Jack Cox is a University of Sydney graduate, a rather creative writer, and new darling of the Australian literary scene. But I feel we may be in a Emperor’s new clothes-style situation: his lauded debut novel, Dodge Rose, is a small literary experiment, but one we have seen before. I see no reason for the hushed reverence and celebration; this work is straight out of James Joyce’s playbook and right into 20th Century Sydney. It borders on interesting before falling into pretentious. It pretends to think about telling a story, before laughing at the reader for expecting such a banal thing.
Eliza Rose travels to Sydney to wrap up the estate of her Aunt Dodge, and in the family apartment finds Maxine, an orphaned girl and unknown cousin. One country and one city, one educated and one street-smart, they cautiously at first work together in the face of overwhelming post-mortem tasks. The psychological, financial, furniture, administrative and bureaucratic remains. But Cox is very clever, don’t you know, and halfway through dramatically shifts perspectives, placing us now with young Dodge Rose. The purpose of this is ultimately not clear, the ending of either story is untold. In a way the novel is composed of two tangentially related short stories, the relevance between the two left to readers’ inference.
It is striking for sure, and self-consciously modernist. There is a real skill in how the first-person voice is so acutely tuned to each character, and without the usage of traditional punctuation conversation, thought and movement blend and blur. But in the end I had very little time for Cox. It feels like he has the same references as me, the same modernist interests, the same reading lists in university, and that I have seen this all before.
This book contains one of the best examples of mansplaining I have ever seen in literature, but this is not necessarily a good thing for the reader. In a rush, seeking their solicitor for advice on the ownership of Dodge’s apartment, they find him sitting with another in the court cafeteria. After a brief explanation of their situation, the colleague undertakes an 18 page response, barely pausing for breath (or paragraph, or sentences) and stops only because a glass is knocked off the table.
“…though paronyms are not precedent, and I have made the experience in myself that you can have too many cooks, notably in orig., though I will point out inter alia abundantibus that to bite here into the cindery apply of belongings is to tough on that not altogether far from contemporaneous distinction whereby, egg, cheese and bread being abscendens from lordship, these are defined as passing through a field of useless lordship, indeed each fleetingly non valet ova dua, and therefore not of personal servitude, which requires that salva rei substantia maneat, but rather of abuse: absit omen, lex cessat, and I will get there too, to the front door…”
This quote starts halfway down the page, the sentence begins the page before, and the end of this sentence is in sight, a mere one third of a page away. And what did we learn from the learned gentleman’s response? Apart from the fact he is completely socially clueless and obtuse, nothing at all. And then, Cox’s trick is used with the antiques assessor; and then again in the bank, this time with the bonus round of containing no punctuation at all. Mansplaining is not that fun in real life; even less so three times over in a book.
I appreciate these literary writerly techniques when they are expertly used with purpose and intent. But the modernist sensibilities of Cox feel like a puppet show, and we’re getting taken for a ride. He is acting it out, and we can see the show being performed; the curtains are fraying at the edges, the grease-paint is sweating off. It’s not very nice.
Cox is very clever, and his writing is just desperate to show us that. There are interesting sensibilities, and some skill, but nowhere near enough to maintain the length or pretensions of Dodge Rose. Perhaps we need something more than just strikingly modernist in the 21st Century.