Figuring-out Basin

When a novel invites me, as does the title section opening of Scott McCulloch’s debut novel Basin — “Figure in Terminal Landscape” to approach it as I might a piece of visual art or dance or theatre, or even as a piece of music, my whole heart gladdens. Yes, and yes! Because this is what happens for me anyway when I read a novel, as I have always thought, since it will always be the thingness of the work and how that thingness affects (or not) my being in the world that tells me whether I am likely to keep that novel by me always or not. And so the felt experience of it first, and only later the thoughts, and between one and the other, often a long, slow crawling out into the air — or so I have had to remind myself, because how else to account for all the difficulty, all the impossibility of working, of writing or even of thinking about this otherwise brilliantly realised novel Basin — all of the long non-writing then (or rather useless writing) that followed my experience of first reading it some time last year? How much easier it would have been, as I can only say now, just to have felt what it was like to read this novel — okay, to have felt it with all its force — but then to have wriggled on quick, either into the thoughts and words that most resembled others I have thought or written before — or else into the bliss of some sort of conferred permission to not have to think, to not have to put into words this damnedest thing that — to stay as close to the truth of it all as I can — led to thoughts not so much about the novel itself but rather to ones that were saying over and over: maybe this is it, maybe I will die where this experience of reading Basin finishes in me, wordless, stuck forever as it is inside.

I have been at pains, as you see, to point out both the struggle of my own impossibility as it connects with those first attempts to make sense of this novel Basin alongside, and so also despite, the highly explicit quality of its opening invitation to approach it as an object for aesthetic noticing — and as it does so in a way, what’s more, that most aligns with how I might naturally prefer to approach a novel, which is to say, through all of my senses as they are oriented to feeling out the materiality of its forms, its gestures, its moods. And so explicit is this invitation in McCulloch’s opening section title that it even uses wording that might have been included in any sort of tongue-in-cheek labelling under a piece of visual artwork on a wall, and wording, as it happens — although as yet I couldn’t see it — that points to those very images that are designed to work as machinic arrangements of those same two basic components of representational art that any such label might enjoy pointing out — which is to say, in this case: figure and (terminal) landscape or, as the early twentieth century Gestalt psychologists might have preferred to put it: figure and ground.

In fact, as I can only see now that the writing is flowing again, my thoughts moving too: would I really have persisted in this long, long effort of crawling through the muck of my mind if something about McCulloch’s all-too-easily-overlooked invitation hadn’t at least got me — if only unconsciously — to put a momentary halt on my response to its material — a correspondingly material response — that could well have moved on to its inevitable conclusion as it might have done if I’d had sufficient awareness of what was already beginning to accumulate in me? If I had been able to see it coming as it were — which is to say, a lot, lot earlier. This imagined sense, instead of remaining for all this time stuck in the not being able to think or write, to rather have gasped and gagged on the stuff of the novel — on its “sensuous surface”, as Susan Sontag might have put it — the very minute, the very second, that what must have been too much in it for me approached the gates of my throat — and so been hacked and hoiked and spat right out.

And why ever not? Look no further than that most famous of examples of vomitous relief: the young child’s experience of being fed, against her will, warmed milk along with its loathed corollary, the slippery pap of its skin, that Julia Kristeva describes with such careful attention in the opening pages of Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Here, even as the loose and unstable substance — this notably abject substance of the skin — abject in the sense that it defies all orderly categories, as Kristeva argues, being neither entirely liquid nor entirely solid — even as that milk with its inevitably shifting skin enters the mouth of the child, all of that child, as it involves every twitching fold of viscera and sinew and mucosal surface in her child body-mind, rebels against it. Not just her thoughts. And not even what we might call her fixed beliefs as they might be distinguished from the implicit memories of her body. There is no time for cognitive or rational inquiry or argument about the skin. The child is notably just a child, and she has been told, and so enjoined to believe, that the warmed milk her parents are offering, along with the abject feature of its unstable skin — that has neither been noticed nor removed in advance — is good for her. In fact, the milk skin seems to be apiece with their well-intentioned, if also overly anxious and earnest, faith that this is so. But it is the child’s whole body-mind that decides for her, that pushes this unbearable-to-this-child and, as such, highly disgusting substance up from where it has pressed into a wobbling meniscus at the top of her oesophagus, at its most sensitive sentinel, as we might imagine it, of the epiglottis. Her whole body that rebels and pushes this milk and skin — both of them — up and out of her mouth, with force. And well it should. This is the moment of the self throwing off from that self what it cannot and shouldn’t accept inside it that Kristeva identifies as being most significantly productive of the separate being of this child-self. And this I might have done too with what was pressing in and readying itself to stay in anaerobic clumps inside me for months, and after only the slightest of hesitations — with the fiercely automatic response of an embodied being that is only, after all, wanting and needing to protect and therefore produce its separate self from one moment to another as the world around it, and its own self, shifts. And yet I didn’t.

