Dodge Rose and the Concept of Difficult Literature
By Dustin Illingworth.
Jack Cox, Dodge Rose (Dalkey Archive, 2016)
The improbable origins of Dodge Rose’s publication have already achieved the trappings of minor legend. If you’ve followed the breathless conversation surrounding the book, you’re no doubt aware of the broad strokes: Dalkey Archive’s then-senior editor Jeremy M. Davies plucked the novel from the slush pile, read it in a state of what was by all accounts sustained disbelief, and, after fearing he might be the victim of literary gaslighting, agreed to publish Jack Cox’s debut. It’s a satisfying anecdote, stroking some dim hope within us that, however obscure, experimental literature can still see the light of day in the face of overwhelming odds. Davies, who in a recent piece for Music & Literature called Cox’s book “pristine and ineradicable”, is no doubt getting tired of this little introductory yarn. One suspects he’d rather we focus on the antique allure and opaque wealth of Dodge Rose itself, a modernist complexity that has become the novel’s de facto review soundbyte. It is a book, we are told again and again, that is difficult.
That’s a descriptor that I’ve grown increasingly wary of. Perhaps presumptuously, when I read difficult fiction, I’ve come to expect something in return—nothing so crude as a cut and dry payoff or the overly-familiar pleasures of the Joycean epiphany (which, at this point, feels rather like being dunked into a lukewarm bath); rather, call it a desire to read toward an indefinable border within myself in the hopes of leaping over: a limit experience. In his essay “Distant Visions: Putdownable Prose and the State of the Art Novel”, Mark de Silva argued that “art fiction needn’t be understood in terms of its giving us a more accurate picture of reality than leisure fiction, but rather in its capacity to give us more reality”; this is, I think, demonstrably true, a clear feature of the best that difficult fiction has to offer: the caustic parodies of William Gaddis, the gorse-textured obsessions of Gerald Murnane, the aesthetic maximalism of Joseph McElroy. But the rubric of difficulty for difficulty’s sake, pursued with insidiously lettered glee, can birth a kind of literary logorrhea, an incoherent erudition that makes the Cantos appear as highbrow as a chapter book. The various and sundry culprits sit with the baleful authority of the inanimate on our shelves; I will not name them here.
William Gaddis (c.1955)
This is all to say that there is, I think, such a thing as generative difficulty, which is opposed to the difficulty that looks, to me, like a postmodern tic, the lawn flamingos of the avant-garde, a form of kitsch. If the latter is ostentatiously phrenic—the radiant void of solipsistic intellectualism gazing at itself in a funhouse mirror—the former sows its seeds, or, ideally, builds its cities, on the ground it has so recently razed. Lest I come across as an acolyte of John Gardner’s tepid imperative, allow me to say, emphatically, that I do not believe fiction need be moral, in any sense. John Hawkes, a personal favorite, believed the interior of the human mind resembled a cesspool, and his prose, in its smoky poetry of dream and reflex, achieves sustained heights of excellence with nary a whiff of deliberate edification. Similarly, William Gass, Gardner’s foil (and better), pens waves of gorgeous hatred that elude any claim to an elevated spirit. I would classify both of these novelists as purveyors of an arable literature of difficulty. When I say that difficult literature can be generative, then, I do not mean to say that it should necessarily instruct me (though, of course, it can and sometimes does); rather, my hope is that difficult literature will destroy something within me—a habit, an understanding, a calcified certainty—and replace it with the seethe of potent ambiguity.
So, to return to the novel in question, when we say Dodge Rose is a difficult book, what exactly do we mean? The plot is accessible enough: Twenty-something Eliza travels to Sydney to settle the estate of her aunt, the titular Dodge. She discovers Maxine, possibly Dodge’s daughter, awaiting her in the apartment. A series of misadventures unfold. The second half of the novel is comprised of the unwieldy, inter-war memories of Dodge herself. But rippling beneath the surface of this placid narrative structure are the familiar signifiers of complexity that have been with us since the fractured apparatus of literary modernism began its fateful churn: multilingual pranks, esoteric diction, vanishing punctuation. There are mysterious photographs of interior scenes that achieve a kind of Sebaldian melancholic eeriness. A piano’s destruction is mimicked in a lengthy but wordless cacophony: “os kkkl bb oo oo oo jjks sos soocc d dddd d c cd dee fff”, to quote one line among hundreds like it. There are countless other instances of great ambition and, yes, deliberate difficulty that I could list here. They are handled deftly enough, particularly when wielded in service to Cox’s humor—the book is very funny—yet these are not the gravid moments I find myself returning to.
