is the spirit of the age. William comes home, flicks the radio on,
turns it up. His head is full of noise. He likes it that way. He thinks
he does. Someone in another room calls out. A greeting? A demand for
quiet? William answers: 'Hi!'
They live in Sydney,
a mumbling city. William cannot hear what anyone else says, and so
far as he knows, they cannot hear him. Their conversations are like
this: 'Hey, look at that woman's clothes.'
'Look at what?'
'That woman's clothes.'
The city is an endless
conversation with itself, constantly self-asserting. They cannot talk
over it. Whatever they say adds to the noise. The noise level never
diminishes: if some sounds stop for a while, others fill in the gaps.
William hears unrecognisable sounds, deep, echoing, causeless noises,
creaks and groans as if the city were metamorphosing beneath the ground,
melding with the rocks. William pictures the roots of the city in
equilibrium with reservoirs of magma.
The noise: if everyone
in Sydney spoke simultaneously the city would become louder and louder
until the buildings shook and the streets cracked apart. The city
would collapse. Pop. They tell each other they're going deaf: 'Loud
music, traffic, industrial machinery.'
Inside, they assemble
narratives from accumulations of strange events.
'Black marks on the
carpet; fast-moving lights in the night sky; the pyramids of ancient
Sydney is beautiful,
a place people look at and think, 'What's that advertising?' then
realise it's advertising everything. It is a television city -- was
it designed for TV? -- with a big harbour, full of sailboats and ferries
and cargo ships, all with little people waving and pointing towards
the shore. To William, some people are larger than some boats, so
it's the people they watch. They sit down by the harbour and watch
the people. They point at the people on the boats, and the people
In the afternoon the
water is bright and everyone squints. William stretches an arm out
in front, hold his thumb and forefinger parallel, and peers between.
In this manner, William measures the city. Most of the buildings are
as shiny as the water, but all different colours. They have to squint
to look at the buildings too. At sunset, the city lights come on and
reflections jump about on the surface of the water. They can't see
the people any more, but imagining the people still out there, they
When they're tired
of the city, they go home and watch television. They stare at the
city for a while, then run up the stairs and switch on the television:
it's like changing channels. If there's nothing good on, sometimes
they make up their own shows, practising voices, gesturing absurdly,
doing local characters. Otherwise, there's always the radio.
Once during a
radio news program the reporter said: 'This new policy of firing rockets
from light aircraft into densely populated civilian areas has aroused
widespread protest.' William's friends said 'Whoa' and 'Fucking hell',
which they often say watching or listening to the news. Another time,
the news reported a big warehouse fire. When they looked out the window
they could see its flames on the other side of the railway lines,
only two blocks away. They looked from the TV to the window and to
the TV again. They saw the whole side of the building collapse.
Another time, just
down the road, there were all these police standing around, looking
in different directions. William and his friends saw somebody lying
on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance. Police and ambulance lights
were flashing, but there were no sirens. It was quiet. A police officer
told them to keep moving. On the footpath beside the road, one of
them found a wallet which may have belonged to the killer or the victim.
So they said it had, took it home, and put it on the coffee table
next to a New Zealand passport they had found behind the couch. They
much prefer that sort of thing to glossy books of North American birds
and Paris in Autumn. It's real life.
They talk about that
too: 'You know, if the US, Russia and China laid all their nuclear
weapons end to end, they'd form a bridge long enough to walk from
Alaska to Vladivostok.'
'Not advised, eh?'
Or: 'You know what
I read somewhere? "Fast growing moulds are responsible for many previously
'Where'd you read that.'
Sydney is a city of
fanatics: suit-people, God-people, film-people, train-people, food-people,
bird-people, shop-people. The people in William's house wake in the
late morning and walk. They walk into the city, walk down to the harbour,
walk around the wharves, dodge between the traffic, climb the fences,
pick their way over the railway lines, find things, carry them home.
Sydney is a city of the future, like the covers on old comic books,
the metal towers vignetted against the night sky. Shows about the
computer age only talk about robots and amusement park transport:
things that resemble movie special effects. Bullshit, thinks William.
Sydney is much stronger and more resilient than that. Here, bodies
lie slumped over steering wheels. William's friends know you have
to walk right around the wreck to understand the force of the city.
On the bridge over
the railway station late one night, they saw a young man punching
a truck, punching it over and over. There was no sound, just his fist
hitting metal. They walked past, saying nothing and the man didn't
look up. No one else was in the street.
Afterwards, they talked
about it: 'Him hitting that truck.'
They weren't surprised,
though. (They talked about that too.) William stared at the television,
watching some late movie, feeling slightly nauseous.
In the silences, sometimes
William imagines the future as silent. Under gravity, the city's momentum
will falter. The whirring will slowly reveal itself as a rapid, then
less rapid series of clicks, ever further from the click previous.
That this has not happened already defies all logic.
Bernard Cohen 1998