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Let’s hit the road, Terror: A review of Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen

By Jude Cook.

Seraphina Madsen – Dodge and Burn review

Seraphina Madsen, Dodge and Burn (Dodo Ink, 2016)

At the start of the road trip that dominates Seraphina Madsen’s scintillatingly strange debut novel, Dodge and Burn, heiress Eugenie Lund pulls the car off the highway to stop at a Fifties diner. Along with her boyfriend – the improbably handsome and lush Benoît, a kind of countercultural Alain Delon – they find themselves drinking soda water in the company of an obscure and annoyingly twee youth tribe known as the Candy Ravers. Recalling a friend describe them as “A bunch of fucked-up assholes dressed like Japanimation cartoons carrying glow sticks and children’s backpacks filled with stickers, candy, and toys on them at all times”, Eugenie is fascinated, though her judgement is slightly less pejorative. She concedes they “exuded a lackadaisical, California cool with a fatalistic air”. The phrase could sum up Dodge and Burn, a novel with much more going on under its highway-hot bonnet than the insouciant sheen of its prose suggests.

The book’s complex narrative begins with the discovery of Eugenie’s diaries and notebooks in caves in Altamira, Spain. These later turn up in Maine, in the hands of a trapper named Maynard. The story is then told from this retrospective viewpoint, with the secrets of Eugenie’s past slowly revealed. The only thing certain is that she disappeared in mysterious circumstances. This framing device allows the reader access to Eugenie’s elegant, though matter-of-fact, first-person voice, by presenting her journal as testimony; though whether she’s a reliable narrator becomes more doubtful as the novel progresses.

The first notebook extract reveals the moment when the young Eugenie and her sister, Camille, are informed by the mysterious and sinister psychologist Dr Vargas (who “resembled a deranged and whiskey-crazed Las Vegas preacher waiting for the next shotgun wedding”) that their mother has been killed by an attack of killer bees while at the Doctor’s San Marcos home. With their father unreachable on an expedition in Antarctica, the two girls are adopted “in accordance” with their mother’s will.  But this “adoption” soon turns into forced captivity, with the dastardly Vargas keeping Eugenie and Camille against their wishes like some unhinged boffin transposed to a Coens movie. Grimly, we learn “Dr Vargas spent the many years of our captivity devoted to experiments which aimed to break the mechanism of time on earth. He used us as his subjects…” He calls them “whores”, and throws them into a roasting pit, where they spend “two weeks, unclothed, fed on deer jerky and water”. This abuse is relayed without overt emotion, a dispassionate stance that suggests Eugenie has been numbed by the trauma of such experiences, or is even psychotic. The sisters are then transported from California to Mexico “in the belly of the luxurious beige-carpeted, dark-wooded interior” of Vargas’s Winnebago, before they exact their revenge and win their freedom. With a classical sense of justice, they contrive to have Vargas attacked by bees, his death conveyed in a darkly comic vignette worthy of Pynchon: “We watched him from the window, poolside, sans toupee in his tight European swim trunks flailing … in a frantic flamenco, repelling and attracting the bees which at one moment took on the shape of a bull that felled him to the tiles where he ceased to move”. However, shortly after this triumph, Camille disappears, taking all “physical evidence of her existence with her”. After the surreal episode of Dr Vargas (a character one wishes could have stayed for the whole novel), the story really begins, with Eugenie’s search for her sister over two continents; a disappearance within a disappearance.

In a revealing piece about planning the novel in For Book’s Sake, Madsen laments the fact that the Road Trip is a genre dominated by men, and expands on her influences: “I was aiming for a postmodern cocktail of magical realism infused with Beat, most notably William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, as well as ‘gonzo’ popularised by Hunter S. Thompson.” This sums up the book’s flavour, though there are hints of Angela Carter’s carnivalesque Wise Children (which also features two sisters), and the dusty, lyrical descriptions of the American west in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Madsen realised it was only when she admitted all her favourite writers were men, and that they focussed exclusively on male experience, that she had to try to “challenge and venerate the works that have inspired the novel”. She would also have to deal with the objectifying male gaze. The problem was, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Burroughs’ Red Night Trilogy all depicted women in secondary, or decorative, roles. After creating the character of Eugenie Lund for her heroine, Madsen knew she wanted to “present the world as created and navigated by a woman”, and “overthrow the male gaze”.

It’s a noble – and innovative – ambition, and by and large, Dodge and Burn succeeds in its aim. Not only is Eugenie’s quest a reaction to the abuse suffered at the hands of an evil stepfather, but for most of the novel her amatory gaze is directed with full attention towards Benoît, her “Venus Acid Boy”. Eugenie’s tough-guy boyfriend is straight out of True Romance, or Les Valseuses (apt for a book heaving with movie references, from Godard to Hitchcock to Lynch). She first meets Benoît at a clifftop rave in Southern France. She’s smitten at once. Her “cocaine-soaked cowboy” is a sexy Bacchus; “bare-chested with a horned helmet in his hand, illuminated in the labyrinth of forest shadows and sunlight”. This description gives an idea of the subtlety of Madsen’s energetic, propulsive prose. The complex image of the Minotaur, emerging from the forest – traditionally the liminal place where desire can be explored away from the fetters of society – demonstrates how layered and allusive her writing is at its best. Of course, Benoît is largely chimerical – eye-candy for the Generation Xers who crowd the book’s pages, but so were the “honeys and sugars” Sal and Dean drooled over in On the Road.  This is deliberate, of course, and Madsen never tires of describing Benoît, sometimes with the same relish as a Romantic novelist paints her smouldering male lead. He is “the kind of man that could easily make a woman go mad’. When he first sleeps with the protagonist, the ‘lovemaking lasts three days’.  Eugenie ‘fixes her gaze on the beautiful boy with chiselled features and strong arms’ and never turns away.  He’s so macho, he even has a dog named Hemingway.

