Reading James Cox’s Dodge Rose, I was most immediately reminded of the work of Evan Dara, although the scale on which the writers work is (for now, at least) much different. Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook (1995) and The Easy Chain (2008) are meganovels, employing an episodic, loosely picaresque formal strategy — even if neither could exactly be called narratives of any kind — while Dodge Rose is much more compact and intricately constructed. Still, each writer doesn’t merely introduce some innovative formal variation but in effect ignores fictional form as it is conventionally rendered and puts in its place something that can seem like formal anarchy, if only because the novels convey the impression they are building form as they go, out of the materials at hand.
This is, of course, an illusion, as in each case it turns out that form is carefully calibrated with the material, allowing the latter the expression that customary novel form would only inhibit. Of the two, Dara seems most willing to encourage the perception that his novels are formless, both with their length and with their sudden and unexplained shifts in setting and perspective, but Dodge Rose as well might suggest a kind of anarchy, both on the broader, formal level and also in its sentences and paragraphs, which indeed at times seem almost out of control. Ultimately, however, the reader is tempted not to conclude that the novel’s effects are random, but to suspect that in fact it hangs together through connections that remain tantalisingly partial, left to inference and telling silence.
These are novels that are frequently labeled “difficult”, but finally this difficulty usually just means they require the reader to pay attention in a particularly diligent way. If, say, The Lost Scrapbook asks the reader to assimilate many voices and tolerate many ambiguous juxtapositions, Dodge Rose requires close attention to the details provided by its two narrators, even when what they say otherwise seems obscure or even nonsensical. Because of the novel’s structure, two separate narratives belonging to two (apparently) separate narrators, the reader needs to notice echoes and allusions across the two stories. Even then, the connections can be tenuous, and their significance mysterious. Ultimately, Dodge Rose is the sort of novel that invites the careful reader to find connections and to venture interpretations that may or may not be consistent with whatever “meaning” the author himself might endorse.
Dodge Rose initially presents itself as a first-person narrative relating the arrival of Eliza Rose into Sydney, Australia, presumably to take possession of the apartment owned by the title character, Eliza’s now deceased aunt. However, the first few pages introduce, at least retrospectively, some puzzling ambiguity: Eliza’s train trip is narrated as if in the third-person, giving us access to her thoughts and perceptions, but when Eliza reaches her destination, the narrator announces the “I” with which to reveal herself as Max, awaiting Eliza’s arrival — although the name initially obscures her identity, as she is actually Maxine, apparently a tenant in Dodge Rose’s apartment. But Maxine’s presence in the apartment remains at first somewhat inexplicable. Is she Dodge Rose’s daughter? An adopted orphan? Perhaps simply a squatter? Maxine herself expresses uncertainty about her relationship to Dodge Rose when she tells Eliza that in explaining Maxine’s parentage, Dodge had provided only “[t]he usual garbage at first, until I couldn’t be bothered asking anymore.” The likely circumstances become clearer (sort of) in the second half of the book, but Maxine’s identity is never really fully confirmed.
Eliza soon discovers that her putative claim to the apartment is not at all certain, so she and Maxine decide to sell the apartment’s contents — a very large number of items, it turns out — and much of Maxine’s narrative relates their generally shambolic attempts to assess the value of Dodge Rose’s possessions and to find a suitable antique dealer to buy them. However, Maxine’s account is by no means the transparently told story of their exploits. Maxine is prone to rhetorical flourishes and digressions into seemingly extraneous information, and at one point she gives over the narration to a lawyer who offers a multi-page, single paragraph disquisition on property law. While the question of “property” in Australia is at the center of the novel’s concerns, the effect of this convoluted passage, as well as the other discursive slippages that regularly occur in the narration of Eliza’s visit (at more or less regular intervals, Maxine’s discourse devolves into a species of gibberish), is surely puzzlement on the reader’s part. The moves Cox makes are themselves not so unfamiliar in works of adventurous fiction, but their purpose here at first seems elusive, so the temptation is to expect that the novel’s second half will make the strategy at work less opaque.
