Review of Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
Confessions of the Fox
by Jordy Rosenberg
This book was recommended to me by a comment on my Goodreads Review of For Today I Am A Boy. As I said in that review, we need more trans people telling trans stories. Confessions of the Fox is exactly that: author Jordy Rosenberg is a trans man, the frame story protagonist is a trans man, and the protagonist of the inner story is a trans man. More incredibly, however, this book does something For Today I Am A Boy could never do: it offers a thoughtful and compassionate meta-narrative on the struggle to create a continuity of trans community and identity despite the attempts to erase us from history.
Dr. R. Voth is a literature professor at an unnamed university. At a sale of manuscripts and books from the university’s library (throughout the story, Rosenberg parodies how universities these days are increasingly becoming public–private partnerships focused more on generating revenue than generating or safekeeping knowledge), Voth discovers a manuscript purporting to be the true story of 18th-century thief Jack Sheppard. Sheppard, aka “Honest Jack,” is a real person about whom some literature has already been written, and Voth mentions these other depictions in his annotations. The book we’re reading, then, is supposedly this manuscript, with footnotes coming to us from the voice of Voth. The major revelation early in the book is that this manuscript is the only one that even hints that Jack is a trans man. For Voth, also a trans man, this is a big deal. But the motif of connection and community doesn’t stop there….
You could just read the story within (“the manuscript” if you will) straight through, skipping the footnotes, as if it were an accurate representation of the life of Jack Sheppard. The manuscript is a fun tale all of its own right, tracing Jack’s life from his indenture with a cabinetmaker all the way to a spectacular confrontation with Jack Wild, a thief-turned-thiefcatcher. There’s resourceful, smart-talking sex workers and credulous constables and all sorts of characters to keep you entertained. Moreover, Rosenberg openly challenges the whitewashing of this period of London. His London is historically accurate in that it includes many people of colour from all over the world while also acknowledging the presence of racism.
However, the power of this book comes from how Rosenberg uses intertextual and meta-fictional conceits to create a conversation in which the reader is a silent yet integral participant. Each layer of the story has its own, unique voice. The main story, the manuscript itself, is chock full of 18th-century vocabulary. (Indeed, when I first picked it up, I was nervous its verisimilitude would be too daunting—fortunately, Rosenberg knows how to strike a balance.) As a professor of 18th-century literature himself, Rosenberg is spectacularly positioned to write such a manuscript. He has Voth chime in to interpret for us, sometimes with just one-word translations of slang, but just as often with longer explanations or references to other (real) scholarship. In this way, the conversation begins.
The manuscript is earnest, humorous, and very sexually explicit (albeit in an 18th-century mode). That last part actually made me a bit uncomfortable, not really my cup of tea, but if you are looking for 18th-century descriptions of making out and having intercourse, then yeah, you need this book. (There are also some fairly oblique references, both in the manuscript and the footnotes, to how testosterone affects the size of the clitoris; I like how Rosenberg drops in these little touches that a cis person might overlook but a trans person is likely to notice right away.) Voth’s annotations, in contrast, are the voice of a harried and cynical university prof at the end of his rope, both financially and emotionally. When Sullivan, the enigmatic representative of a pharmaceutical research company, joins Voth in the footnotes in ALL CAPS to harangue the professor as he works, this adds yet another layer to the conversation: the reader gets the sense that every word here is being surveilled by a third party, and in a way, we too feel under surveillance.
This interplay among Voth, the manuscript, Sullivan, the reader—it creates a unique third layer to the story, one that exists in the liminal space between manuscript and annotation. The crux is simple: all of our narrators are unreliable. The original author(s) of the manuscript could be lying to us, or mistaken, about anything—and indeed, Voth speculates a few times that parts of what he’s reading were added later, in the 19th century or even far more recently. Voth’s annotations are unreliable—I don’t think he’s intentionally misleading us, but his verbose oversharing makes it clear that his emotional stability is in question. Any annotations of a work are bound to be subjective, and Voth’s will be particularly subjective. Add to this the pressure created by the surveillance from Sullivan—there are moments in the text where Voth deliberately obfuscates details from the manuscript or withholds information from Sullivan, from us, or from both Sullivan and the reader.
In this way, Rosenberg replicates for lay readers what scholars like himself and his fictional avatar must grapple with on the regular: the harried and scattered nature of archival research. Reading Confessions of the Fox is as close as most of us will get to trying to piece together the truth from a series of damaged, edited manuscripts of suspect provenance while a dean and a private corporation breathe down our necks, wondering what profit is to be found in the deed.
Yet by leaning into the unreliability of his narratives, Rosenberg also creates a space in which to explore the possibilities of trans history and community. As I mentioned earlier, Rosenberg makes references will escape the notice of all but the most careful, astute cis readers even as they wave red flags at trans readers. This starts at the end of Voth’s editor’s note that functions as a prologue:
I took the manuscript because I could not help but take it once I realized it was trying to communicate something. Something just for us. And if you are reading this, then you know who I mean.… Even if I were saying … that this is a code, they will never be able to read it. There are some things you can see only through tears.
The moment I read those lines, I knew the “us” was referring to trans people. This is not just a book with trans characters and by a trans author; it is a text that comments on the need for a sense of community among trans people that acknowledges our existence throughout history. Voth believes the manuscript is a message to other trans people; he in turn attempts to find a way to safeguard and preserve that message.
The interaction between Voth and Sullivan underscores why Voth believes the manuscript needs safeguarding—Sullivan’s company is interested in a pharmaceutical secret they believe the manuscript can reveal. This secret happens to be related to Jack’s trans-ness. In this way, Rosenberg underscores an anti-capitalist theme that runs throughout the novel in a variety of ways but basically boils down to you can’t trust the Man, because the Man will use you up and spit you out for profits. For us trans people, we know this acutely in the fascination society has with medical transition—when we aren’t erased, we are portrayed as spectacle, poked and prodded and asked about our genitals and surgeries. The visibility of trans people under capitalism is desirable only when that visibility can be commodified for cis consumption or benefit. Rosenberg reifies this in the manuscript in Voth’s hands, and Voth’s decisions towards the end of the novel are based entirely on pushing back against this idea.
Put it simply, Confessions of the Fox is a story for us. For trans people. Yes, cis readers, you can still enjoy this book! There is a lot of entertaining stuff in here. But this book speaks to trans people, and it does it not through the standard narrative of transphobia and cissexism that often permeates the portrayals of trans stories in our media but rather through a rich set of storytelling devices that invite the reader to participate in this conversation. I was just asking for books with trans protagonists by trans authors, and optionally, that weren’t focused on being trans! I thought some trans historical fiction sounded like a great idea. Did I ever get more than I asked for here!
This is a smart book. Sometimes, smart books are designed to show off an author’s erudition at the expense of reader’s ego. Confessions of the Fox doesn’t do this. This is one of those rare gems of a novel that is incredibly clever in its construction and deep in its philosophy yet doesn’t rub the reader’s nose in those things. Rather than running ahead and insisting we keep up, it joyfully lifts us up and carries us along. The journey it takes us on is not always a happy one, but it is incredibly worthwhile.