Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 12, 2017

Dodge Rose, by Jack Cox

Regular readers know that I am making my way through James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and have begun to recognise aspects of it that have made their way into other works of fiction – but I never expected that reading it would be good preparation for reading Jack Cox’s Dodge Rose, recently shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for New Writing.  The opening lines only hint at what lies in store:

Then where from here.  When the train rolled over a canopied bridge the eyes of the boy in the opposite seat opened and closed to the broken sun but he dozed on. His head was rocked against a woollen sleeve.  Eliza had stretched her legs out in the space beneath his feet and now she crossed them and pressed her thumbs to the bundle in her lap.  The shoes above hers swung back and forth like pendulums staccato lights between the shadows that beat through the carriage through the bridge but for all his moving parts the boy remained oblivious and his brief eyes gave back nothing but the wrong end of his reveries.  Eliza yawned and turned towards the window.  Before wide green plots the spokes of the canopy blew past, then they were gone. (p.1)

I will say at the outset that there is much about this book to like but also much that puzzled me.  I suspect that re-reading would reveal some answers, but that clever as this work of fiction undoubtedly is, I did not like it enough to want to re-read it now even if I could.  (It is due back at the library).  It might, however, be a book that niggles away at me demanding to be re-read in the way that Ulysses did, (and still does although I’ve now read it four times).  Dodge Rose might be the brave start of a great author’s career.

Or it might, as others have suggested, be a prank written to prove a point …  In fact, I was quite surprised to see from the photo at the ABC RN Books and Arts page that Jack Cox is actually a real person… because I had wondered, thoughts triggered partly by the allusive names of the title and its author, and partly by my adventures in reading Mud Map, Australian Women’s Experimental Writing whether Dodge Rose was written by a women’s collective.  I can only rationalise this intuition by noting that feminist issues of power and agency jostle for dominance throughout the book.  (Yes, I realise that men can be feminists too).

Anyway…

There are two narrators to deal with: the first is ostensibly Max (Maxine), a woman who (eventually) tells us that she was in childhood described by her parents as a bit mentally retarded.  But by page 5 the reader knows something is amiss anyway.  I have recorded in my journal that Max’s memory is awry: Is she odd? Stoned?  Lying?  She doesn’t remember how the lynx or I go there.  Does she, substituting candlestick for the word phone have dementia?  But as can be seen from the opening paragraph, this narrator also relates Eliza’s journey to Sydney, which took place before they met…

Whatever about that, Eliza as Power of Attorney for her mother, is there to sort out her estranged aunt Dodge’s estate.  She was not expecting to find Max in situ, and Max as an apparent adopted child of Aunt Dodge is not the only surprise.  The complex legalities which ensue lead to a labyrinthine discourse on property law from page 38 to 56.  I tired of this after four or five pages, reverting to scanning to get through it, so I am indebted to Alys Moody’s review at the Sydney Review of Books for her insights about it:

… a lawyer explains to the women the complexity of the Australian property system, a complexity that is born of the attempt to import and apply the British doctrine of tenures and estates to the newly colonised Australian land. As the lawyer explains, such a system was ‘worse than buttered mackerell for the settlement in New South Wales’.

[…]

The problem as this lawyer explains it is not just that Dodge never owned her apartment, but that the whole concept of property ownership is stunningly precarious in an Australian context, built on the anachronistic application of property rights deriving from a feudal society to a newly colonised land. At stake, then, is not just the question of whether Max and Eliza can inherit property from Dodge, but the larger and more anxious question of whether and how Australia can inherit the frameworks and structures of British property law, the principles that make property real and that order the Australian land into a European possession.

This anxiety about grafting British frameworks onto the Australian landscape is a quintessentially settler colonial concern. It gestures to the unspoken illegitimacy of the colonial project.

