OneAfter the success of his first novel, Small Town, Sean Prescott revisited some of the same territory in his second novel. “Small Town” is about an unnamed man “studying the disappearing towns in the NSW Midwest” before he witnesses the literal disappearance of an unnamed town as big holes start to appear in the streets. The metaphorical and allegorical dimensions of the novel are clear from the start.
But Small Town was first published in late 2017, before the catastrophic bushfires of 2019-20 raged, Scott Morrison was not prime minister, and the global pandemic was two years away. While Bon and Lesley revisited the town’s geographic and psychological landscape, its setting is an unimaginably different Australia.
And this time we know exactly where we are, because the novel was also filmed in a local town, and this time it was named. Nunnes is and is not a real place: once a thriving oil shale town in NSW, north of Lisgow and east of Orange, all that remains is the ruins of a mining plant and an abandoned line railway. Prescott reimagines Newnes as a dying town in the present day, full of familiar franchises and businesses, with ugly buildings and signs ruining many formerly beautiful Australian towns.
Many of these businesses were already closed by the time Bon, an Australian man, 30, arrived by train in Newnes, apparently travelling between Sydney and some unknown part of its hinterland. He was caught by a chatter named Steven. The two, along with Steven’s brother Jack and newcomer Leslie, turned into a similar family, sharing a “mold and squeaky old weatherboard” and living off alcohol and takeaway food . Slowly, the family became a nuclear family, and certain routines had to be followed: food had to be provided and work had to be done—the very aspects of life that each of them tried to escape.
Stepping off the train, out of his old life, Bang no longer pretends to himself that his life in Sydney means anything to him, or contentment or joy. While these things were never made explicit, he was vaguely aware that Australia was in an environmental and political crisis. The story appears to be set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian landscape, but what seems to happen to Newnes and expand into the world is the opposite of violence. Instead, it appears to be a slow but unstoppable entropy that gradually slips into disorder and chaos. Unspecified but hostile and immediate danger lurks. Aboriginal peoples are not explicitly discussed, but their spiritual landscape and their deprived historical memories loom large in the background.
The most powerful aspect of the novel is Prescott’s juxtaposition of surreal dreamscapes with the instantly recognizable and mundane details of contemporary Australian life. Although the characters vary widely, their mental states aren’t very different: they all go from fantasy to drunk, from drunk to dreaming, in a way that makes these states seem more or less the same.
Prescott asks some questions in an indirect, glance way. What makes a place a place? give it a name? reach there? Or just dreaming? Why does this book have four main characters, called Bon and Lesley? Maybe they are a typical couple, like Adam and Eve, just the opposite: instead of existing at the beginning of the human world, they find themselves near the end of the world, not knowing what to do with themselves and how they should live. Finally, a clear The message is that you cannot escape yourself: wherever you go, you are there.
But Bon and Lesley stubbornly refused to explain. Readers need to be open to the absurd dream logic of the narrative, where so much happens for no clear reason, in order to understand the book and want to follow through. Prescott’s work is unique. At the same time, however, it embodies the same preoccupation and sensibility as the work of Gerald Murnane, David Ireland or Andrew McGahan, and is reminiscent of films like Cry and The Car That Eats Paris. This is powerful stuff, and not everyone can hold on to it during this time.