In Scott McCulloch’s debut novel Basin, an aimless nomad called Figure traverses an interminable landscape that feels similar to the impossible staircase in Escher’s lithograph Ascending and Descending. Figure roams the territories bordering the Black Sea, forever moving onwards and forever circling back onto himself. His wayward journey recalls a bad dream: “I feel I’m a ghost who’s wandered into the odyssey of a lunatic,” he reflects.
Despite the surface-level chaos and busyness, this is a novel about solitude. The story is placed at the crossroads of dream and reality – “a metaphysical homeland, an afterlife of visions” – where Figure wonders, “Have I hallucinated this terrain?” A plot summary tells us little about Basin. The novel begins as Figure is rescued from suicide-by-poison by a rebel named Aslan, who informs us of an indeterminate civil war occurring on this side of the Black Sea. Figure makes his escape on the last boat to leave and once he reaches the other shore he continues his nomadic endeavours through a phantasmagoria of gambling, drinking, expulsion, violence, gleeful sadism and profanity.
Characters offer our vagrant narrator food, shelter, moonshine or dubious home-brewed narcotics. Then he’s on his way again, chasing another will-o’-the-wisp. By the novel’s end we are none the wiser regarding the ongoing war or Figure’s history and purpose. To become bogged down in cause and effect, the novel suggests, would be to overlook psychological and cosmic urgencies. In the tradition of the classical epic, this journey is the outward projection of a journey of the mind and soul.
McCulloch is a painterly writer who supplies passage after passage of great beauty in the precise and careful rendering of the Black Sea as a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape. Basin treads similar ground to books such as Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright and William S. Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night. There is an undercurrent of blokey machismo in Figure’s frequent liver punishing, his easy sexual conquests and the univocal tough-guy talk from every character, including the women.
Vodka-soaked drinking binges, walk-on, walk-off characters who curse and fight and sermonise about the civil unrest that remains just out of focus, ugly-pretty landscapes that hardly differ from one another, these are the forces that govern Basin. McCulloch’s defamiliarisation of the setting, the protagonist, the sense of time and the broader conflict distance Figure’s quest from reality and history. Basin is simultaneously vivid and enigmatic: a compelling paradox.
Black Inc, 192pp, $24.99
Black Inc is a Schwartz company
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as "Basin, Scott McCulloch".
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