Untimely Modernism

Jack Cox Dodge Rose Cover
Dodge Rose
by Jack Cox
Dalkey Archive Press
$32.99 AU
Published January, 2016
ISBN 9781628971200

It’s the wry joke of Australian modernism that one of our most successful modernist poets never existed at all. When James McAuley and Harold Stewart dreamed up Ern Malley in Melbourne’s Victoria Barracks in 1943, they wanted to embarrass Max Harris, editor of the surrealist little magazine Angry Penguins. The fictional poet was a prop in their war on Harris’s late modernism, designed to expose what they saw as its nonsensicality; they could not have foreseen their creation’s genuinely successful afterlife. Decades after the hoax came off, Ern Malley has been widely canonised: poets such as John Ashbery, John Kinsella and John Tranter have added to the Malley sequence; Peter Carey has fictionalised the prank; and Malley himself regularly appears in anthologies of Australian poetry.

It can be hard to avoid reading Ern Malley as an allegory for Australian modernism more generally, encapsulating as he does both its eccentricity and its improbability, its untimeliness and its abortiveness—even, and perhaps especially, that lingering question about whether it ever existed at all. Malley shows us an Australian modernism whose audacity is indistinguishable from its anti-modernism and whose great figure is a by-product of the event—the hoax itself—that effectively arrested the country’s fledgling avant-garde. Above all, Ern Malley points us towards the untimeliness of our literary modernism: Harris, 18 when Angry Penguins began and 22 at the time of the hoax, shared with the fictitious 25-year-old Malley a startling youthfulness. But their precocity sits against the fact that the modernism of both their projects was already, in 1943, irrevocably belated with respect to the Euro-American modernism that served as their model and target. Paradoxical and out of time, Malley invites us to read Australian modernism as untimely and impossible, a ghostly apparition that springs illegitimately from a more conservative tradition that disavows it. Seen from the perspective of Ern Malley, Australian literature is haunted by the modernism it didn’t have.

So it was intriguing to see Jeremy Davies, an editor at the Dalkey Archive Press, invoking Malley in his review of Jack Cox’s Dodge Rose, as he recalls his creeping fear that the ‘young, Australian Beckett’ he had pulled out of the slush pile might turn out to be ‘Ern Malley-wise, a prank.’ Davies means this as high praise: Cox’s novel, he suggests, is almost too good to be true. But the allusion is suggestive in ways that Davies himself might not have foreseen, in a context in which almost all early reviews of Cox’s novel have hailed its ‘modernism,’ sometimes adding reassuringly adjectival references to its Beckettian or Joycean qualities. By summoning Malley, Davies hints that Cox’s modernism might be a little more eccentric, a little more off-kilter, than the reviews have so far suggested: that this ‘young, Australian Beckett’ might have a touch of the Malley about him.

There are some good reasons to wonder what we are doing when we call Dodge Rose modernist. Modernism, you’ll likely learn if you take an undergraduate survey on the topic (at least in an English department), is basically a period, beginning around the turn of the twentieth century—perhaps around 1910, if we’re following Virginia Woolf’s famous pronouncement—and coming to a spluttering end in the increasingly political 1930s. Although the dates vary by discipline and location, this sense of modernism as an historical period has been important to scholars not just because it helps to break up the great mass of cultural production into neat zones of specialisation, but also because for many experts, modernism is a fundamentally historical phenomenon, a cultural reaction to a specific set of crises—economic, social, technological, military, spiritual—that beset European and American culture in the hundred-odd years between the 1850s and the 1960s.

But if modernism is an historical period—one to which Australian literature only precariously accedes—how could it make sense to call a novel published in 2016 by a young Australian writer modernist? The answer that most of our reviewers would probably give is that they simply mean something different by the term: ‘modernism’ as it’s popularly used in literary culture refers not to an historical period, but to something more like a style—one that is strongly associated with the writing of the early twentieth century, but which can now float free of this original context. When these reviewers call Cox’s novel modernist, they mean that it is difficult, fragmented, experimental; that sentences and even individual words often don’t flow as you would expect; that it skips promiscuously across registers of speech and even across languages; and that it revels in the richly textured prose that results, rather than in the advancement of a tight plot or a ‘relatable’ character. They mean, in short, that sometimes it sounds like James Joyce, sometimes like Samuel Beckett.

