Confessions of the Fox
Academic intrigue meets the 18th-century underworld in Rosenberg’s astonishing and mesmerizing debut, which juxtaposes queer and trans theory, heroic romance, postcolonial analysis, and speculative fiction. The story appears in the form of an ostensibly historical document and lengthy discursive footnotes. In a 2018 not entirely recognizable as our own, transgender university professor R. Voth happens upon an apparently unread 1724 manuscript entitled “Confessions of the Fox.” It purports to be the memoirs of real-life 18th-century British folk hero Jack Sheppard, whose crimes and jailbreaks transfixed his contemporaries and inspired works including Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera
. But this Jack was born female, falls in love with a mixed-race sex worker, and clashes with a ring of conspirators attempting to monetize a potentially priceless masculinizing elixir. Some of the footnotes Voth appends as he edits the manuscript cite scholarly references. Others are glosses on the 18th-century slang with which the swashbuckling and often sexually charged action is narrated. Still others recount Voth’s own travails: broke and lonely, he must also contend with a shadowy publisher-cum-pharmaceutical company hoping to cash in on the manuscript’s value. Rosenberg is an ebullient and witty storyteller as well as a painstaking scholar. Like the Sheppard of most earlier tellings, his Jack is an entertaining “artist of transgression” who sheds shackles with ease. Yet the novel is most memorable when evoking the pain behind such liberations: the constraints of individual and collective bodies, and the infinite guises of the yearning to break free. Agent: Susan Golomb, Writers House. (June)
Correction: this review has been edited for clarity.