Describing Confessions of the Fox, Jordy Rosenberg‘s debut novel, is something that’s likely to vary wildly depending on who’s handling the description. Rosenberg’s novel is a thrilling historical saga of outlaws fighting a repressive society; it’s a deftly handled work of metafiction; it’s a smart exploration of questions of gender; it’s a barbed satire of academia circa now. It’s all of these things, and it also possesses a relentless energy, making it a thought-provoking and cerebral page-turner. I asked Rosenberg some questions about the novel’s origins, its structure, and its distinctive take on history and authorship.
The structure you use in Confessions of the Fox, blending an ostensibly found manuscript with extensive footnotes that both expand the world of the manuscript and weave in elements of the narrator’s own life, is particularly distinctive. How did you settle on that as the best way to tell this story?
One of the overriding concerns/obsessions in writing Confessions had to do with the way that historical forces and, in particular, subversive histories shape the present in ways that have been hidden from dominant narratives. We can do research to bring these counter-histories into the fore. But we also will have to speculate – if we can say, insurgently – about them. We have to speculate because the official archives leave so much out; archives, as Foucault said, are more about disciplining discourse than exhaustively recording history, if such an exhaustive recording can even exist (it can’t). So we have to embrace the latitude to speculate as a way of disrupting the fiction that archives preserve truths. Because even if we had every single recordable “fact” about subversive histories, we still wouldn’t know everything about them; we wouldn’t know the ineffable particulars of daily lives lived in opposition to power; and we wouldn’t know the crystals of possibility contained within these ineffable particulars. The present also contains these crystals of possibility, and is in part made possible as, itself, a crystal of possibility secreted from the past and from the struggles of people we can never know. So I think the best homage to these past struggles is to summon the incalculable X that existed within them, and that exists still, in part as a result of them. Thus, to (finally) answer your question: the footnote structure was in large part a way of summoning this question of the incalculable X that constitutes the relationship of the past to the present. The way we fish around necessarily cluelessly into this unknowable past, and the way in which even though we cannot exhaustively know the past, it exerts its force on us.
What was your first encounter with the histories of Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess?
I think most – or many – scholars of the British eighteenth century are familiar with the basic facts of Jack Sheppard, just because he was an incredibly famous prison break artist and folk hero at the time. And then, of course, John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” became the period’s most popular and successful and longest-running opera. Later on Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” achieved its own, enormous, success.
So, his story is not new or untold. However, I was interested not so much in the Gay and Brecht works, but in the archival occasional pieces that were written – often anonymously – at the time: reporting Jack’s prison breaks, speculating about his whereabouts, memorializing him after he was executed. Through this research, I grew fixated in particular on the story of Jack’s relationship with Bess, although the archives on this are pretty thin – where Bess is touched on it’s often in a negative way (the “vixen” who seduces Jack into a life of crime, etc). The thing I kept coming back to, though, was the fact that apparently Jack’s first prison break wasn’t his own, but rather was breaking Bess out of St. Giles Roundhouse. This really stuck with me. I felt like this fact alone deserved a much lengthier treatment than either of the two major fictionalizations of Jack’s life, because, really, it represented what to me felt like a pretty deep love story.
How would you classify your novel? It strikes me as having elements in common with works as disparate as A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword, and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman–but the fact that those books are so disparate seems fairly important.
Wow. I like this list. I think in addition to thinking about what books one’s own book is “like,” it’s also important to talk about books and genres that your own book has a crush on. Even if your book doesn’t end up looking like these books, I do think the crush is more formative of the book that one is actually writing than books that resemble your book. Does that make sense? I’ll make this formulation even more abstruse by saying that one text that my book had a crush on while being written was not even a novel at all, but was Sofia Samatar’s “An Account of the Land of Witches.” To me, this story showcases just how far fiction can stretch to do things that were (to me, prior to reading it) previously inconceivable. Samatar has created a genre of theory-fantasia that I deeply love. Also, Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts. A tremendous novel, and also I’m quite obsessed with how Solomon alienates our senses and creates a new SF sensorium that feels both unreal and realer at the same time. This is something SF does, broadly speaking, but Solomon’s iteration is unparalleled. I was interested in creating a kind of speculative sensorium for 18th-century London, and for queer and trans sex as well (readers of the book have often commented on how much it focuses on rendering scents, particularly bodily scents). Something like An Unkindness of Ghosts – while it is nothing “like” my book – set a kind of standard for thinking through writing speculative sensoria.