Perhaps if I had, when first reading this novel, actually succeeded in ab-jecting what I can only now describe as the pungently young and insistent seminal material of the work as it clashed with the equal rancidity of my own strange fluids, my own aged, defensive cells — this same claggy white cum stuff whose albeit fascinating textural transformations and surreal later developments are so key, and in fact so emphatically vital to what Basin is — ab-jecting or casting out of my self what Kristeva might have described, via Mary Douglas, as just so much “matter out of place”. If my body had followed through with what it really might have preferred and even needed to do if my priorities had been my health and sanity alone — if I had not learned through most of my life to first, by preference, take in the larger and stronger gestures of the other ahead of my own — if my body, then, had been so much readier to ab-ject this young-cum-otherness sooner, and so have become newly and freshly clear, my mind back ticking, the words on point — what might have happened? What indeed? Perhaps I would have been able to slip, very simply, if also still in the eye-watering, dissociative trance that tends to accompany any such powerful acts of spewing — slip and so turn all the more freely towards the outer edges of some of the more interesting commentary I had already read on what Basin is, or at least, seems to be about. Which is to say, into the readily fascinating details of its evocations of civil conflict, as it involves humans whose ambiguous cultural, religious and ethnic affiliations prompt sometimes violent efforts to clear, to clean — to ab-ject, as it might be said — all that which is too dangerously close and confusing-of-being to be tolerated. To ab-ject what, in the eyes of each of the struggling figures in the novel, most has the qualities, as Kristeva puts it, of “being opposed to I”.

In fact, I can really say that if I were someone with a much more ready capacity to defend my undisturbed self — to have been able to clear her out and so find my own “I” again all the sooner — the plethora of seemingly real-world details in Basin might have taken up all my attention, if only due to the way that so many of them resonated with my own brief, long ago but nonetheless highly memorable experiences of living and working near the end of last century in a Turkish-speaking country, and also of travelling into the highly contested landscapes that Turks and Kurds and Armenians and Greeks and Laz have tried (or not), with ongoing tragic consequences, to share. Yes, perhaps, if my embodied self hadn’t already been crammed uncomfortably tight with the excess of what this novel had im-pressed in me, I might have spent a little more time recalling, as I began to write about those same details, what it was like to move through an environment that is so richly enthatched with the multiple tones and colours of cultural, political and religious difference that its imminent or possible collapse or splitting can be felt in any sudden stopping of the bus, or even in the awareness that the pair of so-named tea men — çaycı — standing overly still behind us are now holding rifles. And of course, why heavens not start from any such serendipitous resonance with this novel as its details of apparent place, objects, language tics and patterns connect to my own experience of contested landscapes, and ring so very true? Indeed, from this perspective — or rather from this more outward-looking view of things — I can see it is possible to argue that Basin is wholly about a possible dystopian future in an unspecified region in which the long inter-mingling of Islamic and eastern European Christian cultural remnants in the populations of that region have been subjected to further complications by an unspecified and ongoing civil war between Rebels and soldiers and every sort of paramilitary group and individual agent whose efforts to exterminate the other have so poisoned the landscape that those that are left to eke an existence in it do so mostly through the use and abuse of improvised substances that they find on the shoreline of the waters that lead to or evoke the body of water at its deep, depressed end — the so-named Basin. Such a novel would be sufficiently compelling, and hence would be already and entirely enough: a novel about an imaginary realm of chaos, death, conflict and increasingly desperate attempts to survive that is sufficiently close to what we could picture as the inevitable sequelae of certain current events in regions not so very remote, either geographically or culturally, from where Basin appears to be set. Which means that any such readers of this almost real-world content who still had a residual memory of that opening invitation into the novel as an aesthetically-presented-thing could well have been completely satisfied with an identification of the terminal landscape, as noted in that section title, as a richly pessimistic image of the entire terrestrial and maritime realm in regions similar to these. And the figure? Ah yes, the figure as he is also identified in the very first moments of his re-emergence into life in the opening lines of the novel in chapter zero could be simply this same young male human whose mother, we later learn, may or may not have had the middle name Helena, and who — as soon as he regains consciousness — sets out on a traversing of this same landscape, around, across, away and then back towards bodies of water as they lead him on towards the deep watery sink of the eponymous Basin into which, or rather into its mirror, he had earlier tried to die.

