I’m an easy-going reader. I’ll read most anything: novels, short stories, magazines, dictionaries, cereal boxes...and I’m not picky about genre either. Fantasy of course occupies a warm spot in my heart, but I’ll happily read anything that looks interesting, and I have few dislikes.
One of those, however, is dystopia (weird for a fantasy reader to dislike dystopia, but here we are.) To say I dislike dystopia would be an understatement — I abhor dystopia. Having come of age with 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, We, and more I’ve put out of mind, I see dystopias as the stories of decent people caught up in meat grinders. Now I feel that life is enough of a challenge, and I’m old enough not to tolerate entertainment that makes me want to lie down in front of a bus, whether that entertainment is old (the aforesaid dystopias) or new (The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Squid Game, and all manner of other depressing games). I won’t even read Margaret Atwood any more. I am highly suspicious of dystopias, regarding them as often not much more than despair porn.
But either not all dystopias are dystopic, or I’m getting jaded. Probably a little of both. A case in point: Jordy Rosenberg’s amazing Confessions of the Fox. Now, give me an unpublished manuscript that plays a pivotal role in a novel, and I’m all in—it’s catnip. Add an intelligent double-narrative and I’m hooked, no matter how dark it’s going to be.
First published in 2018 as Rosenberg’s debut novel and having made quite a literary splash, most of the critical ink spilled about Confessions of the Fox centers on its status as a queer novel, where the protagonist in each of its two narratives is trans, and both are rendered with exquisite tenderness and sensitivity. The loneliness of the two protagonists, their existential alone-ness and their longing for authenticity, dignity, and love, are universal for all readers, of course, but the queering of the narrative gives it a certain...edge. The novel is marvelous on that footing and deserves all the accolades it’s garnered. However, as a novel there are other aspects and, since the gender politics is pretty well covered elsewhere, I’m looking at it as a dystopic fantasy.
Confessions is a two-track novel, and it casts a wide net. Steeped in gender politics (of both the 21st and 18th centuries), the story begins with transgendered Dr. Voth, an academic grieving the loss of a relationship, when he comes upon a manuscript that’s been lost in a university library’s stacks for no-one-knows-how-long and is offered up in a book sale. Looking for something to occupy him, Voth acquires the manuscript, and from the depths of his loss, the story begins.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this line that had been haunting me — the epigraph I had discovered on the front page of the manuscript.
“Love’s mysteries in souls do grow, / But yet the body is his book.”
What did Donne mean by this — and all his filthy innuendo, really?
The body is transformed by love.
I recognize I sound uncharacteristically utopian, but this isn’t exactly a utopian sentiment. Not a painless one anyway.
Love inscribes the body — and this is a process as excruciating as it sounds. For some of it it is literal. Kafkaesque. A selbstverlusting that is both terrifying and pleasurable. The body does not pre-exist love, but is cast in its fires.
If the body is cast in the fires of love, so too — and this is Donne’s point — is the book.
Donne’s epigraph opens both Confessions of the Fox and the eponymous manuscript that Voth acquires and undertakes to edit. The manuscript purports to be the “true confessions” of Jack Sheppard, notorious London gaol-breaker and the inspiration for the figure of Macheath in John Gay’s The Beggar's Opera and Mack the Knife in Bertolt Brecht’s adaptation, The Three Penny Opera.
Jack Sheppard, however, is not a merely literary figure, but a real person — an early 18th century thief and escape artist. Voth possesses the only extant manuscript of Sheppard’s confessions: his birth into poverty, his stultifying apprenticeship to a furniture maker, his escape to the bat-houses of the London underworld, and his dizzying love affair with Edgeworth Bess, a doxy from the fens. Now if you understood any part of the second half of the last sentence, you know more than I did starting Confessions of the Fox. Ripe with 18th century slang and cant (and among the dozens of words for whores, whoring, pimps, and pimping, my favorite word is “smish,” which isn’t dirty at all. A smish is a shirt. So there.)
The novel’s main narrative is the manuscript, the story of Jack Sheppard who, in Rosenberg’s rendering, is trans and leading a drab and joyless existence as P____, an abused and neglected apprentice to a churlish London furniture maker, until he meets Edgeworth Bess, Bess Khan, a whore. Transformed by Bess’ gaze and her words, “Boy, handsome boy —,“ P___ becomes Jack, and the story of Jack, who escaped from Newgate Jail four times — from even the cells of the condemned — to become a celebrated culture hero on London’s streets, begins.
The external action is action enough, but Jack’s internal transformation (under Bess’ guidance) is the heart of the story. Love transforms Jack, body and soul: “Love’s mysteries in souls do grow, / But yet the body is his book.” Even as police, jailers, and crime bosses hunt them, in one act of subversion after another, Jack and Bess discover the power of resistance.
That’s one half of the novel. The other half exists in the footnotes. Footnotes are, as everyone knows, the best parts of the books that never get read. Voth’s story unfolds in footnotes, and it’s a narrative parallel to and no less heroic than Jack Sheppard’s own, a movement through grief and into power. Along the way, there are not only questions of authenticity but of authorship: who wrote this manuscript, and why? What signposts does it offer?
Is it a dystopia? Yes, of a sort. The part of the novel set in the present, Voth’s story, imagines an academia that ten years ago would have been considered ridiculous, but today feels like only a slight exaggeration of the workhouse environment of the modern university, especially the exploited experience of adjunct faculty. Voth’s department has been taken over by corporate interests that act like hedge fund managers wringing the last drops of wealth and productivity from an already exhausted workforce. In a world where UNC can be induced to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones because of political pressure exerted by one well-heeled university trustee, Walter Hussman, a world where the University of Florida has been cowed into silence by a science denying boor of a governor, where classes are ever-larger, teaching positions ever-scarcer, and most of the job growth lying in administration and the ever-burgeoning world of assistant deans, vice-presidents, and directors of branding, having a department set up a clandestine surveillance system, charge overworked faculty for the hours they “waste” in their offices, and assert ownership of all intellectual property that faculty produce (this last one is already happening) — well, it’s not much of a stretch.
The corporatization of academia in the Voth narrative, with its desperate and despairing effects on the protagonist, is paralleled in the Sheppard narrative, where everything is for sale and the poor are kept poor, powerless, and desperate. In Jack’s London, Jonathan Wild, the “Thief-Taker General” who plays both sides of the criminal street, turns crime into an industry, a commodity. And he’s stolen a recipe for a substance made out of human...well, some things are better left in the novel, but he plans to turn flesh itself into a commodity.
Is it a dystopia? Yes. Definitely. But unlike the dystopias of common fame, this one posits an out, a path of resistance, one that’s written in the body, blazed on the soul, one wrought through trauma and toward a kind of triumph.
It’s also probably the only dystopia you’ll ever read that comes with its own academic bibliography. Justifiably celebrated for its portrayal of trans politics and experience, Confessions writes a map for readers who are disgusted with the commodification of modern life, the turning of experience into shallow consumption and branding opportunities, the race to the lowest common denominator, the allure of the slick, the shiny, the exploited. It’s also a thoughtful adventure and a great read.
Rosenberg, Jordy. Confessions of the Fox. London: Atlantic Books, 2018.
READERS & BOOK LOVERS SERIES SCHEDULE
If you’re not already following Readers and Book Lovers, please go to our homepage (link), find the top button in the left margin, and click it to FOLLOW GROUP. Thank You and Welcome, to the most followed group on Daily Kos. Now you’ll get all our R&BLers diaries in your stream.