And they’re not wrong. The monosyllabic prepositions and undefined adverbs of place of the novel’s opening line, ‘Then where from here,’ have a crisp ambiguity that recalls Beckett’s disorienting late prose works. The book’s under-punctuated, un-capitalised second half similarly evokes this period of the Irishman’s work (which, it might be noted, already slips free of modernism’s periodising grasp—Worstward Ho, his last major work, was written in 1983). Meanwhile, the novel’s virtuosic long passages—a characteristic example opens ‘Your gilded pills. Don’t get me started on Victoria. Solo credit. It’s Yarmouth versus France de meuble en immeuble etc. I do not intend perishing in the abyss of nonsense’—recall the Joyce of Ulysses: polyglot and densely allusive, distracted and discontinuous, voracious in their impulse to incorporate all the modes of speech that make up the modern city.

But for all that Cox’s novel might sound like Beckett and Joyce, there have always been objections to understanding modernism primarily as style. In the first place, modernist style is never just style. What we today think of as modernist style arose in response to the peculiar shocks of modernity as experienced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The formal experiments we associate with this period are attempts to record an historical experience that is now lost to us. Mimicking modernist style just doesn’t mean the same thing in 2016 as it might have done in 1916. It can’t carry the same historical weight. And in any case, there is something extraordinarily un-modernist about imitating the style of a movement whose most famous slogan is Ezra Pound’s ‘make it new.’ In the context of this will to novelty, the only way to really inherit modernism is to be new in a new way. What both these claims suggest is that seeing modernism as just another style, something that can be repeated or imitated at any time by anyone, empties it out, eclipses the historical and aesthetic weight that it has carried, makes it ring hollow.

And yet—modernist style keeps being repeated, and we keep calling it modernism. Urmila Seshagiri and David James have recently proposed a solution to this apparent dilemma, arguing that texts like Dodge Rose, which are in dialogue with modernism without being of the modernist period, might best be described as ‘metamodernist’. Modernist style might be repeatable, but not as modernism—instead as a contemporary dialogue with the lost historical moment of modernism. Dodge Rose can be imagined in this way, particularly given the fact that it is, in addition to being ‘modernist’ at the level of style, also an historical novel: the first half is set in 1982, at the height of postmodernism; the second, in 1928, at the height of modernism (the very year, in fact, that Beckett first moved to Paris and met Joyce). As Max, the narrator of the novel’s first half, reminds us, ‘It’s important to have an historical perspective. I believe I’m coming to look back on all this with something like the rigour it has been asking for.’ As a text, too, Dodge Rose might be conceptualised as looking back on, and as dramatising a dialogue with, both these lost moments of formal experimentation and historical crisis.

But as Davies’ allusion to Ern Malley hints, the Australianness of Cox’s metamodernism adds a peculiar kind of twist to this historical backwards gaze. Setting the novel in Kings Cross, Cox locates it at the heart of Australian bohemia. Kenneth Slessor was composing modernist verse as the young Dodge roamed the streets in 1928. But despite taking this novel to the heart of the Australian avant-garde, what Cox finds there is not the high point of our modernism but a more ghostly presence. While literary modernism was already starting to wilt by 1928 in Europe, in Australia it was barely yet underway. This was the year the as-yet-unpublished Christina Stead left Australia; the year Patrick White celebrated his sixteenth birthday, and Max Harris—a near contemporary of the novel’s eponymous Dodge—his seventh. Recent scholarship has sought to broaden the definition of modernism in Australia beyond these familiar names, reclaiming more formally conventional writing under its banner. Still, the brand of modernism that Cox is espousing—stubbornly difficult, dizzyingly experimental, more interested in producing a new reader than in accommodating existing ones—has few precedents in Australian modernism and fewer still who were contemporaneous with its European variant. 1928 might lie at the heart of the modernist period as we teach it in literary courses, but in Australia the year echoes with the untimeliness of our modernism and the anachronism of Cox’s metamodernism. That untimeliness itself raises a number of provocative questions: What is modernism, as a tool for thinking through the early twentieth century in Australia? What kinds of alternative visions of Australia might this anachronism shake free, under the sign of Ern Malley, our ghostly modernist who never existed?