All of these details, then — which is to say, both the landscape of the novel as it manifests in its semi-real setting, and the figure (Figure) as he moves around it — are already compelling, and as such, with the form and content of the novel so well aligned, could easily give rise to the similarly sufficient question: what would it really be like to exist in such an extreme state of lawless conflict, danger, reactivity and environmental degradation? In this sort of reading, as it could be alert to each of the novel’s real-world referential clues, Basin might have simply joined the ranks of well observed, devastatingly clever but nonetheless grim-grey parables about an increasingly desolate and desperate future on this planet: a parable whose grimness is only set off all the sharper and stranger — to my mind at least — by Figure’s peculiarly wide-eyed encounter in the hinterlands with the inhabitants of a rural feminine village idyll, as this idyll is replete with the small unfurlings of wholesome if strong-worded values, simple cropping practices and birthing donkeys, far from the futility and destruction of the conflict on the shores of the water to which various untimely ends — as one of the women tries to get Figure to understand — the men are inevitably drawn. This is an idyll that is offered to us, as readers — as much as to Figure, who leaves it all the same for his second encounter with death — as this particular end- or death-borne terminal landscape’s one possible solution or salve.

It is from this perspective that it became most clear to me — if not yet available to writerly thought — that a gender binary is one of the more important aspects of the machinery at work in the two-fold figure–ground arrangement of this landscape and the choices it makes possible for Figure in Basin. Indeed, whatever else we make of him, this young and peripatetic Figure in this ultimately terminal landscape is certainly not-female, and not even not-gendered. He is very much male, as we see from all the references to his post-coital (and onanistic) penis each time that it softens into its small, slow-crusting pools of cum in the smooth bowl of his pelvis. And decidedly male. In fact, everything about this novel — or at least its most genitally obvious aspects — cries aloud male.

And it was only once I could acknowledge how very old and genitally not male I felt alongside this Figure in his landscape — and also how irritated I was with several of the gendered interactions between Figure and others, as they were not just limited to his encounter with the feminine rural village idyll (an idyll that might rather, for all the most obvious reasons of gender allegiance, have got me on side) — that something shifted in me, because it was only once the felt sense of my difference manifested into loopings of irritable thoughts that any air whatsoever made its way into my otherwise crammed up, anaerobic depths. Just the smallest of breaths, but enough. Because soon I was able to force myself out of a restless sleep at three AM when, standing at my desk in the dark, ready to do I really don’t know what — surely I was too tired, too wretched, too pessimistic to write — when standing as squarely and determinedly and sheer bloody-mindedly as I could before a mounted laptop whose soon-opening crack of light was going to be blasting me into some sort of reaction, some sort of thought. When I paused for a moment to look out the uncovered window on my right, as if only to savour that moment — or really — to defer this next moment of forcing. Soon you will make yourself work, I must have been thinking, but first avoid. Delay the moment, delay the pain. When I looked with all of this countering avoidance out that window, and so towards the still dark east, an image whose metal-cold beauty has not yet left me stamped itself far back in my brain — an image that was really nothing more than the arrangement, as framed by the old wooden surrounds of the window, of the waning moon and my neighbour’s tile-topped awning as they stood out like thin bleached reefs on the skin of an indigo night — a moon that was as hard and wan as a scraped-out bowl, fixed as it was just a hand’s breadth up from the awning, and tilting just so, as if tipping something out onto the tiles. Yes, it was this two-toned tableau of sickle-thin moon, ugly awning and deepest night that, in that single moment, just before I was to lift the lip of my laptop to work properly, changed everything inside me. All of a sudden, I knew something about Basin that, until that moment, I hadn’t been able to know or see. Which is to say the astonishing clarity of the novel’s form — as clear as the bones of that moon and that tile-ridged awning. And which I must have known, too, as I even realised at the time, the whole of this wordless waiting and yet hadn’t been able to see, let alone feel.

