In some version of our maybe-present, professor R. Voth gets his hands on a moldering manuscript nobody in his university library seems to want. Voth ("a guy by design, not birth") soon discovers he's inherited the autobiographical "confessions" of notorious thief and jailbreaker Jack Sheppard and his lover Edgeworth Bess, and sets about attempting to add some academic footnotes.
Things do not go to plan.
In fact, things not going to plan is a tension at the heart of Confessions of the Fox, a debut novel that's fascinated with the the power of a little chaos, for freedom's sake, in the face of the kind of commodification — of people, of sexuality, of identity, of knowledge, of stories — that threatens to suffocate life itself. There's a sense of revolutionary entropy, whether it's barreling down upon us in the present or calling back from the relative safety of the past.
The Jack of these memoirs is a trans man whose identity is an ongoing negotiation with loved ones, the body politic, and himself. His lover Bess, whose father is Indian, weathers innumerable slights because of her descent, and is thwarted just as often by friends and family who disbelieve her experience as by strangers primed to hate her. Their love is transformative and fiercely queer, but a happy ending's not a narrative guarantee. And everywhere, the London around them swarms with the sort of privatization and militarization that makes new enemies when it's consumed the old ones. (A note on a sea captain's downfall sums it up tidily: "And yet, his greed, etc.")
The story plays liberally with the weight of fact against the supernatural power of story — quite literally, sometimes. But Rosenberg is clearly a scholar, and Dr. Voth's citations are deeply engaged with the various violences within the story, from colonialism to medical experimentation. (Don't be surprised if you accumulate a reading list from those footnotes.) But some of the strangest violence happens to Voth himself, as his passion project becomes a battlefield.
Confessions of the Fox benefits greatly from the clear and present danger to its narrator, as Voth tries to navigate academia via the Dean of Surveillance, and ends up with his work co-opted — and later coerced — by a cheerfully sinister all-caps bureaucrat from P-Quad Publishers and Pharmaceuticals (one of them an unclear subsidiary of the other) who takes ownership of the manuscript, and who increasingly tries to take patronizing, sensationalizing ownership of archival authority, the story, and Voth himself. (Mmm, capitalism.) This all-too-feasible tension makes the footnotes more than just a stylistic touch; given the conditions under which Voth is attempting to discern the truth, there's increasing tension in what he says, or can't say, that sometimes eclipses the drama unfolding in the manuscript.
Rosenberg is well-versed in 18th-century literature, and the text has several formal markers from that era, from sublime communion with nature to nested storytelling featuring ill-fated sea voyages and colonial avarice. But don't expect much pastiche in this prose; Rosenberg's phrasing is unflaggingly modern, despite the many missing 'e's. Perhaps it was more important to have a unified cadence for the novel's essential concerns: How the powerful will try to control whatever they can touch, and the necessity — and joy — of fighting.
There are some flourishes to this story that don't fit quite as well into the novel's interior conversation as they could, but Confessions of the Fox is an ambitious debut, and its exploration of this "impossible, ghostly archaeology" will have you looking askance at tidy histories — which feels like just what Jack and Bess would want. Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.