“A blur of arrested speech”: Jack Cox’s Novel “Dodge Rose” – part 2
As I wrote in my earlier post, Jack Cox’s debut novel Dodge Rose (Dalkey Archive Press) is a complex, elusive, multi-level narrative. There is so much going on in these 201 pages (too much, one might argue) that it begs to be unpacked word for word, phrase by phrase. (Not to mention the likelihood that many of the book’s Australian references a will undoubtedly go right over the heads of non-Aussie readers like me.) However, my intention here is simply to look at a couple of the things that most intrigued me as I read it.
Property law. In a way, the central character in the book is not Dodge Rose or the young women Eliza and Maxine; it is an apartment in the Potts Point district of Sydney, New South Wales. The novel gives us clues to the apartment’s location, but Cox actually mentions in his Acknowledgements that it is in the Kingsclere building. Located (and still extant) at 1 Greenknowe Avenue in Sydney, it was constructed in 1912 and was designed to hold “17 enormous residential apartments.” The need to settle Rose’s estate provides Cox with the opportunity to let a lawyer lecture Maxine and Eliza at great length on the subject of property law. It’s a cockeyed, often humorous rant that has echoes of William Gaddis’ classic novel about the legal system, A Frolic of His Own. Even though I have read Dodge Rose three times now, I don’t pretend to understand the full implications of the legalisms here, but I think I’ve got some of the points that Cox wants the reader to absorb. As the lawyer dives into the legal distinctions between real property and personal property, he several times suggests that the imposition of the English legal system upon the distant colony of Australia is deeply suspect. At one point he says in passing, “it strikes us… that there is no legal title to a foot of land in the colony” and later he adds that “real property is in New South Wales the most illusory of all possessions.” So when the lawyer refers to such things as the Waste Lands Occupation Act and “unoccupied” or “virgin” land, Cox seems to be prodding us to recall that Australia was occupied by as many as a million Aboriginal people when the English began imposing its citizens, its will, and its law upon the continent.
Australian history. Dodge Rose is packed with overt and covert references to Australian history. But one of the themes at the heart of the book is the almost total erasure of Aboriginal history and of the continent’s Aboriginal inhabitants. Here’s just one example. Early in the book Maxine tells Eliza how she first met Bernard, Dodge Rose’s lawyer, at Dodge’s funeral. “I think he was drunk. Wildly groping man lurching out from between the pews. Maxine. You were a surprise. Here we go. Look around you. Flebile principium melior fortuna. Jackey Jackey.” Something has made a Latin phrase pop into Bernard’s mind, along with the words “Jackey Jackey.” The Latin phrase comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but it also turns out to be quoted on a historical plaque in downtown Sydney (about a half mile from Bernard’s law office). The plaque commemorates the life of Edmund Besley Court Kennedy (1818-1848):
This tablet was erected by the Executive Government pursuant to a vote of the Legislative Council of New South Wales in testimony of the respect and gratitude of the inhabitants of the Colony and commemorates the active services and early death of Assistant Surveyor Kennedy who, after having completed the survey of the River Victoria, was chosen by the Government to conduct the first exploration of York Peninsula, where… He was slain by aborigines in the vicinity of Escape River on the 13th December A. D. 1848, falling a sacrifice in the 31st year of his age to the cause of science, the advancement of the colony, and the interests of humanity.
Jackey Jackey an aboriginal of Merton District who was Mr Kennedy’s sole companion in his conflict with the savages and though himself wounded tended his leader with courage and devotion worthy of remembrance, supporting him in his last moments, and making his grave on the spot where he fell.
The lawyer’s surprise on seeing that Maxine is a young Aborigine causes him see the parallel between Maxine, who took care of Dodge Rose and was with her when she died, and Jackey Jackey, who did much the same for Edmund Kennedy more than a century earlier.
Cox, it seems to me, is trying to simultaneously mimic and undermine the way in which colonial history tends to obliterate the story and presence of those who once stood in the way of the colonizers. In Dodge Rose, Australia’s indigenous peoples can only be located by researching and interpreting a variety of coded references, such as historic plaques memorializing white settlers, place names like Woolloomooloo, and so on.
Embedded photographs. There are eight small, b&w photographs embedded within the text of Dodge Rose. In addition, this is a rare case when the photographs that appear on the front and back covers must also be considered part of the book, because they give us a nice clue to one of the book’s topics. The two cover photographs show both sides of a well-worn envelope that bears a postmark indicating that it was mailed from Sydney in 1847. The envelope is addressed to a Mr. O’Connell and was sent by someone whose last name was FitzRoy. A little research shows that Sir Maurice O’Connell served as acting Governor of New South Wales for a brief time in 1846 while the newly appointed Governor, Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy, made the voyage from England. Among the things to be learned by scanning the Australian Dictionary of Biography is that during Governor FitzRoy’s tenure he was deeply involved in controversial land and legal issues and he did not “to take a strong line on the protection of Aboriginals… partly because he was reluctant to quarrel with landholders who found the Aboriginals a nuisance and objected to expenditure on their welfare.”