And of course, this sudden re-cognition of the form of the novel prompted me to remember that opening title of the book: “Figure in Terminal Landscape”. Figure and ground. Because just as what I was looking at through the window with the moon and the roof could be seen, I thought, since so stark and clear, in two inter-dependent but also ultimately unreconcilable ways — that is as both the deeply recessed contents of night breaking through its own nylon surface to become the new bared reefs of moon and roof, and also as a tin bowl moon caught as it was pouring its sludge-dark contents onto my neighbour’s awning (and also perhaps into the gaping hole of the night) — just as the view through the window could do this quick change, clear change, thing, the opening rubric of Basin “Figure in Terminal Landscape” could, as well as heralding the bleeding obvious, in the sense of its signalling a novel about a figure known as Figure who moves around in a landscape that has been equated with and oriented to death, be signalling something less about the referents and more about a process. Because in that single moment of the moonscape stamping itself on my brain, I could see that the aesthetic proposal of figure in terminal landscape in Basin worked exactly like the intentionally ambiguous, bi-toned images that so fascinated those early Gestalt psychologists, and particularly as the image — in this case the novel — once the shift in my head set in — this shift in perspective that is necessary to all such images — changed everything, because I could see how this proposal operated as a means of pulling the whole of my perspective, as it had already been set in one direction, over into another. From one extremity to the other. And so also, as I could see whenever I tried to focus on the moment of the shift, never at the same time. It was in this way, then, that at that window at three AM, I re-experienced the entirety of the gesture that is Basin in the singleness of its deceptively singular movement of a figure — Figure — as he emerges from the (terminal) landscape only to re-merge with it at the end — but also as a gesture that, like an S bend or a spiral, not only does not stay still but also never quite meets up with where it starts, once the curve reverses or tightens. To take the simplest of such examples of the shift itself, I was thinking even then in the dark of my room by that window — so excited to be feeling it working inside me — we might look at a silhouetted image of two human profiles facing each other, only to see — if we prompt ourselves, or if we’ve been given the right hint — or if our focussed attention on the borders that separate the profiles from each other does this on its own — that what we are looking at is no longer those same two profiles but rather, and “really”, a vase. Thus: the so-named “Rubin vase”, as beloved of those early twentieth century Gestalt psychologists. And thus, too, the kinds of questions that these same psychologists enjoyed considering as they analysed the mechanism of the perceptual change that makes such a perpetually re-configuring work operate in this way: which is or are the true figures or primary focal points in the image? The profiles or the vase? And which the ground?

All this was clear to me — this shift in my perspective on Basin as it oriented me away from the claggy leavings of the young-boy-cum-stuff so that they seemed then to recede behind the new bared bones of the novel’s form which now appeared to be operating precisely as a means of enabling the whole to be seen differently — with the figure (Figure) ultimately becoming the landscape, in the sense of dissolving into it, and the landscape the figure, in a single novel-length move. This shift towards a radically reversed view of what was going on in the thingness of the novel worked in me as fast and as sure as all previous attempts at thinking about it had not. In fact, now I could smile about the way that there were so many touches and clues in the language of the novel itself to this much more form-sensitive way of seeing what was going on, since, for example, as consistent with those same Gestalt psychologists who observed that darker tones encourage the eye to seek out the higher-toned figure of an image, the very first word of the novel after the figure–ground title in its opening chapter zero is “Shadow”, and it is this Shadow that nudges — or forces — Figure onto the narrative scene. Negative into zero creating a change, creating the positive of a figure. Shadow, of course, is the temporary referent given to the one that takes action to reverse the effects of the narrator’s (that is Figure’s) attempt to die, and it is this “Shadow” (I will get to his “real” name later) whose otherness to the narrator is of an older, hairier, rougher-skinned male, and whose addiction to his perpetually dangling bottle of vodka where it hangs, like an extra scrotum, beneath his substantial belly is only dwarfed by his hapless loyalty and persistent efforts to help that he offers this sometimes scowling, always avoidant and entirely resistant youth whose first-person, present-tense narrative holds us in close to him in this novel (for most of it at least), one action at a time. When this young, rescued figure-narrator first stirs into more consciously aware life in the bed prepared for him by Shadow and knows himself to be alone, the first two actions he takes is to change the sheets and to wank. So here we have Shadow, and all this new bubbling of semen as it signals Figure’s emergence into more and more-active life in Shadow’s house: old and young male. Dark and light. Shadow interrupting death, and so what might have been the same or at least similar — that is, shadow and death in the deep dark pools and swirls of water differentiate and split, and the “I” of the novel is born. Yes, here we have Figure. It is an immaculately masculine (re)birth of the narrator. Thus far, with the bones of the novel much more visible, I was starting to suspect the whole to be something of an intentionally seminal tale.

A seminal tale, however, that is not nearly as straightforward as the framing might suggest, since the rescue-from-death that begins the novel, reads — for all its affirmation of the generative power of male on male — rather too uncomfortably close to a sexual assault, as when Shadow “forces one of the tubes down my throat and I feel my oesophagus clench at the cool plastic as it pushes down to stomach … He pushes the tube deeper into my abdomen and pumps … He dumps me around the shore. Slaps me again. Pumps the handle. Slaps.” These harsh but effective thrusts of intrusion bring Figure into (re)newly realised being out of his submergence in the landscape or ground — the watery depths near the aqueous-sounding city of Aqwa — and soon succeed in an undoing of the equally harsh but not yet effective earlier attempts by Figure to kill himself through a mixture of poisoning and pills and a headlong rush, while “stuffing head in plastic bag” into this same deep watery cleft. It is as if Figure had already tried to confer upon himself the plastic entombed face of the passively alluring David Lynchian victim. Tried and failed — at least for now. The wished for, longed for death of the narrator, now forcibly undone, then moves this same Figure through all the indignities of the passive, helpless victim — of being patted patronisingly “on the arse” by Shadow, who is now referred to as the “man from the beach”, of being laughed at by idle onlookers — all male as it happens, and all of whom watch as this limp, still barely stirring Figure is plied with food and alcohol and cigarettes, and immediately spews. It is a coming-into-being, so to speak, of one human (male) Figure from the ground of its landscape — from its intended-to-be-terminal landscape. And now as the novel gets underway, the hairier, thicker other of this older male, whose fascination with the young thing he has just rescued soon becomes proprietorial and anxious, irritable and eventually hopelessly generous, to the point of thrusting money into the younger one’s thankless hands and wishing him well as the violence in the region escalates. It is as if this young, once deathly thing has charmed him, and he — Shadow — has acted, accordingly, against his own better interests. This passively seductive and exploitative way of relating to older men recurs throughout the novel. Time after time, Figure is taken in and fed and looked after and entertained by older males who always seem to expect nothing in return. Over and over it happens — even, as it eventually transpires, to their own and Figure’s mutedly beautiful but all the same violent end.

To bring this seminal matter back towards the structural thrust, so to speak, of all these masculine engenderings, I could now see that the gothically literalised dimensions of the semen in this novel give this masculine theme an eerie and persistent life. As a substance, it accumulates through a series of wankings and encounters with anonymous women and general revellers until it finally erupts in surreally copious quantities from what might have been the very same sands on which the narrator (and so novel) came into rediscovered-being in the first place — semen whose origin is now, as we see, the ostensible ground or landscape of the entire piece. No longer the (human) Figure. Indeed, this semen, similarly to the giantly grown fragments of the statue of the presumptive ruler in that earliest of English gothic novels, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, develops the uncanny agency of a concretised metaphor that, spouting copiously, threatens to haunt all that is left in that fragmented and dispersed landscape, onwards and ever, and in its own pungent, dissociated time.

Of course, it was the very excess of the presence and agency of all this slow-accumulating spunk that brought me to a much closer consideration of an important antecedent of McCulloch’s novel, and one that is implicitly invoked in the longer of its two endorsements: that is, Pierre Guyotat’s Éden, Éden, Éden, or indeed any of the works by this significant French writer whose novels were, however strongly censured in his own country, equally strongly revered, and by the likes of such eminent writers and thinkers as Roland Barthes, Phillipe Sollers and Michel Leiris, for the very vividness of their tableaux of sex, death and mutilation. In Guyotat’s Éden, Éden, Éden, the tableaux that roll over the pages in a texture that is already dense with long unparagraphed sections of parataxis, and in prose that, as elliptical as it is, is also highly concrete, and evokes with its surreally separated agencies of limbs and genitals and gore and faeces and every sort of human or animal substance the crammed surface of writhing figures in the hell-themed panels of triptychs by Hieronymus Bosch. While McCulloch, in his own tripartite novel, keeps away from the rather more pronounced bestiality and paedophilic aspects of this perhaps most controversial and also revered of Guyotat’s oeuvre, Éden, Éden, Éden — and also, except for a few sections, makes sufficient use of paragraph breaks and direct speech markers, and the identifiable presence of a focalised narrator, to help keep the anglophone reader at a little more distance from the meshing of bodies and substances on the panels — it is clear that the increasingly gothic semen plays its own significant, enmeshing and ultimately provocative role in the literary texture of Basin, from when it first mixes with Figure’s sweat and the ink of a piece of newspaper that Figure uses to clean up after his first wank on his rescuer’s sheets to when, following the semen’s mergence with that of others as “slimy cocks poke through the rips” in the sheets of an orgy at the end of part one, it builds and builds to an inevitably accumulative climax as the semen spouts in quantities so immense and ambitious that, in a final scene that has been cleared of all extraneous noise and clamour, it is able to “stain shipwrecks”.

Despite this massive foregrounding of the cum over the other (arguably) equally pungent substances, such as the bile and blood and shit and piss and vomit in the book, as well as the white, soft flakes of Figure’s eczema and psoriatic skin, Figure, from whom the focalised cum first emerges, manages to avoid, or at least mostly avoid, the status of dominating prick. In fact, so often it is Figure’s softening with himself and others that is most apparent — Figure as passive (if somewhat manipulative) participant in his various sexual engagements with others and also in his mode of getting himself the substances and shelter he craves and needs. It is as if McCulloch, on the panels of his own novel, is working up a striking aspect of Pierre Guyutat’s Éden, Éden, Éden in which, according to Julien Lefort-Favreau, the “whole man” is rendered the object of “sexual submission”. In Basin, the whole man — whether as Figure or as his intrusive and soon-to-be devoted Shadow and his successors — or indeed as both — is drawn to the erotic submission of himself in the other — and not only in the other of another human, but also and most importantly, as we eventually learn, in the other of the landscape out of which Figure first emerged.

And yet, for all of this softening of the phallus, there is something about the figuring, so to speak, of the female figures in the novel that continued to trouble me, I could see, and this related — quite independently from my impatience with the rural feminine idyll that I have already referred to — to how, in a novel replete with ellipsis and parataxis, both in the texture of the first-person narrative itself and its reported speech fragments, there is nonetheless a single female figure whose supposedly obscure manner of speech, as Figure encounters it in the bowels of a ship they are both travelling in, so irritates him that he continually questions and derides — as he does to no other human in the novel — much of what she says. Spiz is an agitator, one of a couple of “low-end terrorists of some description” as Figure surmises, and when she and her offsider Dom are handcuffed at their destination, their arms bent up behind their backs, the narrator watches from where he is safe in the once-more rescuing hands of another susceptible, helping-out male, Eric, who has decided to keep this one boy safe. Now, as I try to describe what it was that so got my gall rising that it shifted me out of bed at three AM, the title of a well-known feminist book by Anne Summers, from the nineteen seventies, comes to me: Damned Whores and God’s Police. Basin is a novel that privileges with appropriate fondness that most treasured of Guyotatian categories, whoring — indeed who is not a whore or could not soon become one in this novel? Any of the many older men who lap up after Figure, taking him in, allowing themselves to be used? The fierce crone who shovels salt into the pain-filled maw of the Rebel? The woman who forces Figure to wank after she has pushed him down into a sandy pit? The one with a shaved head who invites Figure to share her vodka and sausage? Hardly these. Apart from those women tilling soil in their village idyll, it is only the saddest of beings in this novel who might never get there: the terrorist woman Spiz, who might have only enchained herself and her hapless associate through her use of language that is far too close, as Figure acknowledges, to Shadow’s “jargon and sickness”, of which he had apparently had an over-fill and yet chose not to confront — it is only Spiz that comes in for direct censure. Perhaps it is also due to her being, by gender and perhaps by her “hardened fragility”, outside both the charmed circle of the susceptible older men who take Figure in, and — by this same hardening of what might have been soft or at least materially generative — the fertile feminine village idyll, in which, all critical appraisals of men and systems are at least tempered by the tangible provisioning of vegetable soup and newborn donkeys. The women of the village idyll are as functionally independent as they can be, but Spiz, who relies more on words, thus exposes herself to Figure’s irritable criticism. When she is led off in cuffs along with her offsider Dom, she might as well have been charged with having, in Figure’s words, “delusions of Independence”, of being a conduit for “nationalist tirade”, and as such vulnerable to the least sexy of charges: of being a smug-worded political martyr, a member, if you like, of god’s police.