The problem of modernist or metamodernist style in Australia is essentially a question of how Australia manages and theorises its European inheritance—modernism after all being the inheritance we failed to inherit. It raises the problems of anachronism and incongruity that this inheritance provokes, and the processes of exchange by which literary movements circulate in the international literary sphere. In this respect, modernism in Australia goes right to the heart of Dodge Rose, which is, if nothing else, a novel about inheritance and its complications, and about the local ramifications of international circulation.

The novel opens with Eliza, a young woman from Yass, travelling to Sydney to settle the estate of Dodge Rose, her recently deceased aunt. In Sydney, she finds Max, this section’s narrator, living in Dodge’s apartment—perhaps the dead woman’s daughter, perhaps not. As this half of the novel plays out, the young women’s dreams of an inheritance are punctured: Dodge’s bank account proves to be empty, her flat rented, and her furniture less valuable than they had hoped.

But if the novel’s problem, at the level of plot, is simply that the inheritance itself is worthless, its value illusory or depleted, a series of disquisitions on the history of Australian property law throws Eliza’s disappointment into historical relief. In a long passage in the middle of this section, a lawyer explains to the women the complexity of the Australian property system, a complexity that is born of the attempt to import and apply the British doctrine of tenures and estates to the newly colonised Australian land. As the lawyer explains, such a system was ‘worse than buttered mackerell for the settlement in New South Wales’; its incongruity,

like the coal anciently buried to mark boundaries but preserving them even beneath the movement of successive epochs, brought suddenly into the light of the Southern Hemisphere the very internal limits of English feudal proprietary right as it lay across statutory and common law by the middle of the nineteenth century, so that, for the case in question, it was possible to cite statutes as old as the said subdivisional King of England [i.e., Charles II].

The problem as this lawyer explains it is not just that Dodge never owned her apartment, but that the whole concept of property ownership is stunningly precarious in an Australian context, built on the anachronistic application of property rights deriving from a feudal society to a newly colonised land. At stake, then, is not just the question of whether Max and Eliza can inherit property from Dodge, but the larger and more anxious question of whether and how Australia can inherit the frameworks and structures of British property law, the principles that make property real and that order the Australian land into a European possession.

This anxiety about grafting British frameworks onto the Australian landscape is a quintessentially settler colonial concern. It gestures to the unspoken illegitimacy of the colonial project. Literature presses its analogy here: like law, literature is a framework for interpreting and relating to, as well as claiming possession of, land and nation, one that, in the Australian tradition, still reposes primarily on British antecedents. The lawyer himself suggests such a parallel, musing about ‘property which stretches and indeed ends up twisting like the ribbon in your typewriter,’ emphasising that the geographical ‘stretching’ which characterises both property and writing also entails a deformation, even a corruption.

In a recent study, Ankhi Mukherjee has argued that the problem of how to inherit a colonial European literary heritage has been one of the defining questions for postcolonial literature globally. She suggests that this literary question develops out of the analogy to property, for ‘the canon is often represented in postcolonial fiction as portable property’. Mukherjee here is thinking of the canon’s embodiment in physical books and libraries, forms of property which can be bought, sold, and carried across borders. But while books themselves are notably scarce in Dodge Rose—when Max and Eliza open a box they have found under Dodge’s bed, Max recalls that the presence of books in this book-less apartment was ‘the first surprise’—the problem of colonial and postcolonial literary inheritance remains. Cox pushes the analogy between literature and property to a structural level, focusing not on the circulation of European literatures as a form of property, but on the way that literary tradition and property law both enter a kind of mise en abyme in their displacement across hemispheres.

In this context, the anachronism of Cox’s modernist style parallels the anachronism of British property law as it manifests in Australia. While the accretion of centuries’ worth of laws is naturalised in England by the gradualness of their development, their application in Australia forces the uncanny return of systems assumed obsolete. Laws developed to accommodate a feudal system re-emerge to structure Australia’s colonial modernity, while ‘what in England had effectively become a legal fiction, that is, that all land was held in deference to the Crown, was treated here as sied a mainmise in living memory’. As obsolete laws become current again and legal fictions become literal, Australia emerges as a kind of legal pastiche. Like both Australian modernism and Cox’s metamodernism, property law in Australia is marked by its untimeliness, by the alarming collapse of chronology as both modernism and legal ownership hobble imperfectly and anachronistically into the colonies.

Cox’s fascination with property law therefore suggests that the strangeness of Australian modernism is an artefact of the unevenness of the circulation of ideas in colonial and postcolonial world systems. But he also treats modernist style as an analytical tool, one whose capacity to range widely across different modes of speech fits it to expose the entanglement of individual lived experience with toweringly impersonal systems of law, finance and colonialism. The stakes of Max and Eliza’s failed inheritance only emerge as having national resonance, as implicating Australia’s colonial past, because of the narrative’s characteristically modernist wandering eye, which allows it to incorporate the legal debates that slip into Max’s narrative, the extensive accounts of the history of Australian banking and finance in Dodge’s, and an insistent record of the colonial history embedded in the central Sydney cityscape. Against this backdrop, the novel’s difficulty becomes readable as a political commentary on the difficulty of what Fredric Jameson calls ‘cognitive mapping’—the ability to locate oneself in relation to the systems of global capital and, we might add, colonial temporalities—in a contemporary, still-colonial Australia.

The deep significance of our ‘still-colonial’ status haunts Dodge Rose, not just in the form of the misshapen inheritances it has bequeathed us, but in what it has erased. Lying behind the expansive accounts of the history of property law in Australia is the nagging awareness that the system as a whole, its imposition and its malformation, turns on the erasure of the country’s Indigenous inhabitants. The lawyer’s excursus acknowledges this, pointing out that the system and its oddities are built ‘on the premise that New Holland and what was associated with it at the moment of settlement was virgin country.’ It is a reminder of what colonialism meant for Australia’s first peoples that also highlights the extent to which Aboriginality remains submerged and silent in this novel of colonial inheritances.

This silence, however, is not an absence. As Terry Pitts has shown, ‘x’—a girl who goes to live with Dodge’s family in the second half of the novel—is almost certainly an Indigenous child and a member of the Stolen Generation. When the priest who gives her to the family laments her deficiencies as a servant, ‘you can see she hasn’t been to cootamundra,’ he is refering to the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls, an institution named in the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report. Moreover, it’s likely that ‘x,’ who ends the novel by destroying the family piano in a multi-page spectacle of onomatopoeia, is also Maxine’s mother, for when Max asks Dodge what happened to the piano, she’s told, ‘Mother smashed it up’. (The wording is ambiguous, but it is not possible for ‘x’ to be Dodge’s mother, so the implication seems to be that she is Max’s.)

These coded references dramatically change the complexion of the novel, revealing two of its four main characters, and one of its two narrators as Indigenous. Thus recast, Dodge Rose’s anxieties about inheritance and its perversions and failures take on a new significance: the problem is no longer just the difficulty for settler colonials of inheriting British laws and literature in a new land, but also the horror of a dispossessed people who can no longer inherit their own land. In this context, the novel’s two dates take on an additional set of meanings: 1928 stands at the heart of the second dispossession that is the Stolen Generations, while 1982 is poised between two defining moments in the legal history of the Aboriginal land rights movement, halfway between the renewed activism of the 1970s, spurred by Justice Blackburn’s upholding of terra nullius in 1971 and Gough Whitlam’s establishment of the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission in 1973, and its early 1990s vindications in the 1992 Mabo decision and the 1993 Native Title Act. Turning back to Australia’s twentieth-century history, Cox reminds us that the nostalgia for modernism is also a nostalgia for a time of tremendous brutality and racism. But he also denies us a redemptive narrative of progress, insisting instead that the late twentieth-century insertion of Aboriginal history into the Australian national story still leaves our Indigenous past invisible, coded and erased.