But beginning to read this section, with the transition marked only by a blank page, is even more disconcerting than the lingering uncertainties of the novel’s first half. We have clearly changed time and character (but not, as it turns out, place), although quickly enough we can surmise that the new narrator is Dodge Rose. However, we do not know, and never really do know, the provenance of this narration. Have we simply moved back in time to allow Dodge Rose to speak of her experiences as a young girl? Could it perhaps be Maxine ventriloquising Dodge Rose? Perhaps the most likely explanation is that what we are now reading is from a journal that Maxine and Eliza have discovered while surveying Dodge’s possessions. Still, we don’t know if the journal entries were composed during Dodge’s growing up in the apartment she continued to inhabit after her parents’ death, or if they are her recollections at a later date.
In either case, if the reader is looking for Dodge Rose’s recitation to neatly merge with Maxine’s as the story of the life and death of the novel’s title character, it soon enough becomes clear that this won’t happen. Presented in uncapitalised prose with uncertain sentence and paragraph boundaries, Dodge’s chronicle of a relatively brief period in her childhood at first seems to offer random experiences involving her, her parents, and numerous other people they encounter or visit. It does evoke the same themes of possession and property found in the novel’s first half, as well as a focus on Australian history as manifested in the geography and architecture of Sydney. And in addition to Dodge and her family, Dodge introduces a somewhat enigmatic figure whom she refers to only as “x”. X apparently enters the Rose family orbit as a servant, but she becomes a companion of sorts for Dodge as well.
Dodge’s narrative also features a multipage digression in another character’s voice, similar to the lecture on property law that slips into Maxine’s narration. Here, when Dodge visits her father’s office with her mother and x, we are treated to a jargon-clogged exposition of banking practices in Australia, delivered by an office employee. If anything, this passage is even more disruptive than the previous blast of discursive excess, since the notion that the pre-adolescent Dodge Rose could have successfully recorded it (or that the older Dodge could remember it) is patently absurd. (Throughout the novel there are suggestions that Dodge Rose was “slow” in her thinking.) At this point, the use of this device must prompt some consideration of its implications for the novel’s aesthetic integrity.
If we don’t accept that these passages can plausibly originate in the narrating characters’ own verbal and cognitive awareness, we can first of all seek alternative explanations. Perhaps Maxine, who in her narrative has exhibited something of a mischievous spirit, is also the author of Dodge Rose’s narrative and is pulling some kind of rhetorical prank. This would give the novel coherence as Maxine’s own literary creation, but it also seems a needlessly byzantine way of developing her character, especially if the circumstances of her birth and her current status are to be made explicable. Perhaps these intrusions are indeed the intrusions of the author himself, engaged in a metafictional exercise of the sort we have come to recognise since at least the heyday of the original postmodernists. But such an exercise is by now very familiar indeed, so settling for this interpretation would make Dodge Rose disappointingly derivative and uninspired, its other formal and stylistic machinations notwithstanding. But this explanation would account for the some of the novel’s additional idiosyncrasies, its sudden digressions and linguistic slippages.
These features are more interesting if we allow them their own incongruity rather than attempt to create some kind of conventional unity, even of the established “postmodern” kind. Still, while the novel certainly offers an unusual but also active reading experience, none of the devices used in Dodge Rose could really be called innovative in themselves. We could take it as a kind of inventory of modernist/postmodernist attitudes towards the plasticity of the literary text, its capacity to be shaped and reshaped in ways that the conception of fiction simply as narrative cannot fully accommodate, but that doesn’t adequately encompass the novel’s ambitions, particularly its clear intention to take on Australian history as its true subject. The only way we can reconcile this effort to “say something” about the effects of that history with the novel’s radical formal displacement is to conclude that the form the novel has taken is neither random nor capricious.
If Dodge Rose was a work whose formal innovations were the most immediate, but also the most enduring, source of interest, then perhaps seeking a resolution to these interpretive conundrums would be a less pressing concern, but pretty clearly Cox ultimately wants primary attention paid to the theme that the novel so persistently emphasises. In this case, perhaps taking account of theme first of all allows us to discern more exactly the full ramifications of form. What does the novel’s relentless focus on the relics and the palpable features of the landscape of Sydney finally add up to, and how is this preoccupation to be understood as it impinges on the lives of Dodge Rose, Maxine, and Eliza? Why are the convolutions of the novel’s formal scheme the most aesthetically appropriate means for representing the underlying subject?
