Reviewed: Bon and Lesley, Shaun Prescott, Giramondo
‘There was a severe beauty about the town but it was always contaminated with nearby contrasting mundanities.’ This is Shaun Prescott’s neat description of Newnes, the town in which the titular characters of Bon and Lesley find themselves—though it could just as easily describe the unnamed town in his debut novel, The Town. While the two books have much in common in terms of setting, tone and, occasionally, plot, Prescott’s second novel approaches these preoccupations from a different angle, with a sharper focus on relationships and tilts into moments of horror.
Bon and Lesley begins with Bon, who steps off his commuter train during an unanticipated stop in Newnes. At the town plaza he encounters Steven, a talkative metal enthusiast filled with stories and theories (‘Freedom is having a job and not being bashed’; ‘Life is all about rhythm if you ask me … your rhythm is either a speed metal song or it’s a doom metal song’). Instead of returning home, Bon moves in with Steven, passing the days by drinking and searching the town for passages and portals. Soon, Steven returns with Lesley, who has similarly stepped off her train. The trio are joined by Steven’s brother Jack, a silent gamer who rarely speaks—according to Steven ‘he hates not being original’ and ‘thinks everything he says sounds too much like something else’. In the house, the four form different combinations of relationships, some pairs more connected than others, and replicate an uncanny, shifting family life.
Prescott’s prose is deceptively simple, swiftly building intricate worlds and characters. True to his description of Newnes, he has a special talent for capturing collisions of the beautiful and mundane. The Newnes Valley Plaza is described in muted, yet reverent, language: ‘A Coles and Liquorland both stood open, surgically lit and blinding with all the colours of groceries. In front of these a food court opened out, fanning from a central, totemic, dormant Donut King.’ Prescott also pithily captures the various ways his characters experience the malaise of modernity, as with Bon: ‘The world had him trapped, and he hated it, but also—and herein lay the greatest indignity—he found it fairly accommodating. ’Both Bon’s and Lesley’s backstories are summed up with the same phrase—after school they ‘had gone to work, and then worked.’
In its use of surrealism as a way to focus on humanity and landscape, Prescott’s work has fairly been compared to Kōbō Abe and Gerald Murnane, particularly The Plains. It also carries hints of American chroniclers of modern alienation, such as Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing or John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester, sharing their interest in memory, absence and nostalgia, as well as of characters longing for something they can’t quite identify. A more recent local comparison could be Jamie Marina Lau’s Gunk Baby: though very different novels, they each deal with substitute family units, the flattening effects of capitalism, and the inherent strangeness of the mall or plaza as a hub.
Still, Bon and Lesley is its own work. Its third person perspective gives it a more dreamlike, distant sensation than even The Town, which operated in the first person.Bon and Lesley moves slowly, almost hypnotically. The actions of the main characters can be so gradual that to read them is to share in the experience: their habits form slowly, then, suddenly, are ingrained. They spend their days working unusual jobs, like removing the contents of homes and setting the items on fire; they walk to the plaza to buy alcohol and cigarettes; they watch Iron Man and Star Wars over and over again. While this generates an interesting cumulative effect, these repetitions make it occasionally difficult to latch onto the movement of relationships or plots. This means some of the most powerful sections of Bon and Lesley are its departures from the book’s central threads: monologues, stories told by those they encounter along the way, or more interior political, social or personal contemplation.
While Bon and Lesley is not a sequel to The Town, the books share a significant number of elements, including portals, regular drinking, familial character relationships, regional settings, brand-name stores, characters called Steve(n) and a creeping sense of menace. Yet Bon and Lesley is simultaneously the more bleak and more hopeful novel—it contains less humour and more horror, but constructs a richer set of relationships that reflect the varied possibilities of companionship. With mysteries that come and go, rather than a central, driving plot, the text is able to mirror its characters in oscillating between apathy, rage, hope and care.
It would be exciting to see Prescott’s talents turned to other settings or subjects, to see how he might approach them with his unique voice, but with Bon and Lesley Prescott has shown that he had more left to uncover in Australia’s regions. It holds complex characters and searing insights, using the atmosphere and language he established in The Town to break into new, rich territory.