As the search for Camille continues through the French Riviera, the Alps, and so to the canyons of Nevada, a strong aura of mysticism takes over. The book is steeped in ritual, strange ceremonies, Magik, New Ageism, altered states, out-of-body experiences and Eastern philosophy. Eugenie recalls that Camille’s eyes had “shone with visions of other worlds she assured me were all around us . . . These hidden universes held knowledge we sought for our transformation into warriors”. It’s not long before Benoît is asking if they can “pick up any evidence of vampiric interference”, and Eugenie is describing herself and her sister as “animists”, believing that “rocks contained great knowledge …Rivers, mountains, stars, plants, animals, all had a soul, all were intelligent spirits that could either help or harm humans”. This hokum is related so earnestly, and with such a subtext of droll knowingness, that the reader has no choice but to go along with it. The distance between author and protagonist, we feel, is at its greatest here, and we wait for Eugenie to arrive at some kind of epiphanic moment that either confirms of disabuses her of these hippy notions.

The book is also saturated with references to drugs and music, both of which act as a barometer of rebellious cool. The passages of reckless hedonism are acutely observed, with technically correct references to the hardware used in the late 80s dance scene, as well as ecstasy and LSD experiences that carry the authentic hallucinatory note. As with the Beats of On the Road, the rave and House cultures of the early 90s were intimately linked to their drugs – in the case of the Beats it was hash and Be Bop, with Rave it was MDMA and acid. After dropping a couple of tabs with Benoît, Eugenie stays in the car with Hemingway, “tripping off of the rainbows in his fur, the miracle of his being, the aliveness of the trees outside”. While “aliveness” nails the experience of the morphing forms witnessed during an acid trip, that “off of” reminds the reader that the book is written in the American idiom, with its freight of hipster argot, highways, Buicks. Trying to imagine a similar road trip around, say, the UK is next to impossible. Indeed, America itself inspires the book’s best, most lyrical writing. Madsen depicts a USA where the counterculture of Easy Rider never really died; the Promised Land is still there in all its mythical, Steinbeckian grandeur:

Out the rolled-down window, feverish with Mello Yello consumption, eyes tearing, face to the wind – the lone highway flung itself across the desert through a mountainous, rock-strewn landscape the colour of iron oxide … Saguaro cacti stood like giant prehistoric idols in beams of roving red-orange light amidst agave stalks rising haphazardly, blooming with yellow lantern-shaped flowers.

By the end of Eugenie’s search, she begins to brood on death and existential ideas, though the comedic disclaimer is never far behind (“I don’t think the general population ponders the question too much”). Soon, Benoît is behaving like a backwoodsman and shooting squirrels, reminding her that real life has to be engaged with; though the elusive Camille is never far away, with Eugenie recalling her saying the “Olmec believed rivers and lakes were portals to other worlds”. Eugenie eventually rediscovers her sister in a dream, a reverie rich in the Proserpine myth, where her errant sister explains she was “taken unawares by the Lord of the Underworld”. Before the book reaches its hallucinatory conclusion, they plan to terminate Dr Vargas (not, apparently, killed by the bees) using icicles as the ultimate murder weapon. This dream frees Eugenie to return her attention to Benoît, where she smokes “more marijuana than I’d ever smoked in my life”, and, she tells us, “there was an incredible amount of sex”.

Mesmerising, episodic, full of wonder and very cool dialogue (“Let’s hit the road, Terror”), Dodge and Burn is deeply committed to exploring the possibilities of language and describing unconventional experiences. The novel’s only real flaw is the framing device of the found journals. These, we learn, are unreliable news stories. When Maynard returns at the end, his testimony never feels integrated into Eugenie’s odyssey of love and yearning. Madsen has said that the framing device was incorporated in order for the male gaze to merge with Eugenie’s central, first-person female gaze, so an act of “alchemy or transformation” might occur. While this is a bold idea, it’s not fully successful, and feels authorially imposed; reminiscent of Sal’s marital split and “serious illness” at the start of On the Road. As with this ex-wife, the character of Maynard is never meaningfully explored or juxtaposed with the world of the book.

It’s significant that Dodge and Burn is the first novel from indie imprint Dodo Ink, who propose to specialise in experimental, daring or challenging fiction. Their manifesto, printed on the final page of the book, states they want to find “the best literary fiction …. regardless of genre or categorisation”. Madsen’s book is a fine start, and re-imagines what one might understand as experimental. In a risk-averse publishing climate, any book that refuses to follow tired narrative tropes might seem outré. Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and the novels of Nicola Barker, constitute what the major houses consider experimental these days. Yet there’s still the lingering sense that both authors are tolerated, rather than welcomed, at the table – McBride because of surprise award success, and Nicola Barker through her loyal fanbase. And while both are admirable, they push the postmodern envelope in a rather self-conscious and predictable way. Just as any novel with footnotes fifteen years ago was considered meta or dangerous, so the use of erratic punctuation or fonts, or elliptical prose, signals the same today. McBride’s debut was praised for being “a book that is not like any other”, when stylistically it was like many things, notably Molly Bloom’s monologue from Ulysses. With Dodge and Burn, however, Dodo Ink have offered up an accessible, compulsive, accomplished and ambitious novel that may truly be called sui generis.


Jude Cook

Jude Cook lives in London and studied English literature at UCL. His first novel, BYRON EASY, was published by William Heinemann of Random House in February of 2013. He has written for the Guardian, the Spectator, Literary Review, TLS, and Review 31. His essays and short fiction have appeared in Litro, Structo, Storgy, Long Story Short and Staple magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016.