Intriguing tales in contrasting styles
How often does a book insist upon a reader its made-ness, the miracle of its wrought-fromnothingness? We regularly honour writers for their insights, compelling characters, the tautness of their plots, and as an afterthought throw appreciative nods to a beautiful prose style or original voice. These two novels have little in common beyond their Australian origin, yet both are successes under means of assessment so radically different and almost mutually hostile that it reminds us, once again, that the novel can contain anything and everything.
Both — like all books — are made of language. Only one of them seems intrigued and haunted by this phenomenon.
Tom Houghton is, by most criteria, a deeply conventional novel. It’s both a coming-of-age and midlife crisis narrative, toggling between the two modes on a chapter-by-chapter basis. The elements of young Tom’s life are familiar: lonely child, missing dad, frequently absent mother, nascent sexuality. What’s new, and what drives much of the plot, is cinephilia. In particular, that pre-digital fandom well-known (and missed) by anyone growing up in the 80s, the era of the VHS cassette and handwritten index card.
Happiest lost in Sunday matinees of Hollywood classics, Tom discovers one night, while reading a biography of Katharine Hepburn, his double, his doppelganger-in-name-only: Hepburn’s older brother, and a suicide at 16. Haunted by this connection, he imagines himself into the life of the famous family, a life richer and more vivid than his humble suburban existence.
In Tom, Todd Alexander has created a protagonist who evokes genuine readerly fondness. Though his adolescent longing is somewhat stock, the fragility and passion with which he sustains his private universe is rendered with feeling and skill. Alexander is careful to not play to our easiest sympathies, though, and whatever attachment is cultivated in one half of the book is skilfully undone in the contemporary half, as the tender and lost young man reveals himself, again and again, as a maudlin, needy drunk, prone to extravagant bouts of self-sabotage. There is a corrective measure here that cancels easy conclusions: the trials of youth do not always provide strength or resolve, and instead haunt people deep into adult life. There is a grim inevitability to Tom’s adolescent travails that is nonetheless moving when the expected arrives.
Alexander’s prose is clear and functional, rarely rising to memorability yet serving its characters and scenario well. The book’s weakness is often the dialogue, particularly in the contemporary setting, which frequently strains for bitchy and knowing, yet often lands tineared and strained. Still, these are cavils. For the most part, the novel finds fresh mileage and moving conclusions from well-trod material.
In contrast, Dodge Rose, the debut novel of Sydney writer Jack Cox, is a wild, untamed work, one of the most ambitious, unusual and difficult first novels in recent Australian literary history. That it is published by the US-based Dalkey Archive Press — better known for its intimidating list of contemporary European writing and modernist and postmodernist reprints — is telling.
Its plot is simple on the surface. The novel’s first half, set in 1982, details the arrival in Sydney of Eliza, who has travelled from Yass to finalise the estate of her deceased aunt, the titular Dodge. Eliza and her cousin Max, who is still living in Dodge’s house, meet lawyers, assessors and collectors.