‘Battle Hymn for the Avant Garde: a review of Jack Cox’s “Dodge Rose”’, by Madeleine Watts


In an extra-literary way, Jack Cox’s debut novel Dodge Rose has arrived with discreet fanfare and yet very impressive highbrow endorsement. Cox, a former Masters of Philosophy student at the University of Sydney, some-time resident of Paris and enigmatic internet presence, has published his novel with the revered Dalkey Archive Press, had the book described as “the most astonishing debut novel of the decade”, and received comparisons to Henry Green and William Gaddis. He has published Dodge Rose in America, which, while not substantially different in many ways to publishing in Australia, carries an oblique emotional weight for a national creative industry that is not entirely secure in its judgements.

He has published in America, which carries an oblique emotional weight for a national creative industry that is not entirely secure in its judgements.

Dodge Rose is divided into two sections, each focused around the same shabby apartment in Kings Cross. The book opens on Eliza, a twenty-one-year-old ingénue arriving in Sydney by train from Yass. She has been sent to the city with her sickly mother’s power of attorney, to deal with the estate of her recently deceased, estranged aunt, Dodge Rose. While the affairs are sorted through, she stays in her aunt’s picturesque Kings Cross flat with Rose’s assumed daughter Max, short for Maxine. Max is the narrator throughout all of this, although we discover this in a kind of oblique way, twenty pages into the story. Max ushers the reader through a series of Dickensian, bureaucratic hijinks. The girls visit DOCS and the Department of Land and solicitors’ offices in Woolloomooloo and various auction houses and second-hand furniture dealers in Manly. There are extended discourses on land tenure law and banking, concerns about money, and the tension of whether or not the girls will have a roof over their heads in six weeks’ time.

Then at the halfway point, that narrative ends. We start another, narrated by the woman we take to be Dodge Rose herself, as a child, moving into the same apartment with her family in 1928. Grammar completely drops off the bridge here. There’s a full stop or two, sure, but all capital letters, commas, and speech marks are thrown to the wind. Dodge Rose-as-girl narrates a haphazardly eccentric Kings Cross childhood for another hundred pages as the prose gradually breaks down until the last few pages are filled entirely with disconnected letters of the alphabet, and a complete collapse of meaning.

First things first: Dodge Rose is an ambitious book, and an admirable attempt at a first novel. It does not, however, live up to its ambitions.

At some point in the publishing process the reader needs to enter into the equation.

A version of the novel was originally submitted as part of Cox’s thesis for a Master of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. This little detail in the acknowledgements page at the end of the book is deeply illuminating, as it explains the ways in which the novel can sometimes feel like something that began as an intellectual exercise, and was then turned into a novel. Dodge Rose doesn’t read like it was written for anybody. This is not to say that books should pander to readers, but at some point in the publishing process the reader needs to enter into the equation. The reader, here, has not been much considered, and so at times I found myself wondering why exactly I was reading what I was reading.

Cox studied in the English faculty at the University of Sydney. Although several years ahead of me, he and I shared the same corridors of the Woolley building, and studied under the same professors he thanks in his acknowledgements. One of these teachers had a cult following among a kind of hyper-intellectual male English student, an appeal I could never entirely comprehend. I took a seminar on aesthetics with this particular teacher in my third year, and my principal memory of the class is the full half hour in which the professor rapturously detailed the way the ‘ch’ in the word ‘chthonic’ serves to project the reader into a kind of ecstasy. The psychological skip over the silent letters, he proposed, propelled you as a reader into the sublime. This, I thought, is the kind of thing you find profound when you’ve been stuck too long in your head, or too long in the corridors of the Woolley building. It was the kind of thing that made the young men, the acolytes of the professor, exceptionally tedious drunks.

It is this kind of thinking—the thinking that reminds me of intellectual undergraduates—that makes Dodge Rose feel like an intellectual exercise that hasn’t achieved its ambitions as a novel. But to that end, the novel is extremely ambitious. The language moves between relative realism and stream of consciousness, channelling a host of modernist writers – Joyce, Faulkner, and Woolf are all obvious reference points. The problem is that it’s never clear to what purpose Cox is using these techniques.

Instead, Cox’s language muddles, evades clarity, and at times infuriates. He goes easy on punctuation, sometimes spelling, indulges in long and tedious discussions about land tenure law and the history of banking in great Bernhardian paragraph break-free information dumps, makes Joycean lists and inventories that don’t do much but tell you what you could buy at Woolworths on George Street in 1982 (or right now, come to that). None of this is ‘bad’, per se. It’s just that it all falls short of what it could be, and I was left flailing, not knowing why I was reading what I was reading, or where I was meant to invest my energies.

