In Bon and Lesley, Shaun Prescott wrote an Australian horror story of unique local proportions
If ever a novel defined the territory its author would continue to roam, that’s exactly what Shaun Prescott’s debut novel, The Town (2018) did. It was like the indie boy band that smooths all your favorite punk acts into a unique mix.
When I revisited The Town in these pages in 2019, I noted in particular how Prescott was able to synthesize elements from the late David Ireland and Gerald Murnane to create augmented Australian realism. Like Murnane and post-plot novelists such as Caesar Aira or Ottessa Moshfegh in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Prescott wants the reader to focus on the poetics of variation within limited contexts, storylines, and language.
Why? In The Town, Prescott took this approach in order to sit with his creatively blocked and socially awkward narrator. It didn’t totally work; the idea could not bear the length of the novel. But in Prescott, Bon and Lesley’s latest, the mundane and repetitive nature of the novel’s voice and structure creates a more focused horror story of uniquely local proportions.
Review: Bon and Lesley – Shaun Prescott (Giramondo).
Readers of The Town will find stylistic coherences and familiar themes in Bon and Lesley.
The setting is a regional town and, as in the last novel, the town disappears in its path. There is, again, a slight class tension between an outsider and the “original” inhabitants of the town, and the related ethnographic curiosity or attraction that outsiders have for the town and its people. The narrative is similarly effectless, focusing on procedural action and noticing emotional states, without turning them into drama.
Finally, there is something that I consider truly Prescottian: the sexual ambivalence and even the asexuality of the intentions of his characters. In The Town, it was a depressive trait of the narrator, but in Bon and Lesley, the almost thoughtless rote expression of physical intimacy and the subconscious pull of gender role-playing become the troubling point of the story.
Together with Bon and Lesley, Prescott acts as a psychoanalyst in a lower-middle-class Australian colony of late capitalism. Some might imagine this to be a condescending subject for a “literary” author. But remember: most Australian writers are paid less than a blue-collar salary for their work, regardless of education or background. Most of us will at some point be dependent on Centrelink and hold several casual jobs; most of us will be supporting partners or children, while living in modest outlying or regional communities. Australian writers know the city, its history and its people.
This is important to note because where Bon and Lesley end up isn’t pretty. In the final section of the novel, Prescott’s view of his society becomes as wicked as possible without turning into a sour grimace. I’m not talking about graphic violence, but rampant psychological dysfunction, at a perfectly normalized level.
It’s the kind of thing that non-Indigenous Australian writing and media have excelled at representing for a century: a society that grapples with its own scabs, cuddles, flares and watches the ghosts of its mess come flooding in while she is drunk a soft sofa.
Read more: A look at A Million Windows by Gerald Murnane
Out of the novel, in the novel
Bon and Lesley’s setting is Newnes, which is located west of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. Prescott transports us there with an epigraph from Eve Langley’s The Pea-Pickers, which is set in Gippsland but is the bestselling novel by an author who died alone in a hoarder’s hut in the Blue Mountains. (Remember what I said about Australian authors and economic marginalization?)
Outside of Romanesque, it is the eastern part of Wiradjuri Country. When descending the Dividing Range, it is a marginal zone where the altitude drops into the continental basin; it is the entrance to the massive Triassic Capertee Valley and Wollemi National Park with its remnant stands of Gondwana species. Outside of the novel, the Newnes area is famous in cryptozoology circles as the site of the only alleged record of Yowie vocalization. It is also a heritage mining site, a “frontier” hamlet on the tourist route.
Inside the novel, Newnes is a version of more populated neighboring towns: a semi-industrial regional center with a square, car parks and chicken coop, and an abandoned blast furnace resembling that of nearby Lithgow. Inside the novel, the colonial apocalypse is happening again – only this time it happens to the colonists.
The slip reflects how Prescott seals his characters and readers into the void that is Newnes. Bon and Lesley are the strangers, the commuters who stop by train from town and never leave. Their paralysis is not only psychological; it is discovered midway through the novel that rail service has in fact ceased since their arrival.
It is reminiscent of the experience of millennial modernism in Australia, in which suburban expansion is paradoxically defined by services withdrawn from the regions. It also alludes to the Australian gothic trope we find in the novel and film Wake in Fright, in which the stranger can enter but not leave the town and a sense of the clock quickly melts upon arrival.
