The Novel, most often, is a simple entity. It’s job, by-and-by, is to be read. It runs from left to right and front to back and tells you what it wants to be known; quite often it runs chronologically and even more often there are only a small number of characters that you need to keep tabs on. Don’t get me wrong, the tradition of fiction is the very thing that I am most passionate about. It is cluttering my bedroom as I write, it is weighing down my backpack, it is driving my career goals, it has found me my kindred spirit, and I am indebted to it for the vast majority of my human understanding, Still, in essence, the Novel is a simple being. They may twist time into knots, they may be soaked in metaphor, they may say things never said before, but at their root they do what they say on their tin: tell you a story.
Then, some clever fiction writer comes along and has their go at the Novel and takes your preconceived ideas of what to expect and rips them up.
And why not?
Why not write a novel that reads as an academic exposition of a 18th century text with the added element of a fictional editor that has gone rogue, which all acts as a intersectional critique of society?
Why not indeed?
I should step back and unpick that ridiculous sentence for you, and I will, but first I have decided to skip to the bit where I tell you what I think of this book:
This is a mad, brilliant, audacious and ever so slightly silly book. It breaks down boundaries in form and voice. This book combines a fascinating and engaging story with an academic critique that drifts through critical theory, queer theory, postcolonialism and other disciplines. This sounds like it might be a slog, but its not, it is all delivered with a healthy dose of self-awareness and humour. I know I’ve confused you even more, but bear with me. The point is that this book, is both novel (in its adjective sense) and an incredibly fun read. It likewise delivers a truly refreshing narrative voice through its prime narrator and its supporting one. Though at times you wonder if the scope and scale of this book manages to hold itself together, at the end of it you feel like you have read something different, something refreshing and something telling of the time that we are living in.
So what the hell is it?
Well, it works like this: the book opens with a editor’s forward. This editor is a character in our book. This editor has found a manuscript at his University’s book sale. He is given these loose papers for free as no one else is interested in them. For then on he is fully wrapped up in this manuscript and takes to editing it for publication. Initially, Dr.Voth believes that this manuscript may be the biography of Jack Sheppard. Jack Sheppard was a London thief and jail-breaker whose life became the stuff of legend after his execution. We then jump into this mysterious manuscript with Dr.Voth, reading through the story together as Voth adds footnotes that explain the text, question the authenticity of the manuscript and its revelations, and learn a lot more about Dr.Voth himself. The format means we read both the manuscript story and Dr.Voth’s story at the same time.
The Jack Sheppard manuscript itself strays from the original stories of Jack Sheppard. We meet Jack as a young woman, as this Jack was assigned female at birth. Jack grows up in servitude in London and awaits the day that he can escape and assume a true identity. We follow as he strays towards the vagrants of London, the underground of thieves, sex workers, cheats and barginers. In his outings he presents as male and runs into the alluring Bess – a sex worker – whose gaze flashes through him like lightning. This encounter with Bess kicks off Jack’s rebel life, as he escapes his servitude and takes to life in the underbelly of London with Bess. Bess is described as ‘Lascar’ – a term broadened from meaning a South Asian soldier to South Asian. Jack grows into his identity with Bess, finding comfort and assurity in himself when he is with her. He effectively begins a physical and emotional transition in her presence, growing into his identity. They, likewise, find themselves confronting the struggles of the age: the birth of the global/capitalist age is upon them and the role of the rogue is a particularly threatening one to authority. We witness through Jack and Bess the rise of the police state, of the advancement of capitalist greed – epitomised in slave trading – and the establishment of racial oppression in society. If that is too much, it is also a good, fast-paced tale of a treacherous existence and a nerve-inducing game of cat and mouse.
It doesn’t stop there though. Dr.Voth has been helpfully annotating this story all the way through. He points out interesting notions and events and references many theorists as he explores them. He also translates some of the 18th century dialect for us. He, himself, is also facing the trials and tribulations of life in the contemporary world. He tells us of the disintegration of his relationship and the perils of dating as a trans man, he is hounded by a company professing to having the rights to the manuscript and his University boss has him suspended for playing too much phone scrabble during work hours. On top of this, the manuscript which appeals to his very being is becoming more and more questionable in its authenticity as he reads it. More clues hint that perhaps it isn’t as it seems. As Dr.Voth seeks a way through to the true essence of this story he becomes more and more disjointed.
This book plays with you on all fronts. Jack and Bess’s story is fascinating, but it does not exist on its own, it plays with and against Dr.Voth’s story. Sometimes the complexity of the text can overwhelm, but Rosenberg also pulls things back enough for you to get back invested in the primary story. I imagine not all will enjoy this book, all the components together might not be someone’s idea of a bit of light reading, but I think the crossover of theory, fiction, humour and sincerity works incredibly well if you give it a chance. There is a lot to get lost in here. There’s even a bibliography at the back of all the supporting sources needed to support this book. It almost reads as a project and I feel it is refreshing to see a genuine combination of fiction and non-fiction in one book that works as well as it does. It is great to see an author professing his interests and exploring them as he wishes in one title. It is a fun read and a fresh format that makes it a joy to read.
P.S. Of course, the fictional academic book isn’t a brand new format is it. As a lot of Confessions of the Fox is about authenticity it would be dishonest to not explore the fact that the rogue editor has popped up before in fiction. I am thinking specifically of Pale Fire by Nobokov which is a fictional poetry title with a editor’s forward and footnotes that tell a story. It is hard not to think that Pale Fire has not had a big influence on this book with its roaming, rebellious editor playing with the truth of the ‘work’ at the centre of the book. I would recommend it to all. Likewise, Nobokov didn’t come up with it first either. As before him Kierkegaard played with a made up editor in Either/Or which opposed two fictional treatise of living against each other. It with these books we are drifting around ideas of reality. In Confessions of The Fox this exploration of individual reality and truth is explored with candor, with academic skill and with a playfulness that makes this book a fabulous book a great addition to this peculiar canon.
Confessions of the Fox is published by Atlantic Books and is available here.
Jordy Rosenberg is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he teaches eighteenth-century literature and queer/trans theory. He lives in New York City and Northampton, Massachusetts. Confessions of the Fox is his first novel.
Reviewed by Jessica Gregory
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