Dodge Rose begins with a photograph placed on a page all by itself. But what the photograph depicts is not at all clear. We can barely make out the ends of two black cuboids that appear to be very smooth and shiny, set against a very dark background. Behind them is something that resembles either a fire or a wall of water that seems about to engulf the two shapes. Are they caskets being incinerated? The second photograph doesn’t appear until page 155 and its subject is equally unclear. This photograph appears to depict the interior of a room, some windows and curtains, all ablaze. In his Acknowledgements, Cox tell us that first photograph has been “provided by the Health and Safety Laboratory.” This British lab, we learn from its website, is dedicated to making “working environments and working lives safer” and among its areas of specialization is fire protection and fire safety. Cox also tell us that the second photograph is a montage depicting “the board room at 48 Martin Place” and yet another image provided by the Health and Safety Laboratory. 48 Martin Place, Sydney is one of Sydney’s great neo-classical bank buildings, constructed, significantly, in 1928, for that is the year in which the second half of this novel takes place. (One suspects that Dodge Rose’s father worked here.) The use of the Health and Safety Laboratory images seems to confirm my sense that whatever is depicted in both of these images is on fire, perhaps further reinforcing the book’s epigraph: “revenge is a wild kind of justice.”
The third photograph is of a neatly tiled bathroom in which we can see a shower, a sink, some windows, towels, and a stool. This photograph is repeated six times across a span of sixteen pages during which much of the text focuses on descriptions of the Rose family’s apartment. This repeated image will make the reader think Cox has given us a game of “what’s the difference between these pictures?” and the truth is that two of the images are slightly altered. In the fifth iteration there is a hand-drawn line that zigzags through parts of the photograph and actually extends beyond the frame of the image. And in the sixth iteration, the image has been doubled, as if the photograph was made in the midst of an earthquake. Again, Cox gives us the origin of the image, but no explanation. “The photograph of the bathroom appeared in the May 1927 issue of Australian Home Beautiful and was copied from Peter Timms’ Private Lives: Australians at Home Since Federation (Miegunyah Press, 2008).” These slowly deteriorating photographs of an ordinary bathroom appear at the same time that Maxine and Eliza are arranging to auction off all of the apartment’s furniture and as they prepare to abandon the apartment that they will never inherit.
The doubling. One of the most intriguing elements of this novel is the doubling of the female characters. In the book’s first half (1982), we have Maxine and Eliza, who only meet each other when they are forced to work together to settle the estate of Dodge Rose. In the second half of the novel (1928), we have Dodge Rose herself and the Aboriginal girl known only as “x”, who is brought in to be the Rose family’s servant when she is a young teen. (Maxine, we are led to believe, is the daughter of “x”.) Cox hints that “x” and Dodge Rose became very close, perhaps tender, possibly even lovers, and the same appears true for Maxine and Eliza, too. In fact, there are numerous parallels between the two pairs of women and the two halves of the novel, most notably the fact that both pairs of women are involved in an estate being put up for auction at the end of each half. The mirrored relationships between “x” and Dodge and between Maxine and Eliza seem to be one aspect of the revenge theme in the book’s epigraph “Revenge is a wild kind of justice.” Each of these pairs of friends overlooks the barriers between whites and Aborigines that permeates the book.
At one point in the novel Eliza examines a passport-sized photograph of Dodge Rose that she has found in the apartment. The snapshot becomes so perplexing to Eliza that she finally refers to it as “a blur of arrested speech.” And this is more or less how I have come to think of Cox’s novel, which I admire deeply. On its surface, Dodge Rose is a bit of a blur, by which I mean that it is a book which constantly teases the reader with hints and suggestions. Like the photographs that Cox uses, his writing is both suggestive and ambiguous. As narrators of their respective halves, Maxine and Dodge Rose are decidedly non-linear, driven by ever-shifting moods. In spite of the serious themes, the book is actually quite comic much of the time, especially under Maxine’s wonderfully observant eye. Simply put, Dodge Rose is great fun to read, even if you decide not to closely examine the complex and subtly interconnected world that Cox has carefully mapped out and hidden just below the surface.
For more on Dodge Rose, see Dustin Illingworth’s excellent essay over at 3:AM Magazine.