For all the talk of occupancy and land tenancy laws, there is a winking great hole left open which never addresses Indigenous Australian occupation of the land, or native title.

And so you’re left with a lot of questions. Why was the novel written in this way? What is it trying to achieve? And there are other deeper concerns. For instance: for all the talk of occupancy and land tenancy laws, there is a winking great hole left open which never addresses Indigenous Australian occupation of the land, or native title. This, for a novel dealing with twentieth-century Australian history, seems poorly conceived. Moreover, it’s never entirely clear why the book is set in 1982 to begin with. Cox doesn’t do much with the era – there’s no mention of Fraser or mullets or Split Enz. The use of the historical fiction genre doesn’t seem to have any purpose or make any kind of commentary on today.

Contemporary Australian publishing is by most measures conservative. It is overly concerned with what is and is not Australian, and the industry as a whole is not especially confident in its choices. That lack of confidence primes for a lack of variation in the kinds of books that are published. I mention this because I couldn’t help reading Dodge Rose and thinking ‘this would never have been picked up by a publisher in Australia.’

Instead, Dodge Rose has been published by Dalkey Archive Press, one of those tiny but well-respected American publishers that have more literary prestige than they do money. Its publishing list is frequently saddled with the kind of adjectives that make its books bad bets for big, mainstream publishers: words like ‘experimental’ and ‘innovative’ and ‘avant-garde.’ Dalkey is a non-profit: its publications are funded by grants and cultural organisations like the Illinois Arts Council and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It would not exist but for the donations and support of various foundations. Many of their books are foreign translations, and in fact they publish more translations per year than any other English-language publisher. And yet a quick scan of the Dalkley books that are in the stack by my desk reveals writers that are hugely important to me – Violette Leduc, William Gass, Anne Carson. These are writers that are often described as ‘experimental’ - too frequently a synonym for ‘difficult’.

This is not to say that ‘experimental’ literature is, in fact, difficult. Or more accurately, that difficulty is inherently burdensome, or hollow. Some of the best books published in the last five years have been ‘experimental’ in nature, and I include in that bundle books by writers like Eimear McBride, Max Porter and Maggie Nelson. Writers such as these aspire to do things with the novel that aren’t being done. They are more intellectually rigorous, more stylistically inventive; they express emotion and thought in ways which are exciting and which make you happy to be alive to read them. For these writers, and indeed for the writers to whom Jack Cox is compared in Dalkey Archive Press’s jacket copy—Henry Green and William Gaddis—the challenge of reading ‘difficult’ writing is forgotten because the prose of these writers manages to render the familiar world fresh and new and infinitely strange.

Many of the same kinds of books get published again and again – books with the same clean, unornamented, realist prose.

Any ‘experimental’ or ‘avant garde’ or really innovative literature has a harder time finding a home in Australia unless there’s a lot of clout behind it. What this means is that we have a publishing landscape that can look a little stale. Many of the same kinds of books get published again and again – books with the same clean, unornamented, realist prose, the same engagement with the private dramas of the domestic. There is a lack of work that pushes boundaries, work that’s weird and interesting and ‘experimental’, work that would make the landscape richer and more compelling. This kind of literature tends to fall down a hole somewhere between poetry open mics and the inboxes of under-funded and beleaguered publishing houses. Literary magazines are really its only outlet.

That is not to say, of course, that nothing is being done. In the last year a new crop of independent publishers and literary agencies have been established, shaking up the habits of mainstream publishers. This very magazine is set to begin an alternate life as a publisher, and both The Good Copy and The Melbourne Agency have set promising goals in branching out into different media and focusing on creating new models for production and distribution in Australia.

But there should be more. Australian publishers should be taking more risks, giving ‘experimental’ and ‘avant garde’ and ‘difficult’ a chance. The more young writers are encouraged to tend towards experimentation, creativity and weirdness—and given the chance to fail at those things—the better and more vivid the books published in this country are going to be, and the more likely that debut authors like Jack Cox will be published first at home, rather than being taken up by American literary publishers with more prestige than money.

Dodge Rose is ambitious, but it does not make the familiar world fresh. It gets bogged down in the intellectual acrobatics in which its life began. For all that, Cox and Dalkey Archive Press should be commended for having the creativity and the drive to publish something new. We aren’t seeing enough of this in Australia.

Madeleine Watts is a writer of fiction, essays and journalism. Her writing has been published in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Griffith Review, The Lifted Brow, Junkee, The Sun-Herald and Meanjin amongst others. She is the winner of the 2015 Griffith Review Novella Competition.