How did you balance writing the footnotes with writing the historical narrative? Were they written simultaneously, or did one follow the other?
This question picks up on the question above about the footnotes, but here you’re asking more of a craft question. So, to that issue: the original manuscript was something like 700 pages long and it had sections that took place in the 18th century, an alternate present, and the near future. The three time periods were distinct but related. I conceived the sections as separated by large gaps of time, but still bound together in the sense that time periods that are much removed from our own still set some of the conditions of possibility for our worlds. This is just a fictional way of getting at the extent to which historical forces continue to shape the present. But 700 pages just felt too unwieldy to me, ultimately, even though I really did have a fetish for creating this giant novel. In any case, this may have been folly, but under the influence of the belief that I needed to compress the structure, I basically destroyed and reconstellated the entire manuscript. In the course of that process, the alternate present got massively cut down and then found its way into the form of the footnotes, and the 18th century section became the main body text. I eliminated the entire near-future section. So, in this sense, the impetus for the footnote structure didn’t exist separately from the narrative logic itself. It isn’t some kind of imported, abstractly “postmodern” trick. I’m just continuing a theme from the first question, but I think of the present and the 18th century as being bound together (albeit unevenly so and with many necessarily lacunae) across time, and for this reason, for me, the footnote structure has a lot of affinities with Sci-Fi conventions of “portal fiction,” where you have a door or other opening leads from one world into another. Realities that are separated by time or space are made to touch each other through the discovery of this tunnel between worlds. Impossibly so, but they do.
One of the concepts incorporated into Confessions of the Fox is the idea of a kind of collective authorship. What about this particular historical narrative made this concept fit with it so well?
There’s at least two inspirations for the collective authorship plot line (I’ll try not to give spoilers here). The first, yes, has to do with what I’ve been harping on throughout this exchange – the collective nature of subjectivity and history in general. As a trans person, the fact that our existence is in part the result of battles waged by people who we may never know – that’s a very palpable feeling of the kind of collectivity that composes any subject. Then, too, there’s the experience of really not being able to articulate oneself as a “self” without a community – for me, this feeling is sourced in finding other queer people back when I was first coming out. But the coherence of the question of collective authorship in this novel is also something that really intensified through the process of working very intimately with my editor, Victory Matsui. Victory is an extremely hands-on editor, and at a certain point in the process I really came to feel like the idea of this book as a single-authored document was just absurd. So in many ways, the plotline of collective authorship is also a comment on the writing process more broadly.
The “Resources” list at the back of the book is comparable to many a work of nonfiction. How much research did you do before sitting down to write this book? Were there certain areas that you needed to explore more as you were writing it?
Well, I was trained as a scholar of 18th-century British literature, so you could say that about 20 years of research – from the time I began my PhD to when I turned in the final draft of the manuscript – went into writing this book. But I really began reading more extensively on Jack and Bess in 2010, when I was in residence on a research fellowship at an 18th-century studies archive that’s part of the UCLA library system. Though I’ll say that it wasn’t nearly enough to just read about the history of these two personages. Whatever sort of work I’m doing – classically “scholarly” or not – I try to do a fair amount of research on what I believe to be the central historical forces that shape and define any given period. For this book, this ranged from topics like the history of the early modern British sewer system, attitudes towards dissection of corpses and the intersection of the birth of the modern medical profession with the birth of the British police force (I guess this is a bit of a spoiler), the processes and history of Western forms of racialization, colonialism and imperialism, laws around private property and property theft, the prison-industrial complex, and legislation around capital punishment. And this doesn’t even begin to cover the theoretical discourses I also drew from in writing the novel – queer and trans theory, postcolonial theory, critical race studies, critical geography, Marxism, etc. I knew much of this theory and history from working in the field, and from working on my scholarly manuscript, which I had published in 2011. But even so, yes, I was constantly, neurotically researching throughout the writing of the book. Maybe up until the last minute of turning it in?
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan