Mind the Gaps: Jack Cox’s Novel “Dodge Rose” – part 1
Dodge Rose (Dalkey Archive Press, 2016), the first novel by Australian writer Jack Cox, is a linguistic tour de force that kept me reading and Googling into the wee hours. It’s one of those rare books that will absorb and reward all the reader participation that you might want to put into it. As soon as I finished it, I started reading it again – partly to see just how much I had missed the first time and partly to admire Cox’s deft, Joycean handling of language. And what I discovered during my second reading is that there is a second, hinted-at narrative completely hidden within the novel of Dodge Rose and her family. Dodge Rose turns reading into a contact sport.
The first half of the book takes place in Sydney, Australia in 1982, when a pair of twenty-one year olds – Maxine and Eliza – try to cope with the estate of the recently deceased Dodge Rose. Our narrator is Maxine and she might or might not be the adopted daughter of Rose. (She’s not sure.) Maxine had lived in Rose’s apartment, taking care of the ill, aging widow for a number of years, while Eliza is Rose’s niece who has traveled from the countryside to the city. Together, they try to come into their presumed inheritance, but instead run into one problem after another. The law firm Rose had always worked with has lost her file and her will. Maxine cannot locate papers to prove Rose ever adopted her. And Rose, they eventually learn, had effectively drained her once-rich bank account. The apartment turns out to have been rented, not owned, and the furniture is almost too worthless for the auction they plan. “Property is an elusive concept,” Rose’s attorney warns.
The overarching theme of this half of the novel is the byzantine legal system in which Maxine and Eliza find themselves entangled. Over lunch with Dodge Rose’s attorney and one of his colleagues, the two women are subjected to a dense, nonlinear, and often humorous disquisition on property law that extends for nineteen pages and manages to span much of Australia’s history.
…I would eventually like to draw your attention as we are swept heretofrom towards the more dispersive spheres of jurisprudence to the desirability of apprehending something of the distinction between real property and personal property, as it is therein one encounters the peculiarity of the situation pertaining to the Colony of New South Wales. Difficile est. Do not think that through the mere process of elucidation I exaggerate those incoherencies adhering in many a mechanical affinity that, automaton-like, continues to function in the absence of more than a soul. They present nonetheless no deficiency of occasions to take fright. When Forbes ruled in 1825 that no grant from the Crown is good, unless the Great Seal be affixed to it…
The real joy of this book is its narration. In the first half the narrator is Maxine, and what a character she is. She tends to uses language aggressively (the “thrashed cement” of a building’s architecture, for example), employing a vocabulary that will have readers scrambling for a dictionary. (“Paul might have yelled if his blasted thropple hadn’t amphigoried such a natural reflex into something resembling a distant trill.”) Random, disconnected thoughts – often in Latin, French, German, or Italian – frequently bubble up into her narrative flow, forcing comprehensibility to unravel on a regular basis. Does young Maxine really speak all of these languages? At one point she blurts out: “Who the hell gave me this extravagant education”?
The second half of the novel jumps back to 1928 (I love the symmetry of the 82/28 year flip), the year that the Dodge family moved into the brand new apartment where most of the action in the first half took place. The narrator is now a very young Dodge Rose herself, who tells her story from the limited but often endearing perspective of a seven- or eight-year old. She focuses on her parents (her father was a prominent banker) as they furnish the apartment, go about Sydney, and visit her maternal grandparents on a sheep farm in Yass, New South Wales. (This is very possibly the farm that Eliza’s mother seems to have inherited; Maxine remarks that Eliza will one day be rich because of sheep.) Rose’s narrative will remind readers of the childhood sections of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. She begins: “enow i said. wide. woops. there goes monday. open. cell. whats this made of. bumwool. in my. like a flick. gen lick. peepers. orgen. molten. before. weaver. after. stardust.” And here, she describes bringing a box of coins to her father’s bank, hoping to open an account:
he stares over the receding ripple of his chins. you come carrying your worldly goods. we had our conversation. he took the box out of my hands and he got his fingers under the rim of the lid prised it off and tipped the coins out on the table, then he stood me on a chair, put the lid back on the box and returned it. he ran his hand through the little heap, letting what he had gathered clatter back through his fingers. what do you think boys.
its a start.
dad nodded and helped me off, murmured you will have to be escorted to the other side madame, quite radiant, his finger to his lips like cupid fixing on money, smoothed his moustache down and explained to me how the commonwealth bank is supposed to work.
