August 2, 2018

Confessions of the Fox

UMass Amherst Professor Jordy Rosenberg’s gender-and-genre-bending new novel embodies a historical moment

Confessions of the Fox, UMass Associate Professor of English Jordy Rosenberg’s first novel, is making the rounds of summer 2018 “Must Read” lists: from Harper’s Bazaar to Vulture to Entertainment Weekly, from The New Yorker to the New York Times. What do all these publications find so compelling about this particular debut?

Confessions of the Fox book cover.Confessions of the Fox. UMass Amherst associate professor Jordy Rosenberg’s first novel.

Confessions is not only Rosenberg’s fiction debut—it is also the first novel to be published by One World, an imprint of Random House that specializes in writing from outside-the-mainstream, historically marginalized perspectives. Framed as a found document, Confessions is the story of Jack Sheppard, folk hero, cat burglar, and jailbreaker extraordinaire, set in the early 18th century against a backdrop of the rise of capitalism in London and across the English countryside.

But what do we really know about Sheppard? Since history often writes over the stories of those who weren’t in charge, Rosenberg, an award-winning scholar who teaches 18th-century literature, queer/trans theory, and Marxism, and has published in cutting-edge journals like The Los Angeles Review of Books, Avidly, and Salvage Quarterly, refills the gaps, creating an early-modern London that is multicultural, multiracial, and diverse, and creating Sheppard as a transgender hero. The emotional core of the story is Sheppard’s self-discovery and also love affair with Bess Khan, a sex worker of Indian descent and daughter of rural resistance fighters.

Rosenberg set out to write a “metafictional heist novel”: there are heists taking place in the present, and heists taking place in the past. The novel’s footnotes illuminate a moment at the birth of commodity culture and the police force that arises to enforce it, circumscribing the old freedoms of the city, and keeping the novel’s main characters ever more intensely on the run.

It will be no secret to anyone who reads Confessions that the phenomena Rosenberg portrays are not “historical” at all, but are ongoing conditions of reality that we live with today. “None of these things have gone away,” Rosenberg says. “We are talking about a continuum of this system—really, the period is not over.” In the truest tradition of speculative fiction, Confessions is, in Rosenberg’s words, about “defamiliarizing the present in order to make things more starkly visible”—and is, by upturning the accepted “official” story of reality, a novel of resistance.