Dodge Rose by Jack Cox (Dalkey Archive, Feb. 2016) Reviewed by Jeremy M. Davies

Dodge Rose
by Jack Cox
(Dalkey Archive, Feb. 2016)

Reviewed by Jeremy M. Davies

I promise to retire this anecdote after one last airing, but here goes: When Dodge Rose first landed at my desk at Dalkey Archive Press, I thought it was a hoax. A trap. (It wouldn’t have been the first.)

I showed it to my assistant editor of the time and he agreed: novels like Dodge Rose don’t come into one’s life in brown paper, humble, untrumpeted. They’re whispered of, recommended, enthused and griped about, passed around, gradually shibbolethed, forgotten . . . then reprinted with glowing intros, taught, accepted, and still never enough read.

It wasn’t possible, we said, that a young, Australian Beckett with virtually no publications to his name had just dropped in our laps. No, there was some sinister plot in the works. A plot to—well, what? Was this some éminence grise of the mainstream cutting loose and producing the high-modernist novel he or she had been lusting to write since their teenage infatuation with Ulysses? Or could this be one of Dalkey’s own authors—or employees?—submitting a novel under a false name to see if we would be able to sniff out the imposture? It even occurred to me to worry that Dodge Rose was, Ern Malley-wise, a prank, an attempt to snare a small press known for publishing “subversive” fiction into signing on a book written expressly to parody said fiction. There had to be a catch, no?

After all, when we sit down with Joyce, with Beckett, we sit down with the celebrity as well as the text, often instead of the text, even—you know who you are—in preference to the text. Sitting down with Dodge Rose, we were alone in the presence of Dodge Rose, and could not entirely believe the evidence of our senses, which told us, from the first gnomic sentence—“Then where from here”—that we were in the presence of the Real Thing.

Even now, with the book finally hitting stores, and the author’s identity confirmed (supposedly confirmed), there is a soupçon of suspicion in me, as though the trap’s jaws are still waiting, out of sight, to bite. Perhaps this is because, even now, after multiple readings, Jack Cox’s Dodge Rose remains something of a mystery—this is a book that demands a book’s worth of exegesis, not a brief appreciation—but its elusiveness is something I have come to treasure, and is in any case central to the book’s strategy of beguilement. It is cryptographic and disorienting in its manner of presentation, in the density of the information presented. But this is not, as they say, a drawback—it’s a feature.

Though made up largely of dialogue, Dodge Rose eschews quotation marks, wages an almost totally successful campaign against the hyphen, and, as it progresses, empties the apostrophe, the comma, and capital letters too from its aesthetic quiver. You’ll say that these are typical modernist tics, and you’d be right, but Cox goes a ways farther than homage: this is a novel that demands of the reader that she labor continually to orient herself not only in the sentence, on the page, in the plot, but in Australian history, geography, architecture, commerce, in property law, in the properties of language and personality. The reader can never sleep, letting the comfortable mores of fiction propel her from page to page, but must ask always who is now addressing whom, where in the line or paragraph did the speaker change, the tense, the object, the tongue? And neither is there any relaxing into incomprehension—the other form of readerly slumber—because Dodge Rose is that wonderful rarity, a novel that flirts so skillfully and successfully with seeming incomprehensibility, with some private order of authorial logic, that it never once crosses the line to lapse into the mere objecthood of so much “experimental” fiction, content to be read as a blank or black page. That is, Dodge Rose wants to be enjoyed, to be entered and experienced, to be grappled with and for its subjects to be grasped, not skimmed over. Its intentions are legible, but other; its tools are familiar but wielded askew. It is a work of fiction that, despite its playfulness of diction, its successful absorption and deployment of the full compliment of modernist artifice, is committed to meticulous research and deployment of the real—the real in all its definitions: “fixed, permanent, or immovable things”—while operating in a mode nonetheless dominated by a syntax of confusion, a vocabulary of multilingual malapropism.

As must be evident, then, whatever my paranoid, Dalkeyesque suspicions at the beginning of my relationship with Dodge Rose, I harbor no such doubts about the essential point: that it will go down as one of the most charming, mystifying, and dexterous first novels to have appeared in some thirty years.

So what is Dodge Rose about? What is it like?

It is a novel taking up the conversation in which Joyce and Beckett, Stein and Gaddis, Faulkner and Djuna Barnes and Henry Green were all, to various measures, engaged. More recent comparisons would be Sergio De La Pava’s or Jeff Bursey’s novels of legal transcript, though filtered in Cox’s case through the hilariously befuddling fustian of his genius countryman Joseph Furphy’s 1903 Such is Life, and with echoes throughout of the Dickens of Bleak House and his discursions there on the Court of Chancery.

There are two portions, not quite halves, to the book. The first is the story of Eliza, who travels in 1982 by train from rural Yass to Woolloomooloo—lovingly excoriated later as “woolloomoolethal,” “woolloomoolewd,” and “woolloomoolibertine”—to execute the will of her mother’s (probable) sister, Aunt Dodge. In Dodge’s supposedly vacant apartment, she finds our narrator, Maxine, called Max, who was raised by Dodge from childhood, but may or may not be Dodge’s daughter, understood legally or biologically—Max can’t remember. Both young women hope to make quick work of Dodge’s estate and thereby come into enough money to live as they please. They visit Dodge’s lawyer; they are orated to by a lawyer friend of said lawyer over many pages on the subject of Australian property law—the foundations of the real, of real estate, in fictions. They soon get a crash course too in the world of antique sales and estate auctions after their hasty decision to sell all of Dodge’s furniture before her creditors come calling. They are not, in the end, very good at profiting from Dodge’s demise, but they are very funny as they do their best to be callow and mercenary.

In the second section, the narrative is taken up by, presumably, Dodge herself. She tells us of her childhood, her family’s move to Sydney and its occupation of that same apartment immediately after the Second World War, gradually setting in place the conditions that Eliza and Maxine will inhabit/have inhabited in part one. The epic monologue of this portion of the book—for each contains one, at least one, depending on your definition of “epic”—is delivered in a bank and so concerns the history of Australian economics and currency. This section, and so the novel, ends with four or so pages’ worth of a piano being struck with a golf club, the prelude to which I cannot keep myself from quoting, briefly:

she goes in i follow her i see her stand above the piano with the club raised it was a palmer did i say that compass of seven thirteen octaves overstrung action gilded iron frame brass pedal feet ivory grained e dd d e dega a g ab abbcaaedeefaaffafefffaaaaagacdbccccgfghabceffc d e e eofee eee gg gg ggggfffaa aaaa deooo ogg gg gghff fffcd dedddagddddefffkggaabbbb [. . .]

Yet neither section—Max’s, Dodge’s—plays entirely by the rules that are implied by such précises. Both narrators are, if to different degrees, unstable entities, alternating between a solid foundation in the book’s many digressions and subplots and a commentary on their recounting that originates from a space beyond the confines of the narrative’s immediacy, serving to annotate in little blips not only the situations being described but also the word choices delineating them. Dodge may be farther gone than Max—it’s difficult to determine whether Dodge’s section is meant to represent excerpts from her journals, her living thoughts, a communication from beyond, or a fluid mixture of all these modes—but Max too, like her mother or “mother,” flickers on numerous occasions between apparently incompatible manners of being, with bemused reminiscence, aphasic reverie, and a simple, involved inhabitance of her story battling for control.

Looked at another way, then, the story of Dodge Rose is this, told in reverse: Dodge passes on her manners of speaking to Max, even as she passes on her belongings and property, even as none of these things really belong to either woman, even as each woman is herself a property of the language they’ve inherited from their forebears and coevals. We live, after all, in a world where even human beings have been considered—Cox reminds us—“walking freeholds,” property to be transferred from owner to owner. And as Max says, after one of her many (accidental?) plays on words, “the versicles were there from the beginning, between [Dodge’s] howling and my own, I will always have that to fall back on when I run out of connecting words.”

By the end of the novel, those connecting words have fallen away in a hail of unpunctuated phonemes, but Dodge and Maxine and Eliza, their lawyer Bernard, the French-spouting family friend mr george, and all the rest of Dodge Rose’s cast remain, to me, pristine and ineradicable, as does their milieu. I inherit them, I pass them on, and note in passing that Cox’s obfuscations have yielded a beautiful clarity. It’s a hell of a trick. Dare I say, it’s what the game’s all about.

So, all told, Dodge Rose comes down to this: A historical novel that reads as though it originated legitimately outside of our present day. A comedy of jurisprudential, senescent horror. A capsule launched from another order of artistic ambition. A first novel that I still have trouble believing can really be a first novel.

Need I say that I am eager to see where Cox goes from here? For if Dodge Rose is a trap, I have long since talked myself into welcoming the feel of its teeth.

 

As senior editor at Dalkey Archive Press, Jeremy M. Davies acquired such authors as Edouard Levé, Mina Loy, Jack Cox, and Gerald Murnane. His novels Rose Alley and Fancy were published in 2009 and 2015, respectively; his first collection of short stories, The Knack of Doing, will appear from David R. Godine/Black Sparrow in March 2016.