For despite the surprising centrality of indigeneity in this novel, the fact remains that it is surprising: hidden, coded, silent. Although the characters themselves are not attempting to pass, their Aboriginality seems nonetheless to have been invisible to most early readers. This is a sharp rebuke to our reading habits, to the casual assumption that Australian characters are, by default, white Australian characters. But it is also, I think, a feature of the novel itself. In a text so bent on historicising and theorising the structural conditions of its characters’ lives, the uncharacteristic silence around ‘x’ and Max’s race performs precisely the erasure of Indigenous people on which Australia itself is premised, and in which Dodge Rose’s readers are themselves complicit. And while Cox’s modernist method unfolds the individual relationship to law, property and finance, on the subject of race its effect is quite different, serving to hide and to disguise. Pitts’s diligent work unpicking the coded allusions to Max’s and ‘x’s Aboriginality is precisely the kind of scholarly labour that modernism solicits—as James Joyce famously boasted, ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries’—but in this context it makes the novel’s modernist style complicit in the erasure of Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants.

In fact, Aboriginality and modernism have long had an uncomfortable relationship in Australia. In the conventional story of Australian literary history, the great debate of early twentieth-century Australian letters was between nationalist writers who sought to found a specifically Australian literary tradition, and cosmopolitan writers, often expatriates, who looked to participate on a world literary stage. Modernism, in this narrative, has always belonged to the cosmopolitans; realism to the nationalists. But in searching out the elements of a distinctively Australian literature, it was the nationalists, not the cosmopolitan modernists, who produced the country’s first serious literary engagements with Aboriginality, from Katharine Pritchard’s Coonardoo and Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia, to the Aboriginal-inflected but formally conventional poetry of the Jindyworobak movement. In this, Australia is internationally aberrant, our modernism turning away from European modernism’s much-discussed primitivism, in favour of a cosmopolitanism that places Europe at its centre. The apparent opposition between Australian modernism and Aboriginality, mapped onto a distinction between a deracinated internationalism and a commitment to place, continues into the later twentieth century: when Aboriginal artists first exhibited internationally, they were often read as modernist, an account that effectively erased the cultural significance of their work. Dodge Rose’s hidden Indigenous narrative reanimates this historical blindspot, suggesting that modernism is haunted by its erasure of Indigenous Australia.

The coded return of the Indigenous in this novel—a project that is at once critical and recuperative—is part of its larger revisionary impetus. When Cox appropriates modernist styles and techniques, the effects are as political as they are aesthetic. His metamodernism is not just a style, but a critical history of Australia in the twentieth century, the century lived under the twin shadows of a modernism that never entirely arrived and a colonialism that never entirely left.

Despite the flurry of discussion that has accompanied this novel’s release, at least one key aspect of its revisionary history has so far been entirely ignored: Cox’s sustained engagement with gender. While reviewers have unanimously located Dodge Rose in a wide-ranging history of twentieth-century experimentalism, the tradition they have pointed to has been staggeringly, breathtakingly male. It is not just the ubiquity of the references to Beckett and Joyce. In his beautiful meditation on the uses of difficulty in the novel, Dustin Illingworth invokes ten different authors or critics, all men; Davies similarly names twelve precedents to Cox’s experimentalism, only two of whom—Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes—are women.

This blindspot might matter less (or at least, we might be able to put it down issues with the text itself) if it were not for the fact that Dodge Rose is—perhaps you have noticed by now?—entirely a novel about women. All four of the text’s main characters and both of its narrators are women. Each of the novel’s halves is, above all, the record of a powerful female friendship. The thread that links these halves is the fraught problem of inheritance along a female line, of what women do and do not bequeath to other women, and of how women form families and familial lines (including inter-racial families) in the overwhelming absence of men.