And so who or what is this Figure? What kind of being takes shape, as much in such reactively critical responses to this word-driven woman as in all those gawpings at those who actually do things — the ones who farm, who fuck, who shovel in salt? Who don’t simply talk? Most of the other beings in this book see Figure as young — as a boy, as a kid — and this notable youthfulness is further supported by two other literary resonances whose differing slants serve to reframe this young thing as rather more adolescent (or indeed pre-adolescent) than he might otherwise appear. The first of these relates to a detail in the novel that I had noticed immediately even as I was still so entangled in the material textures of Basin, and this relates to the figure of Shadow — and his later identification as Aslan. Yes. You have read it correctly. The name of the vodka-swigging, hairy-bellied rescuer of Figure from death — who sets in motion, through the intrusion of his interruption of death, the whole of the narrative that follows, is identical to the gruff and similarly hairy saviour of that mid-century Christianised children’s fantasy novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as might be found in the kid’s fiction section of any well-stocked Australian suburban library that hasn’t yet purged itself of some its yellowest and least unreconstructed paperback novels of the mid-twentieth century. Of course, Aslan is also — like so many names of Turkish or Turkic origins — the literal rendition of a word for an ordinary referent that any person might look up in a bilingual dictionary: in this case the Turkish word for lion. And yet, to the average anglophone reader this century, or even the second half of the previous one, the name Aslan in any piece of writing is far more likely to evoke this cosy children’s figure of fantasy than anything else: the Jesus stand-in of CS Lewis’s series of books for children whose charmingly jolly accounts of escape from all the trappings of tedious modernity — in the third volume, vegetarianism, non-smoking and progressive models of education are particularly mocked — had already begun warming the hearts and minds of children of donnish fathers and middle-class guardians who, like the Aslan of Basin, still enjoyed — like so many of the paternal figures in Lewis’s great mate JRR Tolkien’s novels — a little tobacco and a favourite tipple or two of a good strong brew in adult-y peace. This Aslan, like the one in the English children’s novel, has the vision of a future that has been impossibly — spiritually or magically — transformed:

Holy Mother of God deliver us from Evil, insh’Allah. The System’s all fucked. Polluted. Fallout, people keep using the word fallout, as if this is all something new. The world we know is a product of hatred, but its end will be the work of love.

Of course, it is the very accumulation of such “jargon and sickness from Aslan”, as Figure later acknowledges, that contributes to his later irritation with Spiz. And yet, this same Aslan has saved Figure’s life, his ungrateful young life. In fact, to read this version of Aslan in Basin in the light of the Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is to understand that the gruffly ugly, vodka-addicted male who allows himself to be duped arrives in the nick of time to save the life of not the young heroic male of the story — not at all, that is, the equivalent of the high king Peter in CS Lewis’s original novel, but rather Peter’s younger brother Edmund, who – like Figure – pulls the desirous attention of older beings towards himself, but unlike Figure, is fooled by that attention rather than fools.

The other literary resonance that I noted extends from the diametrically opposite end of Basin — that is from the last pages — from when the gentle evocation of a caressingly “seafaring childhood” in its final hazy lines prompts something to roll out, if only in reverse, like some sort of long and translucent veil that has been sent shimmeringly backwards over the entirety of the dystopian novel-scape we have just read. The imagery of this final section evokes the very kind of magically successful, dissociative bid for freedom that the pre-adolescent and highly nerdish boy Jonathon makes at the end of Angela Carter’s gothic fable The Magic Toyshop, when — as we infer from his sister Melanie’s merged identification with him in a dream — Jonathon evades, by means of escaping out to sea in one of his long-imagined ships, the fast building pressure of inter- and intra-familial violence before it erupts in shattered furniture and fire. It is a wonderful irony that such a young, head-in-the-maritime-clouds figure seems to be shimmering before us at the very end of McCulloch’s novel, since in Basin all the pre-adolescent children that Figure comes across in his travels are mostly too doped up and unintelligible, hardly human, to ever have a single childish play-filled thought. And yet, as we might wonder now with this new soft gauze rolling backwards over the more putrescent of the sores Figure has encountered in his travels, even these unlovely brats might be reimagined as lovely when they, like Jonathon, relax into the bliss of their chosen means of necessary, dissociative release.

As soon as I read Figure through these two cross-layerings of other fiction as they extend from either end of the novel, that is through the nerdishly removed innocence of Jonathon in The Magic Toyshop and the susceptible ego of Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I was able — peculiarly perhaps, given my difficulty with reading Figure’s encounter with Spiz — to return to a state of both wondering at and admiring the astounding formal inventiveness of McCulloch’s novel as it presents so clearly, even as it continually destabilises, the many contrasting figure–ground relationships in the book: human and landscape, older and younger male, whoredom and god’s police, semen and person, phallus and submission, and now: innocence and addiction. This is no mean achievement.

