This zany re­boot for an 18th­cen­tury crim­i­nal folk hero is also a hard-won ac­count of how it feels to change gen­der

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - Hermione Eyre

Re­vi­sion­ism is taken to new ex­tremes in this novel, a jeux d’esprit that reimag­ines the pop­u­lar 18th-cen­tury crim­i­nal and jail-breaker Jack Shep­pard as trans­gen­der. In be­tween pick­pock­et­ing and trips to Ty­burn, the folk an­ti­hero un­der­goes a se­cret mas­tec­tomy on “the Un­ac­count­able Lumps that grieved him so”. The over­all ef­fect is zany, ex­per­i­men­tal and un­mis­tak­ably 2018.

The au­thor is a pro­fes­sor of both 18th-cen­tury lit­er­a­ture and queer/trans the­ory at a US univer­sity, and com­bin­ing these spe­cialisms gives the book en­ergy, as it con­stantly dares it­self to go fur­ther, like Shep­pard creep­ing along a win­dow ledge. Jordy Rosen­berg, him­self trans­gen­der, is push­ing the his­tor­i­cal genre to­wards new in­clu­siv­ity. Sex­u­ally ex­plicit, eru­dite and odd, this is a bumpier read than pre­vi­ous queer­ings of the his­tor­i­cal genre, such as Sarah Wa­ters’ Finger­smith - in fact, it feels more like Chris Kraus’s cultish I Love Dick , be­cause its el­e­ments of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy are so teas­ingly en­coded.

Shep­pard’s story runs par­al­lel with that of a mod­ern trans­gen­der aca­demic who is in­ter­ro­gat­ing Shep­pard’s life. There is no ev­i­dence for the the­ory about Shep­pard’s gen­der iden­tity – save per­haps his fa­mously slight and epicene ap­pear­ance, cap­tured in a sketch from life by James Thorn­hill. But in mak­ing free with his bi­og­ra­phy, Rosen­berg joins Daniel Defoe, Henry Field­ing and John Gay, as well as Ber­tolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in The Three­penny Opera, and more re­cently Jake Arnott, who last year put Shep­pard at the heart of a noirish his­tor­i­cal thriller, The Fa­tal Tree . All have been at­tracted to his elu­sive, trans­gres­sive mythol­ogy, but none pre­vi­ously thought to give him a fe­male Chris­tian name, P____ (sup­pressed by Rosen­berg in play­ful 18th­cen­tury style), nor a mother who sends him into the world, say­ing: “Be a good girl now.”

Jack, of course, has no in­ten­tion of be­ing any such thing. He has soon picked the lock of his ap­pren­tice’s by Jordy Rosen­berg, At­lantic, £14.99 shack­les and fallen in love with a doughty sex worker called Bess, known to his­tory as Bess Lyon, or Edge­worth Bess from Mid­dle­sex, but up­dated here to be­come Bess Kahn, daugh­ter of a Las­car sailor and a fen-dwelling mother. Bess is fond of quot­ing Spinoza’s Ethics in be­tween clients. Mean­while, Jack has started drink­ing a con­tra­band elixir dis­tilled by pi­rates that turns out to be a rudi­men­tary form of hor­mone ther­apy.

A pow­er­ful mo­tive for writ­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion is to sup­ply what one finds un­ac­count­ably miss­ing from his­tor­i­cal sources, but to write for this rea­son alone is in­evitably anachro­nis­tic and self-in­ter­ested. Luck­ily, Rosen­berg is far too clever not to be aware of these pit­falls, and he in­cor­po­rates them into this bawdy, tick­lish, witty book, play­ing off un­re­li­able nar­ra­tors and par­al­lel trans­gen­der nar­ra­tives.

The struc­ture re­volves around that sta­ple of metafic­tion, the dis­cov­ery of a lost man­u­script. This pur­ports to be Shep­pard’s true con­fes­sions and comes adorned with ex­cited and tan­gen­tial foot­notes by the afor­men­tioned gullible aca­demic, Dr R Voth, who turns out to be the book’s most en­ter­tain­ing char­ac­ter, in the vein of Charles Kin­bote in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Take an at­ten­dance reg­is­ter in class? Not Voth: “I’m both too scat­tered and Marx­ist to ac­tu­ally po­lice my stu­dents in that way.”

The lost man­u­script never seems quite au­then­tic, full of ver­biage in praise of vagi­nas – “God of Muff !” – and with a mod­ern frank­ness to the sex­ual dis­course that makes even Cle­land’s Fanny Hill look shy. The text then lapses into anachro­nisms such as “his heart scam­pered like a trapped chip­munk”. Jonathan Wild, Shep­pard’s ad­ver­sary, is a “lizardy fuck­wit”.

This play­ful­ness is ac­com­pa­nied by pro­gres­sive po­lit­i­cal point-scor­ing: the plague is a made-up ex­cuse to keep peo­ple in their place; ev­ery form of au­thor­ity is cru­elly re­pres­sive. Weird metaphors abound. The chil­dren of a pass­ing aris­to­crat are de­scribed as “toohand­somely at­tired, or­bit­ing him like Ex­pres­sion­less gas-filled bal­loons”.

But the py­rotech­nics sig­nify less than the nub of the story, which is a hard-won ac­count of how it feels to change gen­der. Jack feels recog­nised for the first time when Bess in­stinc­tively calls him “Some­thing” – “his se­cret Word for what was be­hind the door in him­self that he could not open”. And as she finds other names for him – “Dae­mon. Sphinx. Hy­brid. Scitha, man-horse, deep-wa­ter Kraken, Mon­ster-flower” – Jack be­comes more con­fi­dent.

The au­thor con­tin­u­ally teases and re­buffs pruri­ent in­ter­est, pro­vid­ing a mar­bled page, a la Tris­tram Shandy, in­stead of the graphic bod­ily il­lus­tra­tion the pub­lisher sup­pos­edly de­mands. Rosen­berg has cre­ated an 18th-cen­tury rid­dle wrapped in a 21stcen­tury enigma. Any­one with a head for post­mod­ern heights will revel in it.

Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine is pub­lished by Vin­tage. To buy Con­fes­sions of the Fox for £13.19 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

Con­fes­sions of the Fox

‘Slight and epicene in ap­pear­ance’ James Thorn­hill’s sketch of Shep­pard

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