Throughout Rose’s narration, we are fed bits of Australian history and we are treated to yet another long-winded oration. This time, one of her father’s banking colleagues launches into a barely comprehensible history of Australian banking policies and government economic control. This speech is rendered even less coherent than the earlier lecture on the law, confronting the reader with a nonstop accretion of phrases that goes on for one unbroken “sentence” lasting some thirteen pages. It looks as if Cox has applied William Burrough’s cut-up process to a text on Australian banking and economics by chopping the original sentences into small morsels and reshuffling them.
…begins year of before the war is over the commonwealth 1923 24 crisis 1893 crisis bank another crop were of banks so why these bank terrific clusters that developed the requires analysis of the flow of bruce-page capital into the banking government system…
With the change in narrator in the second half, there is also a noticeable textual shift. With Dodge Rose as narrator, Maxine’s linguistic pyrotechnics are largely replaced by typographic and grammatical idiosyncrasies. Cox never employs quotation marks (“There is going to be a lot of he said she said to this”), but now he also begins to abandon capital letters and punctuation marks, leaving the reader nearly rudderless. Even spelling is fungible. We run across words written with Elizabethan spelling (“boke” for book and “bosome” for bosom), as well as a kind of angry, illiterate spelling (“Fuk this shit I said I have rites”).
To further complicate things, Cox has inserted eight small black-and-white photographs into the book. Two of those images are nearly indecipherable and six are essentially identical images of the same bathroom. And there are a handful of physical gaps in the text that seem to be holding places for photographs or paragraphs that were omitted. But more about the photographs later.
So what are we to make of this incomplete story of Dodge Rose and her family? The book’s uncredited epigraph – “Revenge is a wild kind of justice” – tells us that the soul of the book is somehow about the evolution of law as a way of supplanting raw emotion (“revenge”). The quote comes from Francis Bacon’s “On Revenge” (1625): “Revenge is a wild kind of justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong putteth the law out of office.” In his Acknowledgements, Cox credits two publications as the sources for ideas about land tenure and landed property rights. Thus, the story of the Rose family is embedded within a larger narrative of Australia, Australian law, and, inherently, the conflict between immigrant settlers and native Aborigines.
Cox’s great coup, in Dodge Rose, is to have written a book that is essentially about the indigenous peoples of Australia while keeping this aspect of the story utterly and almost invisibly submerged beneath the narrative of the Rose family and the other ancestors of Australia’s white immigrant settlers. This hidden narrative of the indigenous peoples exists only in coded words and phrases, in the long-buried histories of names mentioned in passing or monuments casually encountered on the street.
Dodge Rose is literally and figuratively riddled with gaps, the primary one being the decades-long gap between the two halves of the novel, which leaves much of the Rose family story untold. There are also the physical gaps in the text, like the one shown above. But more importantly, there is an entirely unseen narrative tucked discreetly within the gaps of his book. Let’s look at how Cox creates one of these gaps as he introduces the character of a young girl who is simply named “x,” a girl whose history – like her name – is a gap that requires the reader to fill in the blanks. Part way through the second half, while staying in Yass, Dodge Rose and her parents visit with the priest from the local Catholic church. Dodge’s mother and the priest have a brief, incomplete conversation: “we have tried the established channels, said mother, but its difficult now to get a. yes, its become the case all over the state.” The unspoken noun in this conversation is “servant.” A few paragraphs later, the priest introduces the Dodges to a young girl who is merely described as being about twice as old as Dodge – so she is probably in her mid-teens. The young girl says to the Priest “i hope im getting paid for this,” to which the Deacon remarks “you can see she hasnt been through cootamundra.” The Rose family takes in “x” and she lives with them in Sydney, watching over Dodge and doing some cooking. “x” is never physically described (nobody in Dodge Rose is ever really given much of a physical description), but with a bit of research we can deduce that the coded reference to “cootamundra” must indicate the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls, which (according to Wikipedia) was a boarding school (1911-1968) for young Aboriginal girls who were forcibly taken from their families to be trained as servants. So “x” turns out to be a young Aboriginal girl, abducted by the state and placed into servitude.
This hidden identity of “x” also helps our understanding of the otherwise inexplicable ending of Dodge Rose. When Dodge and “x” return to their apartment after sneaking into the fabulous auction of furnishings and luxury items from an estate at Hopewood House (an actual event that took place on December 12 & 13, 1928), “x” suddenly takes up a golf club and begins to smash in the Rose family upright piano, the sound of which is transformed into an alphabet soup of meaningless letters spilled across the book’s four final pages. And since Maxine has earlier told us that her mother smashed the piano, we now know that Maxine is the daughter of “x.” This violent act against property, enacted by a young Aboriginal whose life has been stolen from her, is a final twist on the epigraph that “revenge is a wild kind of justice.” Much like “x,” Maxine and Eliza find their own inheritance has vanished.
In part 2, I will write about several of the major themes in Dodge Rose, including the use of photographs.