The male characters who do feature are—with the exception of the 1928 family friend, mr george—mostly flat and marginal. In fact, the majority of the men in this novel are less characters than mouthpieces or figureheads for the various institutions—law, auction houses, banking—to which the women are subject. To put this another way: the men of Dodge Rose appear primarily as the embodiments of discourse, rather than as people, properly understood. They provide the official scaffolding, the frameworks in which the everyday is caught, but it is the women whose lives and experiences, whose consciousness and thoughts, are the stuff of this novel. While all citizens, regardless of gender, are subject to the control of legal and financial systems, Dodge Rose’s exclusive focus on women’s relationship to them is highly unusual for a male writer and points to an interest in the gendering of these institutions. It suggests that these discursive and institutional structures are both gendered male and controlled by men, and probes women’s marginalisation from these systems. Dodge Rose is, in this sense, not just a novel about women, but a specifically feminist novel, an interrogation of the patriarchal systems to which women are subject and the ways they live their lives within, through and despite these structures.

If Cox does belong to a male modernist lineage, then, it’s a more gender-fluid one than the all-male family tree suggests. It’s the modernism of Molly Bloom, the narrator of the final chapter of Ulysses, whose fleshy, ribald stream-of-consciousness made James Joyce into the unlikely representative of Hélène Cixous’ écriture féminine; the modernism of Beckett, not in his misogynist youth, but in his queerer middle age. But I am also inclined to suspect that this male line may not exhaust Dodge Rose’s literary debts, and that Cox’s literary forebears might in fact be a little less uniformly masculine than reviewers have so far supposed. It is, for instance, hard to read Max’s urban reverie—‘A jet was evacuating its load of soot and tiny ice crystals through the washed out sky over Martin Place when she pointed behind her, hush, the breeze scuffing her hair across her lips’—without seeing a dirtier echo of the aeroplane that swarms through the opening pages of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, ‘coming over the trees, letting out the white smoke from behind, which curled and twisted, actually writing something!’ And yet Woolf, an innovative modernist stylist in her own right, appears nowhere in these genealogical musings.

To the extent that Dodge Rose is a novel in dialogue with both modernism by women, and women’s representation in modernism, the 1982 date acquires another set of resonances. This is the era of feminism’s revaluation of modernism, the beginning of a project to uncover the wealth of forgotten modernist writing by women. It’s also the era of the flourishing of daring, experimental feminist postmodernisms, from Kathy Acker to Lyn Hejinian to Renata Adler. Max, whose language often drifts towards the disrupted logic of these writers, is a product of this postmodernist feminist moment, which sought to establish a legacy of women’s writing and women’s experimentalism within the modernist tradition. As Dodge’s illegitimate heir, she points to a female counter-genealogy at the heart of modernism.

‘Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495,’ one of Malley’s most well-known poems, concludes: ‘I have shrunk / To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream / . . . I am still / the black swan of trespass on alien waters.’ Out of time and out of place, on the outside of tradition and yet beholden to it, the lament of these lines echoes through Australian modernism and down to Jack Cox. Cox’s innovation is the rigour with which he remakes the black swan of Australian metamodernism, granting it a bird’s eye view on both modernism and its legacies, and Australia and its past. In this context, his anachronistic use of modernist style, his robbing of dead men’s dreams, is no longer just the misshapen, belated inheritance of early twentieth-century European modernism; it also reveals that the anxieties and the exclusions of the modernist period remain, uncannily, alive to us in the twenty-first century. In the untimely moment of modernism’s perpetual return, Dodge Rose suggests that the alien waters of modernist style and the modernist era, the things these waters have submerged and the swans who glimpse them below the surface, lap eerily at the shores of our present.


Cox, Jack. Dodge Rose. Dalkey Archive Press, 2016.
Davies, Jeremy M. ‘Jack Cox’s Dodge Rose.’ Music and Literature, 13 January 2016
Illingworth, Dustin. ‘Dodge Rose and the Concept of Difficult Literature.’3:AM Magazine, 22 February 2016
James, David, and Urmila Seshagiri. ‘Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution.’ PMLA 129.1 (2014): 87-100.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.
Malley, Ern. ‘Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495.’ Ern Malley: The Official Website, 2003
Mukherjee, Ankhi. What is a Classic?: Postcolonial Rewriting and the Invention of the Canon. Stanford University Press, 2013.
Pitts, Terry. ‘Mind the Gaps: Jack Cox’s Novel ‘Dodge Rose’—Part I.’ Vertigo, February 18, 2016