In fact, due to the intricate interrelations of all of these perceptual shifts in the novel, and particularly as they include binary pairings of material as troubling as they are pungent and powerful, and at times almost fey, I slowly began to understand that what had seemed simple and graspable as a single gesture at three AM at my desk, was anything but. While there is one sustained shifting gesture from emergence to re-mergence in Basin, everything else within the frame shimmers, everything else shifts, erupts, disperses. This meant that I started to realise that it was no longer that simplest of Gestalt psychology’s visual puzzles, the “Rubin vase”, that I needed to be holding in mind as I thought about Basin, but rather another that was almost as famous, but also far more usefully complex, ambiguous and disturbing: the young woman/old woman image, known as “My Wife and my Mother-in-Law”, as proffered to those same Gestalt psychologists in 1930. In the black and white version of this more complex binary image, it is the whole of the foregrounded form that is involved as we figure out, so to speak, what we are seeing. Nothing about the focalised shaping in the middle of the image recedes as background as our perception changes. Instead, it is re-imagined or re-understood. In “My Wife and my Mother-in-Law”, when we spot the figure in the first instance, either as an apparently thoughtless and confident young woman or “wife” or as the sunken, sadder, heavier, and far, far uglier image of a “Mother-in-Law”, the other of the possibilities does not simply vanish into the remainder of a bisected image-whole, as it does in the “Rubin Vase”. Rather it is assimilated into easily overlooked details of the figure ostensibly in focus. And so, when we first see the young girl looking away from us, her lowered eyelashes could soon shift, as the figure shifts for us, into that of the mother-in-law’s, as can also the ownership of feather and scarf and dark bristling fur. But the pert little nose of the young girl figure, when our view changes, becomes just one more bag under the eyes of the older woman, or else a wart; the ear of the younger sags into the older one’s eye; the smooth, taut chin and jawline of the younger into the immense proboscis of the older; the slim band of elegant black velvet at the younger one’s throat, into the lipless gape of the older one’s mouth; and finally the energised up-sweep of the younger neck, into the protruding toothless jaw as it sinks into the rougher-looking, matted texture of the fur that belongs now, rather, to this mother-in-law figure who, by rights of the most obvious indications of relative age, I as reader would most line up with if I were forced to align with one or other reading, so to speak, of this image, since — due to the logic inherent in such an image-machine — it cannot be with both at the same time. Let alone somewhere between.

Because, however much I admire what McCulloch achieves in this his brilliantly written debut novel — an achievement that will no doubt be followed by more and more-fascinating, more and more-breathtakingly complex and yet elegant, simple writerly objects — I am still left with a troubling residue. While Basin doesn’t in fact force the reader to choose between its spinning dualisms, I found, nonetheless, that certain choices or allotments seemed — by virtue of their extreme difference from each other — to be offering one or another mask that, like the uncanny agency of the plastic bag which, having once been a passive object of violence on the first page of the novel, now, by the end, “sticks itself to my face”. It was as if I had known in my body that my allotment in any sort of gothically enhanced image puzzle, in which one polar tendency of its several binaries slipped and spun in the broad smooth zone of cum and youth, could never be the pert young Figure who, like the wife in the young-woman/old-woman image, continually turns away from others in order, all the better, to move on to something else, but rather the one who knows what it’s like to be stuck for months on end in the “sensuous surface” of something that she could not yet assimilate and neither could she spew. Who broods on the stirring of anger inside her: this sadder, this heavier, this uglier and much aged woman who, as I write these final lines, is filled, what’s more, with the insuperable sadness of watching her own very dear, dying mother-in-law sink into wordlessness (a woman of wit, warmth and intelligence whose cells are failing). Yes, rather the large-faced sad one. Rather the thought-filled crone.


Works referenced

Carter, A 1967, The Magic Toyshop, Virago Press London.

Guyotat, P 1967, Éden, Éden, Éden, Gallimard, Paris.

Kristeva, J 1982, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (trans LS Roudiez), Columbia University Press, New York.

Lefort-Favreau, J 2018, Pierre Guyotat Politique: Mesurer la Vie à l’Aune de l’Histoire, Lux éditeur, Montréal.

Lewis, CS, 1959, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, UK.

Sontag, S, 1972, “Against Interpretation”, D Lodge (ed) 20th Century Literary Criticism, Longman, London, UK,  pp. 652–60.

Summers, A, 2002, Damned Whores and God’s Police, Penguin, Camberwell, Vic.

Walpole, H, 1982, The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Jen Craig

Jen Craig is the author of the novels Since the Accident (2009) and Panthers and the Museum of Fire (2015), which was longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, and most recently Wall (2023). She is currently living and working on unceded Darug and Gundungurra lands in NSW.

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