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Monday, October 3, 2022

Bon and Lesley by Shaun Prescott review – the end of the world from small town Australia | Fiction

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After the critical success of his first novel The Town, Shaun Prescott is revisiting some of the same territory in his second. The Town was about an unnamed man “researching the disappearing towns in the central west of New South Wales”, who then witnesses the literal disappearance of an unnamed town as large holes begin to appear in the streets. The metaphorical and allegorical dimensions of this novel were clear from the outset.

But The Town was first published at the end of 2017, when the catastrophic bushfires of 2019-20 had not yet raged, Scott Morrison had only just become prime minister, and the global pandemic was still two years in the future. While Bon and Lesley revisits the geographical and psychological landscapes of The Town, it is set in an unimaginably different Australia.

And this time we know exactly where we are, for this novel is also set in a small regional town and this time it is named. Newnes both is and is not a real place: it was once a thriving oil shale town in NSW, north of Lithgow and east of Orange, that now consists of nothing more than the ruins of the mining works and a disused railway. Prescott reimagines Newnes as a town in the process of dying in the present day, littered with the familiar franchises and businesses whose ugly architecture and signage disfigure so many formerly pretty Australian towns.

Many of these businesses have already closed down when Bon, a thirtyish Australian man who apparently commutes between Sydney and some unnamed place in its hinterland, arrives in Newnes on the train. He is picked up by a garrulous man called Steven; the two men, along with Steven’s brother Jack and fellow new arrival Lesley, become a kind of ersatz family, sharing a “musty, creaky old weatherboard” and living on alcohol and takeaway food. Slowly, the household becomes a nuclear family, in which certain routines must be followed: food must be provided and work must be done – the very aspects of life they have each been trying to escape.

Stepping off the train and out of his old life, Bon is no longer pretending to himself that his life in Sydney holds any meaning for him, or satisfaction or pleasure. He is dimly aware, though these things are never made explicit, that Australia is in crisis, both environmentally and politically. The story seems to be taking place in the landscape of a post-apocalyptic dystopia, but what seems to have happened to Newnes and by extension to the world is the opposite of violent. It seems, rather, to be a slow but unstoppable entropy, a gradual descent into disorder and chaos. Unspecified but hostile and immediate dangers lurk. First Nations people are not explicitly discussed, but their spiritual landscapes and the historical memory of their dispossession loom in the background.

The most powerful aspect of the novel is Prescott’s juxtaposition of surreal dream-landscapes with the immediately recognisable and mundane details of contemporary Australian life. Although the characters are sharply differentiated, there’s not much difference between their mental states: they all drift from fantasy to drunkenness and from drunkenness to dreaming in a way that makes these states look more or less the same.

In an indirect, glancing kind of way, Prescott both asks and poses a number of questions. What is it that makes a place a place? Giving it a name? Getting there? Or simply dreaming it up? And why, with a quartet of main characters, is the book called Bon and Lesley? Perhaps they are a kind of archetypal couple, like Adam and Eve, except in reverse: rather than existing at the beginning of the human world, they have found themselves near the end of it, wondering what to do with themselves and how they should live. In the end, one clear message that emerges is that you can’t get away from yourself: no matter where you go, there you are.

But Bon and Lesley stubbornly resists interpretation. The reader needs to be open to the absurd dream-logic of the narrative, in which so much happens for no clear reason, in order to make any sense of this book and to want to follow it through to the end. Prescott’s writing is seductive in its originality; and yet, at the same time, it embodies the same sort of preoccupation and sensibility that informs the work of Gerald Murnane, David Ireland or Andrew McGahan, and recalls movies such as Wake In Fright and The Cars that Ate Paris. This is strong stuff, and not everyone will be able to stay with it for the duration.



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