Read more: ‘It’s not us’. Wake in Fright at 50, a portrait of an ugly Australia that has become a cinema classic
From there, Prescott can only decenter the off-centers. Bon and Lesley are cared for by Steven and his supposed brother, Jack. They quickly establish a coercive relationship based on circumstance and co-dependency, rather than shared values or kinship ties.
One section each is focused through Bon and Lesley, followed by a third chapter, told omnisciently. We don’t really learn much about Bon or Lesley through this structure. On the contrary, they offer very free and very indirect impressions of the debates.
The found family’s routine consists of meals sourced from the food court or, as the pickings get thin, from the gas station. Rum is consumed from morning to evening. The creation of domestic occupations and small dramas around habit and propriety becomes important, reproducing the routines of a bourgeois family.
Bon and Lesley yearn to escape to the small mining town of Sofala, location of Peter Weir’s auto-horror film The Cars that Ate Paris (1974). Their dream is unshakeable despite the constant bushfires and yard fires that lick their neighborhood. In what must be the most eerie portrayal yet of the recent fire trauma in eastern Australia, long drives to stores continue through hazy air and blackened skies. The pedantically planned getaway to Sofala is cut short because the road is on fire.
Read more: Gender-ambiguous author Eve Langley is ripe for rediscovery. A new biography sheds light on his difficult life
This dysfunctional ecology and culture is the breeding ground for what happens within the miniature society of the family. From the moment Bon and Lesley meet Steven and Jack, they are aware of the Colossal Man’s presence. The void at the center of the novel, Colossal Man is a veritable presence of horror: a faceless, voiceless mass of flesh cruising aimlessly down the sidewalk (I imagined the Baron of Dune, or perhaps Les Murray stuffed in a sedan).
Colossal Man lives in an Eve Langley-like bush hut with an underground lair. He writes fascist literature and has an indescribable hard drive. Jack is his incel apprentice.
Prescott chooses never to depict the contents of Jack and Colossal Man’s DIY computer screens or publications, though we know Lesley recoils from them. In a sense, it’s a classic horror technique, allowing readers to imagine their own worst fears.
On the other hand, Prescott refuses to reinscribe violence. It’s not the kind he wants us to worry about. Once face to face with Colossal Man through Lesley, one realizes that the impact of his material is meaningless compared to the ordinary decay of the city. Colossal Man, the monstrous child of the novel, is only a symptom.
The devolution of characters over the course of the novel is simply abject. The horizons of the four protagonists are reduced to their safe and flat roles.
When sexual contact does occur, it is stealthy rubbing and awkward hugging from or by Lesley. She develops a routine of drinking wine from the barrel, preparing snack trays, going to bed regularly, and giving praise to Steven and Jack as they relax watching Star Wars. At first a courageous leader of the family’s destiny, and a sacred action heroine in her own way, Lesley comes to relish her role as mother to “the boys” (another allusion: to the threatening film by Stephen Sewell and Rowan Wood of the same name). When Lesley stops longing to escape, Bon is free to let go of his reluctant fatherhood and give up.
For a time, Steven clings to a “stay in your lane” class dream, in which “freedom is having a job and not being beaten”. This provides him with a coherent, albeit narrow, philosophy of life. He begins as the designer of the family band, but the purpose of his days dissolves into maintaining the household’s liquor supply and being paid cash to needlessly burn down abandoned houses. The job shuts down (literally) and his fear of being attacked becomes a reality when an unseen force begins to threaten the family home.
When we first meet Jack, he finds meaning as an online keyboard warrior and creates brown noise tracks in his bedroom. He is secretive and defensive about his digital life and is under the influence of Colossal Man. This intimacy gives him a sense of identity. Lesley’s probative influence encourages Jack to distance himself from Colossal Man’s hateful material. But Jack decides that removing his creative voice from the world is the ultimate form of independence:
Powers that we don’t understand or even know about, try to control us through music and movies and all that is called art […] But my sound – and he said my sound in a tone bordering on hubris – will survive it all to never be heard.
If Jack’s art theory is correct, then Prescott uses Bon and Lesley to immunize us against the infantilizing, apathetic creep of cultural homogeneity and insularity. This is most definitely a Morrison-era novel. And perhaps that highlights another layer of his intent: to persuade us that in the dysfunctionality of relaxed and comfortable colonialism, the old genres of apocalyptic and gothic horror still have value.