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Posted on 22 Nov 2022 in Fiction |

SHAUN PRESCOTT Bon and Lesley. Reviewed by Paul Anderson

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Sean Prescott’s second novel recounts an escape to the country – or does it?

‘No Australian under 50 has seen a time like this in their adult lives,’ declared a recent op-ed on Black Swan events. That’s one possible way into this intense, Jungian novel. Bon and Lesley could be a nightmarish case study of two such Australians, in their early thirties, living through existential crisis, disassociating in the Anthropocene. (Prescott is 38 years old.)

Disaffected, they escape the city, ‘the insurmountable pressure of home and monotony of work’ – but maybe only in dreams. Bon and Lesley is at once here and now and unearthly; both real and surreal. For want of categorisation, it’s weird fiction. I don’t presume to understand all of Prescott’s shadow world-building, but this novel did give me pause. ‘A mysterious kind of change is underway and I’m horribly under-qualified. In a strange way, I feel that I’ve outlived my own life,’ Mother Grady laments to Bon.

Bon and Lesley is Prescott’s second novel, following The Town (2017). It reverses the trajectory of the quest in the previous book. (Both are notionally set in the Central West but have different protagonists.)

Separately, Bon and Lesley go west, from ‘disappointing city’ to ‘disappearing town’ (to adopt the language of The Town). There are signposts that indicate the city is Sydney, and the town, a fictional Newnes, could be Lithgow, or some imaginary palimpsest. There’s a fictional Sofala too (near Mudgee), which is reachable via a portal. If any of it can be reviewed literally, then it is possible to parse that we are in the 2010s, and looking back at a period from ‘the middle of autumn during the worst year yet’ to New Year’s Eve the next. The country is burning: there are perpetual fires in the mountains to the east of Newnes, and encircling the town.

Bon and Lesley appear to meet for the first time in Newnes (he arrives over a month before her). Prior to this, Bon had commuted daily by train from the city to a destination three hours away for work; whereas Lesley worked in the city but on weekends used the same train line to visit her mother (somewhere also unnamed). Bon and Lesley can be an ill-fitting duo but they share this: they each, apropos of change, spontaneously, but also with some predetermination, one day disembark at Newnes, where they are in turn accosted and taken in by an enigmatic local, Steven Grady. ‘Bon wiped his phone, removed the sim, dropped it in a Salvos bin,’ going dark in a way reminiscent of Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill.

Later, they are joined in Steven’s weatherboard by Jack, his younger brother, who is 21. Steven is ten years older, so around the same age as Bon and Lesley, but he and Jack are essentially still man-boys. Steven has left home but no longer has a job; his daily routine involves waking late, binge drinking Tsingtao beer, and reluctantly walking to Newnes Shopping Plaza to buy cheese rolls, cinnamon donuts and other cheap food. At the start of the novel, Jack lives at home with his mum (although Mother Grady wants him out) and ‘sits in his bedroom playing Counter-Strike against bots’. The quartet improvise a strange, proxy family, one with the usual allegiances and rivalries. Theirs is a sum of duopolies: Bon is in thrall to Steven and appears to regress to an inner-adolescent version of himself (they watch a lot of Star Wars and Iron Man DVDs); whereas Lesley is motherly towards Jack and matriarchal, and she starts to refer to them all as ‘her boys’.

The portals in Newnes are one of several tropes that Prescott uses again. (I commend this singular review of The Town by Jennifer Mills for additional context.) Steven spends some of his wasted days looking for these ‘hidden roads and pathways’. Meanwhile Jack is stalked by an undead-like, malevolent, Colossal Man, who has a whiff of the alt-right and conspiracy theories about him. Jack has collaborated with him on an obscure book – whose ‘cover bore a white Germanic font on coal-black cardboard, with lethal barbed wire in the foreground and a ruined tower behind’ – but is now persona non grata. Steven and Jack’s arrested development is evident – they are stuck in their home town – and Lesley determines that the boys need Sofala. So she and Bon steal the Colossal Man’s hatchback, get the brothers rum-drunk, kidnap them, and go there via a portal they have constructed in a hidden clearing in the forest. But their idyll, ‘heavenly Sofala’, is in fact a waking hell: this teeny town is burning down.