One way of answering these questions might be to follow on from the insights into the more ineffable qualities of the novel provided by Terry Pitts in an analysis on his blog, Vertigo. Pitts contends that Cox’s achievement is “to have written a book that is essentially about the indigenous peoples of Australia while keeping these aspects of the book utterly and almost invisibly submerged beneath the narrative of the Rose family and the other ancestors of Australian white immigrant settlers.” Pitts suggests we pay careful attention to the novel’s “gaps,” between which we will see “an entirely unseen narrative tucked discreetly,” a narrative that centers on x, the Rose family servant. Examining carefully the clues left in the details of Dodge Rose’s narration, Pitts establishes that x is an indigenous woman “abducted by the state and placed into servitude” through a boarding school designed for that purpose. Pitts suggests that the pairing of x and Dodge Rose is meant to mirror Maxine and Eliza, but Alys Moody, writing in the Sydney Review of Books, goes farther and argues that x is, in fact, most likely Maxine’s mother.
This is almost impossible to establish definitively — the evidence Moody cites is equivocal at best — but keeping such a shadow narrative as nebulous as possible would presumably be crucial to Cox’s purposes, otherwise the novel’s unorthodox design would be superfluous: if the “real” subject of Dodge Rose is the exploitation and dispossession of the aboriginal peoples of Australia, to hint at it too strongly might make the formal difficulties of the novel seem an impediment to grasping the intended meaning. At some point the reader is likely to ask why the author doesn’t simply concentrate attention on the theme itself rather than diluting it through gratuitous formal and linguistic games. Paradoxically, we could say that the lack of attention to the theme Pitts has discovered serves finally to focus more attention on it, resulting in a moment of heightened recognition that may in effect redeem the novel’s difficulty.
If we accept Moody’s contention that x is the crucial connection between the two sections of the book, an even more provocative linkage might be made, one that further helps us to appreciate the novel’s formal qualities. Clearly enough Maxine does not recall x as her mother, suggesting that she was left with Dodge Rose for reasons we cannot fully know, since Dodge’s narrative does not extend beyond those recollections of her childhood we are given. But might x also be a continued presence in Maxine’s narrative, a ghost, literal or figurative, who intrudes on Maxine’s stream of thought — a ghost haunting the home to which she was forcibly brought and where, presumably, she died?
Admittedly it is difficult to find much textual evidence for this interpretation, beyond what we can deduce from what is said and not said, from those portentous elisions to which Terry Pitts refers. But Dodge Rose is the sort of text that in its radical indirection practically demands such speculation. Indeed, almost any attempt to reckon with the novel’s indeterminacy will eventually need to settle for some degree of conjecture. For me, however, a perspective on the novel such as the one I have proposed recognises an aesthetic consistency in Dodge Rose that might otherwise escape us. (Dodge’s journal entries might be equally possessed by the spirit of x, for example.) Of course, I can’t know for sure whether this kind of unity was actually part of the author’s design, although it seems doubtful, at least to me, that in his pairing of the two parts of the novel Cox intended them to remain mostly separate, aside from the more obvious juxtapositions signalling the preoccupation with property and ownership. Moreover, Dodge Rose is surely a sufficiently self-enclosed work that the reader is often compelled to walk out on the interpretive limb in this way.
Finally it seems to me that Dodge Rose provokes reflection on two different conceptions of “experimental fiction”. One focuses primarily on the subversion of familiar form for its own sake, without necessarily emphasising the reconfiguration of form anew. The other is also concerned to challenge pre-existing form, but as well is still occupied with creating form, however unwonted. If we simply acknowledge the formal eccentricities of a novel like Dodge Rose but don’t much ask that they transcend mere eccentricity or caprice to achieve some sort of aesthetic continuity, I, for one, would find the work ultimately disappointing. The quirks of Dodge Rose threaten to become just quirks on their way to an unorthodox but ultimately intelligible political critique, unless we recognise its aesthetic effects as being at least as fully realised as its message.