Characterisation is not a feature of this book, but I found that I liked Eliza less when she discovers that the estate is worth almost nothing because Aunt Dodge didn’t, after all, own the flat (Sydney real estate!!)  and there’s no money in the bank to pay the outstanding rent.  Eliza comes of a wealthy family, and when, (she thought), there was a lot of money involved, she was willing to share the inheritance with Max, dubious as Max’s legal claim might be since there are no documents to be had, not even a Will.  Nice, I thought – an ethical character standing in contrast to the pompous intricacies of the legal system which rarely offers justice, much less ethical solutions.  But when Eliza learns that the furniture (but not the fixtures) is all that might be theirs to share, she starts a hasty process to sell it before any claimants have a chance to appear.  Not so ethical after all.  Ah well…

I am making this part of the story seem more coherent than it appears at first reading.  This is not a book to read, as in curl up and turn the pages one after the other to follow a storyline of some sort.  This is a book where stopping to take notes is a good idea, so that when something crops up in later pages, the elusive cues and resonances might have found their way into the notebook.  Pages 96-7 I found incomprehensible (à la Finnegans Wake without the linguistic word play).  Here’s a sample:

Outside the traffic was building, or had been, once upon a time.  Here we go.  It’s possible you may be losing your head.  Or your hands.  That would be a decorous exergue to the principle of separation.  Offering baskets of Dead Sea fruit in a cephalophoric procession, on a pier glass.  Make way for the square world development.  What did I say about lifting apart I seem to recall that was better.  Robbed at the Foule Oke.  High above the future tumult I straightened my stockings if I hadn’t started ripping my hair out by the roots already, rhetorically.  Forget it it’s too late now. (p.96)

The second narrator (also female) makes her appearance shortly after this, on page 99.   By the memories related, she seems to be Dodge Rose herself, perhaps telling stories about her life to Max.  The era is the very early 20th century, (dated by a reference to ’09, blink and you’ll miss it) and the flat is a centre for a Bohemian crowd of theatre people.  There are shopping trips to Sydney’s department stores, and references to the pioneering age of flight.  There is a visit to the family property at Yass, where a character called x joins them.  This anonymous naming and her subsequent relegation to the kitchen alerts the reader to her Aboriginality, which is confirmed by a reference to Wybalenna, the settlement at Flinders Island which George Robinson fatally set up as a refuge for Tasmanian Aborigines in the 19th century.

Again, I am obscuring the difficulties of interpreting the narration.  It is full of truncated sentences, run-on sentences, abbreviated speech, gaps, idiosyncratic punctuation, very long paragraphs, (deliberately) misplaced or wrongly used words.  It is distinguishable from the first narration by the absence of capital letters altogether with one or two exceptions.   The author of Dodge Rose makes no concessions to the reader at all: there is work to be done in making sense of this fiction, and I suspect that interpreting it could perhaps follow Tindall’s approach to interpreting Finnegans Wake.  He did it with a team of students bringing their combined knowledge to bear on the puzzles.  The question is, of course, is Dodge Rose going to be worth investing such time and scholarship?  Maybe just a bookgroup, eh?  A patient and determined bookgroup…

For there is also another long, very long ramble, this time about the pernicious behaviour of banks.  The Commonwealth Bank in particular, which Google tells me began operations in 1912.  This section goes from p.147 to p.160 and it is boring.  I assume it’s meant to be: this book is too clever for it to be a mistake.  It’s a parody of a style, I think, in the way of James Joyce, but Joyce knew when to stop. In Chapter 3 of Finnegans Wake can get away with a two page list of insults; he doesn’t test the reader’s endurance by making it three.

And there’s the same problem IMO, with four pages of onomatopoeia representing the smashing of a piano.  Here’s a bit of it:

j hop oepf eso po o tt te eem ens ennnna ak tg ebor e nes s ssii oos  soo ss oo (p.188)

Four pages of this, and that’s the end of the book, apart from acknowledgements including about the B&W pictures in the text.  That’s something else I didn’t understand.  Why were there six duplicates of the 1920s bathroom from Home Beautiful?  Well, one of them has a scribble on it: if it’s a game of spot-the-difference I couldn’t be bothered investing my time in peering at them.  And what is the point of the blurred image of the CBA board room?  It’s almost impossible to see what it is.

Something else: the acknowledgements also say that an earlier version of this book was submitted for the degree of Master of Philosophy at the University of Sydney.  Rousseau wrote novels like Émile to espouse his theories of education (see my thoughts here) so this snippet intrigues me.  I wonder what the Australian philosopher Damon Young who wrote The Art of Reading could contribute to a reading of Dodge Rose?

Author: Jack Cox
Title: Dodge Rose
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925355611
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Dodge Rose


Responses

  1. I say that I like experimental literature, but I probably like the idea of experimental literature. Thankyou for all the time you spent deciphering this work, because I think I’d skip over the bits I didn’t understand and hope it still all meant something at the end, which if I understand you correctly, it doesn’t.

  2. […] Dodge Rose (Jack Cox, Text) see my review […]


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