The Saturday Paper

BOOKS: Jordy Rosenberg’s Confession­s of the Fox. Sam Twyford-Moore’s The Rapids. Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country.

Confession­s of the Fox

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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 “securiti sational” 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
Atlantic, 304pp, $29.99

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