‘‘Confessions of the Fox’’ is that rare find, a challenging philosophical work that’s also just great fun. On one level this debut novel is a swashbuckling adventure about a notorious outlaw and his forbidden love in 18th century London — the kind of off-kilter picaresque destined to become a film starring Johnny Depp .
But even as the anti-hero Jack Sheppard and his mixed-race prostitute girlfriend, Bess Khan, fight to live life their own way in this 300-year-old story, there’s a parallel narrative unfolding. A Dr. R. Voth, an academic who has found Sheppard’s long-lost manuscript, is battling to save his academic career — and possibly his freedom, as well — in a story that unfolds in the footnotes, all while he debates the authenticity of his find and what it means for his own life, since he, like Sheppard, is a trans man.
As the main story opens, it is 1724 and Sheppard is about to be hanged as a thief and “gaolbreaker.” His tale, these “confessions,” take us from the gallows back to his youth, when he was sold into a slave-like apprenticeship, and his emergence into manhood, love, and infamy.
Much of his story is familiar: Sheppard is based on an English folk hero who was the centerpiece of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” which became Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera.” In author Jordy Rosenberg’s hands, however, the story is starkly personal and movingly depicted. In times of crisis, for example when his mother sells him, Sheppard dissociates in a way that any expert in child trauma will recognize: “Jack did his Thames-trick. He had no other choice against the Terror . . . He sent himself floating to cool Depths.”
After he survives a brutally primitive mastectomy he describes how his body now conforms more closely to his gender: “The interstice between Jack’s insides and his skin — that chasm of echoing hollow, the miserable Gas that kept him from himself, and from the world, had been closed.’’
Voth’s situation is much less dramatic. Laboring for a Big Brother-like university that has a dean of surveillance, he is disciplined, at first, for playing Scrabble on his phone. “You owe your workplace eighty hours of labor restitution,” he is told, even as he rationalizes his misuse of office hours: “No one really wants to talk about the eighteenth century more than they already have to.”
Before long, he is put on unpaid leave and then approached by a corporate entity that wants to buy his find, the “mashed and mildewed pile of papers” that contains Sheppard’s story.
The implication is that this has all been a setup, and before long Voth realizes he has been played: Broke and threatened with legal action, he must get to work preparing the manuscript for his new masters, who seek to exploit the salacious qualities of the “earliest authentic confessional transgender memoirs known to history.”
Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems, and both the timid Voth and the intrepid Sheppard may have cards yet to play.
This setup isn’t entirely new. Both Sarah Waters (most notably in “Fingersmith”) and Michel Faber (“The Crimson Petal and the White”) have set novels in a Victorian London underworld with a modern eye toward gender and sexuality, working on the assumption that people haven’t actually changed much over the centuries. As Waters and Faber did, Rosenberg peppers his prose with thieves’ cant, much of it erotic, which in its range and specificity (most of it unreproduceable in a family newspaper) gives credence to this idea. The slang bolsters the period setting but does requires explication in footnotes — where we are introduced to Voth and his much less dashing saga, the academic satire that sets “Confessions’’ apart.
That this innovative hybrid works is a testament to Rosenberg, who teaches 18th century literature and queer/trans theory at UMass Amherst. Like Voth, Rosenberg identifies as transgender. (Sheppard never uses this word.) Unlike Voth, Rosenberg is never pedantic. Even while he (his chosen pronoun) has Voth going on and on in his footnotes, showing off his erudition, Rosenberg spices his main story — that of the outlaw lovers — with sly allusions to both his areas of expertise. The typographical tricks that, in 1759, will set off Laurence Sterne’s novel “Tristram Shandy” pop up alongside arguments from gender theory about desire and body dimorphism, while hat-tips to other authors abound.
While it is not necessary to the enjoyment of the book, recognition of these allusions can serve as clues and enrich both tales. Take the strange and seemingly all-encompassing company that approaches Voth: P-QUAD. The acronym is never explained, but once it has been read aloud, any reader of Melville’s 1851 masterwork will know to expect a bad ending.
Sometimes, those allusions have the reader second guessing. Would an underworld colleague of Sheppard’s really have had access to (and been able to read) Daniel Defoe’s 1722 “A Journal of the Plague Year”? Even though Bess has spent time in the Dutch republic, where modern financial practices were founded, would a sex worker really use the word “securitizational” in conversation (“the first known usage,” as Voth notes)? Are these clues that Voth should have picked up on — ones indicating that this manuscript is a modern forgery? Or are they Rosenberg’s subtle dig at the reader, upending our prejudices so that we can, just maybe, appreciate these otherwise marginalized characters for who they are? A bibliography closes this novel, for anyone who wants to explore further. For readers simply seeking a ripping yarn, this volume alone will suffice.
CONFESSIONS OF THE FOX
By Jordy Rosenberg
One World, 352 pp., $27Clea Simon is a Somerville novelist. She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com