Rosenberg, Jordy. “Confessions of the Fox: A Novel”, One World, 2018.
Gender, Desire and Liberation
“A love story set in the eighteenth-century London of notorious thieves and queer subcultures, this genre-bending debut tells a profound story of gender, desire, and liberation.” That sentence simply says it all but there is so much more that can be said about this exciting and multilayered story so sit back and relax while I share my observations.
We find ourselves in the world of thieves, prison escapees and those who love their country and it is all very mysterious. The most famous of them are Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess about whom no one knows anything but that is about to change.
Dr. Voth, a scholar who is dealing with his own personal problems finds “Confessions of the Fox”, a manuscript that had long been lost and is a gender-defying autobiographical exposé of Jack and Bess’s adventures. Set in the eighteenth century, the London underworld is filled with “scamps and rogues” that clash with the established police force. The queer subcultures thrive even with the threat of the Plague abounding. Jack is a transgender carpenter’s apprentice who has fled his master’s house to become a legendary prison-break artist. Bess has become a revolutionary after escaping the draining of the fenlands. Voth is determined to find out if the autobiography is real or a hoax. As he searches for the answer to this, he annotates the manuscript and as he does, he finds himself drawn deeper into the underworld and a story of resistance and gender transformation. He also learns that their destinies are woven together.
Jordy Rosenberg has written a fascinating novel that combines history and speculative fiction. This is also a love story and a mystery so it is safe to say that is crosses literary genres.
Dr. Voth has been researching the life of Jack Sheppard and now since he has lost his love, he becomes more obsessive about work. Since no one knows Jack’s story, Voth is even more determined to learn what he can.
The manuscript that he discovers is the story of an orphan named P. who was sold into servitude at age twelve and struggled with gender and the desire to live as Jack. P falls deeply in love with Bess, a sex worker who like P is looking for freedom of her own, and tries to imagine what it would be like to have a different life. Bess brings P into the London underworld which is so unlike the world P is used to— a world of thieves and alternative subcultures who do not get along with the police, a new establishment in London. There is also the threat of a plague coming so everything seems very tenable. In these new surroundings, P becomes Jack Sheppard who becomes one of the most notorious, infamous and most wanted thieves in history.
Voth’s annotations contain citations and ideas about queer theory/history and in the beginning represent his academic background. However they more and more unhinged. Voth’s continuing academic career is in the control of a giant pharmaceutical-military-industrial-complex of a company that’s subsidizes the university where he works. His personal crisis deeps because of the manuscript. Voth also happens to be a trans man who is dealing with lost love. Something happens to Voth as he reads the manuscript and his life begins to resemble Jack’s and what follows……..
We really have two stories here, Jack’s and Voth’s and both are compelling but actually I liked Voth’s better especially with regard to his excitement about the manuscript as the first known account of a transgender writer. Rosenberg has taken on quite an ambitious project here. I had a bit of trouble getting into at first but I was determined and was often rewarded. No doubt there will be readers who will dive right in with no problems but I had a bit of trouble. It happens that I love Berthold Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” and so much of it is here. I am not sure who will be the audience for this but it is important in that it is basically about what being different means in a society that does not regard difference as a value.
There is a great deal of philosophy in the book and as a philosopher myself, I loved that. I feel compelled to mention that it was good to see my friends Michel Foucault and Baruch Spinoza between the lines. Just wait until the end. I must also say that I love Voth. There is something very sexy about him and even with all the craziness here, his voice was soothing for me.
It is necessary to have an open-mind to really enjoy the read here and I do not want to scare you off by saying that you have to work hard to get into the story but once you do, you will be happy that you read it.