decision, she knew, but the unintended consequence was that it meant there was no food, or coffee, in the place. This was currently not a problem, but she knew it soon would be. There was a small can of tuna in the back of a cupboard, still boasting an expiry date in the future, but this would not be enough.
The impetus for finally leaving the house for the shopping centre was not hunger or a need for caffeine. After spending an hour on the couch, trying to imagine what to do next, she remembered what she used to do before she’d gone off to see the world. She choked back some tears, after remembering the ways in which she used to escaped her surroundings, and how she had utilized them far too often. “Olivia!” her father yelled from the kitchen, in a time with a smaller world, and Olivia ignored him. She had always been somewhere else, even before leaving. Deciding not to cry today, she grabbed her wallet and keys and began the walk to the shops. She needed a computer in her life again.
There was a guy in Bushwick who said the rent in Williamsburg was getting cheaper, but that it still wasn’t worth it. Olivia called him a faggot and told him to suck her dick. What did he know? Bushwick! Then there were cats. Just from somewhere, like they were born into pixels and hanging out in .gif form since before the internet. They were the chicken and the egg – the web and cat gifs. Then that faggot in Bushwick told her that she’s actually a girl. “SO AM I” Olivia smash-typed, and soon found that all the cats everywhere had all been looked at, giggled at and upvoted. Just when she thought that the whole thing was over, the world restructuring around a new technology and its native fauna, on the verge of going to the pet store via the camera store, she discovered (or rediscovered) the joys of auto-tuning everything. The auto-tuned news made more sense than the real news, like photo-shopped images showing the world more accurately than your eyes. The rent really was too damn high! But that chick in Bushwick is still a faggot. Then the auto-tuned news gave way to the real news, and she found that same-sex couples in Massachusetts could now get married. She listened to Same Love three times while becoming embroiled in a debate over whether some faggot’s photo of a sloth playing with a kitten was a repost. Totally fucking was. She fell asleep for a little bit because of a three-window combination of soft jazz, looped rain sounds and a three-hour fireplace video. Then coffee and an attempt to reblog everything, through her page: Ell Ation and the Infinite Joy. In the hours or minutes or days since she last checked, more cats had been brought forth from their digital homeworld for her enjoyment. This one was even friends with an astronaut! She told people who did not listen that she was so happy that the gay couple she’d met in Boston (Ed & Jerry? Jed & Harry? Fuck it.) could finally get married. They were just so perfect for each other. They’d met on Grindr and been logged out ever since. She wondered if there was a Grindr for straight people yet. Fuck. There was. She didn’t sign up, but she did find a whole bunch of creepy messages people had received and screen-capped. Turned out creep-shaming was a thing. Then it turned out men’s rights were a thing. Lol, Olivia thought. Faggots. She started falling asleep and streaming dreams online. She’d skip the ads for airlines and energy drinks and lucidly watch as someone in thick black glasses talked about her life into a webcam. “What ever happened to that guy in Tampa? What was he, like, a strip club owner? Very sweet though.” She squinted at the bookshelf behind the dream-vlogger, trying to get a bearing on what kind of person was getting thousands of subscribers to her subconscious. Then she realized she didn’t remember the names of any books. She commented on the dream, asking what the big, red hardcover on the left was, but she was marked as spam and repeatedly told about things people had done to her mother.
When she woke up or came to or whatever she had a shower for the first time since coming back to her parents’ house. She still thought of it as her parents’ house, even though it was technically hers now. She considered demolishing it, as she sat for too long on the floor in the shower. But then what? There wasn’t enough money to rebuild. The thought of leaving didn’t occur to her until several months later. She dried off and sat naked in front of her new laptop once again. She gave micro-loans to villages in South America and signed petitions at Whitehouse.gov. She read about the plight of women in India and in Mali until she felt like she lived on a separate planet. She gave to women’s charities after remembering her long unused Paypal password. Then again in half-dreams she lived everywhere: paying rent in Williamsburg, attending weddings and bachelor parties in Boston and Tampa, fighting rapists in the third world like Batgirl sans the Bat-Patriarchy. She became the dream-vlogger, donning those glasses to combat her now blurry vision and enjoying the physicality of the books behind her. “Internet’s over, guys. Bail out now,” she told her subscribers, and they all did. Soon she was the only person online, while everyone else retreated to journals and radios. They sometimes came and knocked on her door and peeked through her windows, but they couldn’t see her at light speed. Then some faggot in Bushwick told her the rent in Williamsburg was getting cheaper, but it still wasn’t worth it. Time and space snuck up on her and slapped her mischievously on the back of the head. She closed the computer, stood up, and let it fall to the ground.
She swore loudly, her voice sounding foreign. All of a sudden her stomach was the only thing in existence, and she was hungrier than she had ever been. Making herself look like someone who sometimes goes outside, Olivia left her house for the second time. The street outside was amazing, despite having tried for so long to get away from it. She laid down on the grass in the twilight, the smell of bore water and a nearby barbecue taking her back to summers when her parents were a buffer between her and the real world. But now that threshold, that front door where wolves scratched and waters rose, was hers. She cried for the first time since Tampa, not worrying about joggers, dog walkers and street drinkers. Olivia Chau, orphan and home-owner, had every right to cry on her front lawn. More importantly, when she had finished and pulled herself up, she had enough money for a family-sized pizza. “So you don’t starve if anything happens to us,” her mother had said, on the only occasion they ever spoke about the insurance policy.
The kid at the pizza shop was the same one as before, except older now and with half a bad moustache. She waited in the shop’s garlic ambiance, now levelled out and trying to be in a place. She had been to many places, and to places between places, but always on her way to somewhere else. New York via Boston was not the same as either New York or Boston. But now there was Perth, only Perth. A pizza place with bad furniture but a decent Supreme. A life to start again. Her friends would not want to see her now. After her parents died she was not the best person to be around. This was to be expected of course, and her friends still tried to support her when she pushed them away. The reason they would not want to speak to her now is the giant fuck you and the sudden disappearance. She remembered now that she had not exactly lost her phone in Mexico, rather thrown it into the Pacific to stop the concerned messages and angry calls. That was when never coming home seemed like a viable option. If Natalie still lived in the same place Olivia would go visit her in the next few days. At least in person she could take some of the punches she probably deserved. It felt good, in the small way that the best things felt good, to have made a plan. She wanted suddenly to make more.
“Family Supreme!” the moustachioed pizza child yelled at her. She was unsure if he would remember her. He surely once knew her as the Asian girl who always paid in an assortment of gold coins, and there was still a slight glimmer of recognition in his eye. Perhaps this was a default glimmer, natural to all local businesses and their employees, or perhaps it was genuine. Either way, she thanked him, threw a $20 note in the tip jar and began to leave. On her way out, however, she noticed something on the pin-up board used to promote community events and causes.
MOSS 2013 – it said, in ridiculously-chosen Comic Sans. And below: My name is Thomas Moss, and I’m running for Mayor. I may be young and inexperienced, but I believe that together we can make our community grow. There was a photo of a guy who looked like he’d never worn a tie before that moment. His hair screamed occasional showers and all-day breakfast. His eyes said: I don’t actually know if this is a joke or not.
She cringed at the font and the clunky wording, but in her head she made another plan.
“And that is why,” said Thomas Moss, into the microphone, “I am running for Mayor of this fine city. To show that the waters of public participation are not that deep, and they are quite warm.”
Olivia, one of three people in the auditorium, cringed again. Not only did this guy need her vote, he needed her help.
In his best and only suit, all blue and white and mature, he felt increasingly absurd with each sentence he spoke to the non-existent crowd. In the two weeks since telling Cameron what he wanted to do they had not actually done much. After Cameron had taken a few days to think about it, finally agreeing to manage the campaign on the condition that it didn’t interfere with his real job, they sat down for their first strategy meeting in a bar far away from their constituency.
“So what do we do now?” Cameron had asked.
“I don’t know. You’re in charge.” The rest of the meeting was spent discussing ideas they thought would be really cool, but none that would help them right at the beginning. Finally, after six or seven beers and much insistence that “okay, focus, we need to be serious now” they decided to go “old school” – as Thomas put it – with posters and an official announcement.
Olivia, acting independently, had made t-shirts.
“The mayor is in a unique position in the community. Not just to be a bureaucrat, but to be a true leader. To be a guiding light, a public presence. But when was the last time anyone saw the Honourable Mr. Lipski? I can’t personally remember ever seeing him at a community event. So I say we end this reign of absenteeism, and take a chance on someone who will not just be a Mayor, but also a friend. My name is Thomas Moss, and I am officially announcing my candidacy for Mayor.”
Two of the three people in the audience applauded. One was Cameron, while simultaneously operating the video camera, and the other was Olivia. The third member, a middle-aged man in a tracksuit, stood up and left, never to be seen at another campaign event.
“Cam, this is fucking ridiculous,” he said, still speaking into the microphone, and walked quickly out the nearby stage door to the car park.
“Thomas, wait!” He ran after him, leaving Olivia alone in the auditorium with what looked like an expensive video camera. She briefly, almost sarcastically, considered stealing it. Then she thought of something better.
In the car park Cameron caught up to his friend, now sitting on a curb and looking like his ‘hero’ Mitt. “I don’t really know what I was expecting, Cam,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t going to start off with chants of Yes We Can and girls throwing their underwear at me, but I thought maybe it’d be a little better. At best, we could have had some novelty appeal. Anyway, I’m sorry I talked you into this.”
“It’s okay,” Cam said. They sat in silence, for a few moments before Cameron spoke again. “So, are you actually serious about this? Like, are we trying to win here?”
“I don’t even know. I don’t mind not winning, I guess. It’d just be a victory to get even a little support. Make it an exciting ride.”
“Okay, well in that case, this didn’t go so badly. I didn’t want to tell you this earlier, but it’s actually better if no one shows up at the start.”
“Because now you’re a complete outsider. If you had support from the beginning you’d have no underdog cred. But now you’re a guy literally talking to an empty room, so we can really paint you as a maverick. You are, and I say this with love and respect, so grassroots that you’re actually just dirt.”
Thomas laughed. “Dirt, huh?”
“Yep. And I got the whole thing on video, with some great shots of the audience. So now we put the whole thing on YouTube and really start to build the kind of following that will listen to you. Come on, let’s go back inside and watch the tape.” At this moment he realized he had left the camera with that one girl who looked slightly odd. He panicked and ran back inside, just as he heard the front door close. The camera was still there, as was the tape, thankfully.
“Did you know that girl who was here?” Thomas asked.
“I think maybe I’ve seen her around before, but I’m not sure. I didn’t invite her though. She must have seen one of the posters.”