Rather, what makes Dodge Rose not only difficult but lushly, productively so—for this reader at least—is its sophisticated interrogation of the materiality of life and death. This perhaps sounds weightier than necessary; truthfully, I mean to say only that Cox’s novel compelled me to consider the thingness of life, and the dimensions, both comic and tragic, of our passing possession of it. It is a great novel of stuff, of the material residue we accumulate as “walking freeholds.” This is, I think, what underpins both the Beckettian slapstick of Eliza and Maxine and the fragmented memories of Dodge herself: the vision of existence as entombed in thing, coin, and law, beneath which death glitters thickly. Clothing extinction in such dustily effective raiments becomes, by book’s end, a bit like an existential sleight-of-hand, a baroque apparatus with which we might collect, document, value, and will our varieties of possession in order to mitigate the irreconcilable maw that renders such practice necessary. I found the streams of bureaucratic erudition (“One can see how far we have come from the chiromatic residue where The Atlas, promoting the case for Liens on Wool, and bemoaning the distinction inherited between real and personal property, springing out of a state of feudal tenure…”) and the dense accounts of household goods (“One aluminium egg poacher. One picnic hamper. One cake safe. One deed box.”) more melancholic and, indeed, more oppressive the deeper I went into the text: a banality grown elegiac in just over two-hundred pages.
Cox builds this effect over time, making productive use of both intimidatingly esoteric legalese and the deceptive tidiness of lists to construct a kind of material mood that becomes operative in short order. Virtually every action taken in the book’s two narrative halves is governed by the procurement or sale of particular goods or properties, or a tangential elucidation of the historical or legal dimensions of said goods or properties. And here is where Dodge Rose’s oft-discussed difficulty most plainly rears its head: in the form of a pair of fairly punishing passages—each about twenty pages long—wherein we’re treated to the finer points (a profound understatement) of Australian property and bank law. If these pages begin to blur before the eyes, this is perhaps at least partly the point. Cox seems to use these sections as staging grounds, set pieces for life’s many material encrustations; or, perhaps, as bulwarks upon which the narrative flow is rebuffed, and the shadow life of possession, and the rules governing possession, might take center stage.
Garden Palace, Sydney
The result, for me, is a sort of vertiginous shimmer that manifests within particular lines, a creepily quantum ability to reside in two registers at once. “We can’t sell that,” Maxine says of a blue-suited minstrel figure, a piece of racist camp. “Why not,” asks Eliza. “Someone will buy it.” It seems to me that this is one of the lasting dictums of Dodge Rose: that material signposts of possession and identity are always in flux; that reality itself is salable; that ownership is a matter of temporal perspective. “Mother always said bad things about auctions,” Maxine says. “Deceased estates. See what they’ve been reduced to.” Part of what makes Dodge Rose so affecting is its suggestion that it does not take death to bring about this reduction; rather, even in the thick of life our existence is in some elusive but tangible way enfeebled by our impedimenta.
While examining fossilized sea creatures in a tidal deposit, Dodge’s grandfather says “the crust is subsiding. its cyclic. then will come burial and metamorphosis.” Though some might detect a message of hope here, I found the lines highly ironic. The closest we come to seeing something out of the past treated with reverence is Mr. Trigg’s beloved collection of ancient coins and currency; but can we call sitting long decades in dusty drawers a “metamorphosis”? This feels like another subtle riff, a piece of black comedy in which the difference between a grin and a grimace becomes a matter of perspective. It is a difficult humor in a difficult—and damn fine—novel. The complexity of Dodge Rose, finally, is not a flagpole planted in a field, but rather the field’s flowering. Don’t be surprised, though, if, eyes straying from the text, you find yourself confronted with the phenomenological menace of objects, the horrible softness of the money in your pockets. See what you’ve been reduced to.
Dustin Illingworth is an editor for 3:AM Magazine. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Times Literary Supplement, LA Review of Books, Georgia Review, Electric Literature and The Millions. He is a staff writer at Literary Hub, and the managing editor of The Scofield.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 22nd, 2016.