Books

Jordy Rosenberg
Confessions of the Fox

How fast the world moves, and how nice this can be for those of us caught in its spin. Just a few years ago, it would have seemed weird for a debut novel to combine the ingredients the author has mixed here, but in the literary landscape of 2018, Confessions of the Fox feels like it was only a matter of time. It’s both a thinky, picaresque, revisionist history and a sensuous piece of gender theory, and there’s some don’t-trust-the-footnotes sleuthery thrown in. Credit to Jordy Rosenberg, an American professor of 18th-century literature, gender and sexuality studies, that the whole feels like more than the sum of its considerable parts, bringing new texture to territory that is suddenly mainstream.

The confessing fox is Jack Sheppard, the notorious rogue from real-life 18th-century London who escaped from jail four separate times, going on to inspire all manner of rogue literatures, folk myths and literary literatures too, including the character of Mack the Knife in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. In Rosenberg’s telling, he’s called “the fox” because, a footnote explains, while “fox” was understood to have denoted a man at the time Sheppard was writing, today it means “a fetching individual of whatever gender”. And so: “Perhaps ‘fox’ has emerged, ungendered, from the embrace of early modern rogues to signify simply an object of desire. An endearment. Rather: an enfoxment.”

Like Dr Voth, the footnoter, who has found this manuscript at an unceremonious space-clearing sale at a university library, the Jack Sheppard of this novel is trans, and he occupies a London that seems much closer to the real city of the day than the dominant histories of subsequent centuries would have us believe. For one thing, there were queer people. For another, not everyone was white.

From this set-up springs the story – a counter-history of the fox Sheppard, annotated in the present by its finder (and would-be keeper) while beleaguered by conflict with powerful institutions of knowledge. It’s big game, and the author pursues it with a spirit of excess and brio, employing a huge range of approaches, tones and styles, including winking references to literary histories and crafty counter-histories of their own. The result is an earthy postmodernism, built upon the view that language is excessive and carnivalesque, suited to a kind of committed, ragged play through which power structures can be scrutinised and perhaps replaced.

Sometimes it feels very cerebral, other times very physical, especially the best parts of the found document, which recall everyone from Laurence Sterne to Angela Carter. The chief articles of joy are probably the footnotes, in which the narrative gets to breathe a little and the narrator’s voice sings. The interplay between these elements doesn’t always succeed. Early in the process of footnoting the text that purports to be Sheppard’s confessions, Voth reports to the reader that he’s met a promising lover who takes an unusual interest in his research project. This meeting is shortly followed by Voth receiving sudden external interest in the text, a well-timed and lucrative commission. Sneaking plot developments into the footnotes feels a bit coy – we’re told so little about Voth’s everyday life that it’s hard to discreetly look away while the narrative moves its plot points into place.

In other sections, the interplay is a tool used to powerful effect. The sex scenes between the fox and Bess, the co-protagonist, have a real feeling of rightness to them, a careful balance between slyness, friendliness, dirtiness and fun; it’s great character work. In a footnote, Voth notes that in a hack job situation, “some pretend literary masterpiece written by a third party”, “this section would include a voyeuristic depiction of Jack’s genitalia”, a manifestation of the pathologising obsession with queer body parts and sex acts. Because this comes to us in a footnote, the scene stays intact – Rosenberg’s novel shows us what it wants to show us, tells us why it’s doing it, and also has the good sense to step out of the way.

In the end, Rosenberg is doing something extra with the novel’s structure, beyond its range of individual textual effects. Aspects of Sheppard’s text mirror Voth’s throughout the novel, which makes the reader shuffle through potential explanations. Meanwhile, Voth is always calling out anachronisms. Long before he’s wondering whether Bess has just delivered the first usages of “epidemiological” and “securitisational” in recorded text, there’s the slippage into ideas we only think because Foucault thought them, and devices we only understand because Tristram Shandy used them. Above all, there’s the verbalism and virtuosity, a quality the found text shares with the footnotes. The book advances, the literary devices proliferate, with a very un-found-text-like expert pace.

But instead of being asked to question the authenticity of the document, we’re really being asked to revel in its made-up-ness; there’s no question that there has been some invention and doctoring, and beyond the initial push – to get Voth, and us, interested – we aren’t really in pursuit of an original source, although there is a mystery, with a satisfying answer. Instead, we’re thinking about the power of story to revise its own meanings, obscure its own origins and contain multiple points of view.

It sounds heady, but it’s dealt with in a number of fashions, sometimes leading the reader towards wonderful emotional depths and sometimes confusing and charming the reader with plain conceptual silliness. By the time the mysteries of Sheppard’s manuscript are coming unspooled, Voth is arguing in the footnotes with a proprietary observer who maintains a separate interest in the fox’s text, and who writes aggressive, encouraging footnotes to Voth in ALL CAPS. With this promising a set-up, you have to steer the reader somewhere – Confessions of the Fox chooses to steer us all over the place, and it works because of the variety of ideas on display. If “slavery, surveillers, settlers and their shadows” spoiled the 19th and 20th centuries, then some of this novel’s poignancy comes from suggesting some alternatives – and mixing them together in layered, enfoxing ways.  CR

Atlantic, 304pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 11, 2018 as "Jordy Rosenberg, Confessions of the Fox ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CR