In­trigu­ing tales in con­trast­ing styles

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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