They loop back to Newnes and, in the second part of the novel, continue to play house in the boys’ old childhood home (now deserted). Here Lesley and Bon unpack dream versions of themselves. Their money is running out. Steven and Bon receive a sinister job offer to clear abandoned houses. Meanwhile the roof of their own house is being rocked nightly. The paranoia rises and increasingly it becomes more taxing to stay in the story. Lesley experiences a severe episode of recurrent anxiety and wakes days later to find she is lost, and so too are the boys. Her search goes down secret tunnels and leads to a sort of reckoning with the Colossal Man. Later she will find the other three at the train station but Bon will be asleep and unable to be woken.

In the final part there are abstract illuminations on what may be the real versions of Bon and Lesley, but ambiguities remain at the end. It’s hard to demarcate plot from absurdity, and anyway, there may be internal contradictions. Rather, the novel succeeds in terms of mood and characterisation. It’s an ambient novel and a deadpan comic one at times, the humour wry, bathetic and bizarrely apt.

Newnes is mysteriously shuttered and depopulated. We meet a few DPs, others who have got off the train in Newnes (before the trains stop running altogether). Something catastrophic has happened/is happening. There’s a threat of global war but it’s left vague. It’s written in past tense but feels contemporaneous. The atmosphere is solistalgic and end-times-like. We get Bon’s then Lesley’s point of view for comparable page counts. There is some direct speech but most of the dialogue is reported in third person. The narrator’s tone is objective and benign. The language is ocker (‘He had done his dash’) or orotund (‘Far be it from Lesley to say with any authority that the world was stupider than it had ever been’). As in The Town, the ubiquities of a regional town are evoked. Here, a Coles replaces a Woolies as the characters’ epicentre, and there are many familiar urban touchstones, like the servo. Newnes is ‘cement still’ where, ‘Freedom is having a job and not being bashed,’ according to Steven.

Prescott is a brilliant comedic monologist. His characters can exhort on the obscure and you are stuck in the elevator with them for pages at a time. He nails the teenage archetype and in fact all four characters are persuasive. The narrator relays that Bon’s ‘daily egg-and-bacon rolls had always been a secret and the routine had an air of debauchery about it’. The author winks to the reader towards the end in another memorable harangue:

Lesley puffed her smoke indignantly. Good luck putting on anything without a climax, she said. Everything needs to culminate, doesn’t it?

The novel muses on the nuclear family amid violent societal collapse: thresholds such as ’to be a child, to come of age, to have a family, to rear it correctly’ are probed. Lesley’s mother laments thus on parenthood:

‘When children depart the search for another meaning commences, maybe if you had a father we’d nowadays travel the country in a campervan … but there is no other meaning, none that seems substantial, surrendering to a late life of mild elderly hedonism would only fuel the meaninglessness.’

Newnes could be a multi-player role-play video game simulation or a collective dream, a mash-up of separate worlds and discontinuous pasts, presents and futures. Bon dreams that he and Lesley are husband and wife – is this real? Lesley dreams she has teenage children, a 13-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter – is this imagined? It’s never that reductive on the page however; the author skilfully blurs their subconscious selves.

In a note on the publisher’s website, Prescott refers to Bon and Lesley as his ‘doom metal novel’. It doesn’t have a definite point, he says. His companion playlist points to ‘the kind of discomforted dream worlds I sometimes aspire to evoke in fiction.’ His character Jack Grady makes subliminal digital music and says this about the sound:

It’s interesting to imagine what someone might think when they hear it, I guess. It’s interesting to imagine how that might change their mood, briefly or forever. But that’s the thing: it’s interesting to imagine that, but the reality of that ever happening would not be interesting at all. In reality, if they didn’t close the tab straightaway, the listener would interpret the sound and contaminate it with meaning – the worst possible outcome.

Bon and Lesley has a muted subversiveness and wistfulness. Prescott writes into our epoch and some of the most important concerns of the digital age with a familial impetus. The novel is a kind of wake-up call and unsettles with a slow-burn style. Readers will make of it what they will, just as they might respond dissimilarly to a piece of music. It is art, but not for mind control, just as Jack would have it.

Shaun Prescott Bon and Lesley Giramondo Publishing Company 2022 PB 288pp $29.95

Paul Anderson is a freelance editor. He is the co-editor of The Power of a Football, a collection of Reclink footy stories, published by WestWords this month.

You can buy Bon and Lesley from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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