Frann Michel recommends the novel Confessions of the Fox (2018) by Jordy Rosenberg, a genre-bending work of radical speculative history from below, telling the story of the real 18th-century thief, jailbreaker, and folk hero Jack Sheppard, reimagined here as a trans man allied with other criminals, radicals, and people of color in resisting the miseries of carceral capitalism.
text / transcript:
Good morning, this is Frann Michel to tell you about Confessions of the Fox, an acclaimed genre-bending 2018 novel by Jordy Rosenberg, available through the Multnomah County library as well as through bookstores and bootlegs. Although Rosenberg deserves all the rewards possible for his accomplished fiction, a pirate version might even be be appropriate.
Confessions of the Fox features a renegade manuscript, of dubious provenance and authenticity, and the disaffected academic who finds it, edits it, steals it, and protects its secrets.
The manuscript, dated 1724, appears to be the memoirs of Jack Sheppard, the real historical figure who helped inspire John Gay's Beggars Opera and Berthold Brecht's Threepenny Opera. Sheppard was a pickpocket, thief, jail-breaker, and folk hero.
As the novel describes him, [quote]
“Jack is a compact mutt with an intuition for all possible points of entry, opening, and release. Whether of gaols or of women, there has never been a lock, door, window, or wall that he could not gentle open into an ecstasy of Trespass. Jack is a creature of Liberation." [endquote]
In this fictional memoir, Sheppard was also, like his 21st century editor, Dr. R. Voth, assigned female at birth. Voth finds the manuscript at a book sale, where the university library is selling off three floors of books as part of remodeling to make room for "dean's offices and a dining atrium for upper-level administrators."
The twenty-first century frame tale, which appears in the "Editor's Foreword" and in copious discursive footnotes, offers a good deal of such academic satire. Dr. Voth is put on Unpaid Leave, for instance, after the Dean of Surveillance catches him playing scrabble on his phone during office hours. When the University allies with a private company hoping to monetize discoveries in the manuscript, Voth absconds with it to keep its secrets out of the marketplace.
The bureaucratic capitalism and carceral apparatus that Dr Voth encounters in the present has roots in the 18th century in which the memoir is set, and the novel highlights the need for a useable past and an imaginative archive.
As a one reviewer notes of events in the memoir, [quote]
"When the English government warns citizens against plague, they charge that the disease is coming from South Asians. London’s government requires that the dirtiest and poorest parts of the city be contained, explaining that the poor, foreign-born, or persons of color are more apt to spread disease. The use of fear tactics to enforce rule via discrimination echoes governments’ articulation of immigration policy today. The quarantine also recalls the panic that arose over HIV and AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s." [endquote]
In both history and fiction, Jack's popularity comes in part from his evasion of forms of control both crude and familiar, his liberation from the traps of waged labor and oppressive law. Jack's first escape is from the carpenter to whom he is apprenticed, who chains him to his bed at night. His first jail break, however, includes his lover Bess, a south Asian sex worker. Bess--and her jailbreak--are historically attested, though the conventional archive is silent on her race.
In Confessions of the Fox, her father was a lascar sailor who jumped ship and escaped from the East India Company to the Fens.
The Fenlands were an area of marshland that supported hunting and fishing communities, until, in a major engineering project, using prison labor, they were drained for agricultural use. Bess's parents are radical Quakers, and are among those who fought against this project of enclosure and destruction of wetlands, the Fen-Tigers.
That the conflicts over draining the Fens occurred mostly a century earlier than the events of the memoir take place is one of the few historical liberties Rosenberg takes. For the most part, the novel's inventions explore the unmentioned, like the possibilities of Bess's racial position, or why Jack Sheppard was "so often described as" small or "'slight' or otherwise effeminate."
In the author's Acknowledgements that follow the narrative, Rosenberg notes that the novel is [quote] “a fiction crafted in fidelity to the London we know was true—a diasporic London shaped through centuries of Black and South Asian communities and labor—but of course this fiction is itself necessarily partial and fallible. ”
That fallibility is also explored as Confessions of the Fox unfolds, and Voth gathers evidence of later interpolations and a kind of collective authorship for the manuscript.
This is radical speculative history from below--attentive, as Rosenberg acknowledges, to "histories of mass incarceration, racialization, colonialism, the cruelties of capitalism, the militarization of the police, and the inextricability of embodied life and struggle from that history.”
But the novel also attends gloriously to the joys and promise of that struggle. As he leaves the university with the manuscript, Dr Voth is crying--not for sadness, he says, No, [quote]
“I cry . . . when I see a flash, if only briefly, that something other and better than this world already exists in potentia. It doesn’t have to be profound. I cry the same set of tears when team members throw themselves into each other’s arms after winning a game as I do when we lock arms in front of the police.” [endquote]
That better world is not yet here, but there's joy in spending time with a book that glimpses it when we lock arms in front of the police.
I'll leave you with one more comment from Dr Voth.
[quote] “The body has two histories. So says the manuscript. . . .
There is the history that binds us all. The terrible history that began when the police first swarmed the streets of the cities and the settlers streamed down the decks of their ships, casting shadows on the world to turn themselves white. Casting the wickedest net. There is no trans body, no body at all—no memoir, no confessions, no singular story of “you” or anyone—outside this broad and awful legacy. So when they ask for our story—when they want to sell it—we don’t let them forget.
Slavery, surveillers, settlers and their shadows.
But the second history of the body?
The second history is love’s inscription.” [endquote]
For the Old Mole Variety Hour, this has been Frann Michel, recommending the novel Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg.