- An Uneven Luxuriance
352 Pages; Print, $17.00
Ostensibly a record of the real-life eighteenth-century English master thief and four-time Newgate escapee, Jack Sheppard, Confessions of the Fox is a book within the book—a lost manuscript "spotted" by eighteenth-century literature professor, Dr. R. Voth, at a university book sale. The stacks were being cleared out in preparation for a "big renovation" to provide space for "upper-echelon administrators," and the university has left the sale to fraternity volunteers, one of whom simply gives the "mashed and mildewed pile of papers" to Professor Voth. As no money is exchanged (as recorded by the university's surveillance cameras), when the actual "value" of the manuscript emerges, Professor Voth's possession of it becomes unauthorized, rendering him, like Sheppard, a thief.
But well before Voth's ownership of the manuscript comes into question, clear parallels between the Professor and the Fox emerge. Both characters are biological hermaphrodites and trans men who take testosterone or "elixir," to rid themselves of their "tits," have vexed histories with all authority figures including their mothers, and fall for a certain type of "auto-didact" woman. Further, Sheppard's world is carefully constructed (or reconstructed) to reflect the scholarship in "decolonial and postcolonial studies, critical race studies, Marxism, and queer and trans theory" that Voth reads and cites. Thus the Bess of previous versions of the Sheppard tale ("unquestionably portrayed as white" though "London was not by any means a white city in the eighteenth century" Voth informs us) becomes the South Asian or "lascar" Bess Kahn. And when Jack, who has clearly not read his Foucault, fails to grasp the implications of the London authorities "polic[ing]" of the plague, Bess "sift[s] him silently into the subset of everyday Anglos—the ones who would never understand."
Rosenberg's novel came out in 2018 and has since been well reviewed in prominent critical venues, including The New York Times and The New Yorker. For the most part, the emphasis in these has been on the Sheppard tale, which fills the majority of the novel's pages, at the expense of the Voth story, a literally marginalized, epiphenomenon of the footnotes. Besprigged with period underworld slang ("she blist'rs with Pleasure on his red rag), lively with "departure[s]" from and embellishments to the straight, white characters of what Voth terms "extant Sheppardiana," not to mention a rollicking, revisionist plot that includes a protocapitalist venture to capture and collect the sexual effluvia of criminals for profit, Sheppard's "confessions" provide much to engage. At the same time, however, they don't ring true, an issue that the novel acknowledges upfront, in Voth's foreword: the manuscript's "authenticity" is "indeterminate."
The formal markers of its potential inauthenticity—the abbreviated paragraphs of the third person narration (rather than the first person of literary contemporaries cited in Voth's footnotes, such as Moll Flanders  and Fanny Hill ), the present-tense, opening flash-forward (as the manuscript begins with Jack at the scaffold), as well as various other stylistic and cultural anachronisms (e.g. "sifted him silently into the subset of everyday Anglos")—seem deliberate. In fact (spoiler alert), the perplexing ontological status of the manuscript is ultimately accounted for and justified by Voth's postmodern literary sleuthing.
Still, I found my wishing, in the Sheppard sections, for more "genuine" heft in the main characters—Jack Sheppard and his companion, Bess Kahn. The latter seems to exist mainly to define Jack, both in moments that are clearly intentional, as when Jack, on hearing Bess say his self-chosen name for the first time, feels his consciousness sink "firmly—and with a heretofore unknown warm Pleasure—into his Body," but also in moments that seem less so. As in a scene where the point of view flits back and forth between Jack and Bess, between his thought (anchored in italics as if to demonstrate their deeper subjectivity: "Better not to touch her at all than repel her forever with a clammy paw") and hers ("What an odd bird he...