You may already know the story of Dodge Rose: a debut novel written as a University of Sydney master’s thesis, then dragged from the slush pile at the small international publisher Dalkey Archive Press – which, if you couldn’t guess of a publisher named for a Flann O’Brien novel, favours obscure translations and experimental lit. Now finally being published in the author’s home country, it has received enough attention for its toughness and unusualness that the question, Is it worth it?, almost asks itself.
The novel ends with a five-page typographical representation of a piano being smashed up with a golf club. But from its lovely first sentence, “Then where from here”, you know it is a book about the way language can hum if an author puts it together in unusual new ways.
And yet Dodge Rose, which has been roundly praised for its linguistic dexterity, does not practise invention purely for the sake of it, any more than its other most obvious, outward obsessions are objects of obsession purely for themselves. The plot is all houses and objects; it turns on property law. But a topic that might seem wilfully obscure is really a way of addressing our relationship to time. Belongings and dwellings may feel like our constant temporal companions, the chief things that bind day to day, month to month and year to year. But these same things are also what remains after we’ve gone, and resultantly, perhaps nothing so easily reminds us that we’re only on the planet for a little while.
It begins with Eliza, 21, mid-1982, coming into Sydney from her mother’s prosperous sheep farm following the death of her distant aunt, Dodge Rose. Her aim is to deal with and ideally assume ownership of the estate, especially a Kings Cross flat. The initial complication is the existence of Max, who lacks a birth certificate, adoption papers, or concrete early memories, but is perhaps Dodge Rose’s daughter, frequently our narrator, and certainly the flat’s current occupant.
Eliza and Max are each inconvenient to the other, and this could be a novel about rivalrous vying for possible wealth and stability, or at least the ability to leave Kings Cross, estate dispensed and hands dusted. Instead, there is remarkably little human conflict. In Fitzroy Gardens, reports Max, “an old woman walking her dog smiled at us nostalgically if not altogether conspiratorially”: not all young people evoke this sort of smile. But there’s something bright, beleaguered and quickly formed about Max and Eliza’s friendship. They become “the Rose girls”, enterprising solvers of legal mysteries, half-squatting in an overstuffed house, bouncing between lawyers and slowly running out of cash. Around the book’s middle, they undertake a hero’s quest to essentially surprise a hesitant antiques dealer across the harbour with a bookcase they need, badly, to flip.
Need aside, this journey may not be wholly legal, for it is unclear who owns what and who doesn’t. Cox has researched and synthesised arcane matters of property law with what could politely be called exuberance. In certain pages, this is conveyed to hilarious effect; in others, it’s conveyed with a dark, grim air, evoking the feeling of waiting in line a long time at the post office only to be told you have filled out the wrong form. It’s bureaucratic horror, classically absurdist. It culminates (though doesn’t climax – this is early in the book) in a bravura but hard-to-read 15-page monologue from one of the various experts between whom our heroes bounce. “Difficile est,” the speaker comments.
Why are these passages – often walls of text – so interesting to the reader? In part, it’s because Cox is a beautiful writer. Here is a scene of the narrator at the beach:
And, oh the wind in your face, the salt wind that massive breath that smacks you up as the grains rise between your toes like yeast. Warm glass powder that stars your feet on the way to the water. Obliterated conches. Voices glance over the surface from the boys in the deep. … The sea! Whose hand was that.
It is so stereoscopic. It’s not just about how it looks and feels to be in the sea, but about how it looks and feels to swim with other people, wondering briefly at other lives as they unfold in time. In the long institutional dialogues, this same magic is there: a specific sense of specific people, how they really are. For one interlocutor, “relevant” is rendered “relephant” and you think, Of course. You can picture this person, the kind of person who pronounces “relevant” like this. These sequences aren’t overly difficult. There are fewer boundaries between speech and thought, usage and spelling, than we might be used to, but if anything, it makes you understand how close to the centre of present-day novelistic convention certain tropes of modernism have come.
Then the book changes, and you see what Cox can really do. Without much explanation, the novel drops through time to 1928:
e n o w i said. wide. woops. there goes monday. open. cell. whats this made of. bumwool. in my. like a flick. a gen lick. peepers. orgen. molten. before. weaver. after. stardust.
It’s the consciousness of the deceased Dodge Rose. It’s gappy, poorly spelt, intermittently sensical, scrabbly, somehow like a young, busy, harried, funny mind. But although this is harder stuff – and takes up half the novel – it demonstrates that language really is sometimes able to narrow down, and focus, until it better shows how it feels to occupy a stranger’s mind. And as a book that marries consciousness to consciousness through time, it’s also about the way our country’s past might feed the present: the way nieces, cousins, narrators and even the dead are more like each other than they often think.
Language might be the reason readers come to Dodge Rose, but it’s far from wilful, surface trickery. It’s employed in service of showing how little in life is fixed; how close we always are to slipping into the silt of history. CR
Text, 176pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 30, 2016 as "Jack Cox, Dodge Rose". Subscribe here.