Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Jack Cox’ Category

“A blur of arrested speech”: Jack Cox’s Novel “Dodge Rose” – part 2

Dodge Rose Fire

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.

Dodge_Rose front letter

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.

Dodge Rose bathroom

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.

Ω

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.

 

Mind the Gaps: Jack Cox’s Novel “Dodge Rose” – part 1

Dodge_RoseDodge 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 Gap

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.

Dodge Rose Page Spread

In part 2, I will write about several of the major themes in Dodge Rose, including the use of photographs.