Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg, is a very sneaky book. It begins as a discovered manuscript story when academic R. Voth comes across a handful of eighteenth century pages that purport to be the “confessions” of legendary thief and jail-breaker, Jack Sheppard. This is exciting enough, but then it quickly becomes an audacious and extremely erudite story about an intersex protagonist and transgender archivist, slavery, and capitalism. The book sucked me in with Jack’s story only to leave me thinking unsettling thoughts about how much we might (or might not) own our own bodies and livelihoods.
Jack Sheppard was a historical figure with short career as a thief. He is mostly known to us today because he escaped Newgate Prison four times—which was believed to be impossible—before being hanged at Tyburn at the age of 22. In the manuscript Voth discovers, Jack Sheppard has an even more intriguing secret: he is intersex. He prefers male pronouns and dress, but he constantly worries about being found out as well as being rejected by the women he is attracted to. Jack does find love with Bess, a sex worker (as Voth deliberate names her), and the two lead their nemesis, Jonathan Wild, a merry dance, for as long as they can.
Voth speaks to us through footnotes. In the beginning of the book, the notes define eighteenth century London slang and offer references to actual scholarly works. But then, they begin to comment on the strangeness of the text—and to fight with their employer, the Dean of Surveillance. The Dean, and his bosses (a nefarious company with too many holdings and very good lawyers), very much want the manuscript. Unlike Voth, who wants to share the text with the world, the Dean and PQuad have a prurient interest in Jack and Bess’ sex life and Jack’s anatomy. The Dean and PQuad don’t understand Jack. They see someone they can gawk at like the Lion-Man in Jack’s story. Their interest raises the stakes for Voth, who suddenly has a bigger mission than just transcribing the manuscript.
I loved the interplay between Voth and Jack’s stories. The parallels between the two lives get stronger as Confessions of the Fox continues, leading to a twist that I’m still thinking about. There is so much in this novel to unpack; this is one of the smartest books I’ve read in a long time. Readers with an academic background will be right at home with this metafictional marvel. Readers who don’t like footnotes, however, may have a hard time with this book. This is also one of the rare books I recommend people read in print.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.