Mack the Knife, Now a Transgender Hero of London’s Riotous Underground – New York Times
CONFESSIONS OF THE FOXBy Jordy Rosenberg329 pp. One World. $27.
“Some time ago — never mind how long precisely — I slipped off the map of the world,” Dr. Voth, a transgender professor and the principal narrator of Jordy Rosenberg’s “Confessions of the Fox,” announces on the first page of this debut novel, in a hat tip to “Moby-Dick.” The alternate world into which Voth slips is not a watery abyss but rather a “living diorama of flesh worship,” which he implores his reader to join. As cetology is to Melville, so quim (18th-century slang for female genitalia) is to Rosenberg. Quim’s cognates — tuzzy-muzzy, boiling Spot, monosyllable, Water-Mill — are scattered through these pages, expanding conventional usage to “signify any loved point of entry on the body, irrespective of gender or sex,” a description of sorts of Rosenberg’s novel.
How does Voth reach this utopia of the flesh? His journey begins when he stumbles upon a mysterious manuscript at a university book sale. The papers purportedly contain a true account of the life of the infamous jailbreaker Jack Sheppard. You may recognize Sheppard as Mack the Knife from Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” but with a few significant alterations: Jack is now transgender, and his London is no longer exclusively white and straight. Enter Bess Khan, a prostitute of South Asian descent who helps Jack realize his ambition as “King Screwsman” by encouraging his ever more daring heists — like stealing from London’s ruthless “Thief-Catcher General,” Jonathan Wild — as well as his emerging queerness. “A wonderful, fetching Something,” Bess calls Jack, and it is through her physical intervention that Jack forges the body he is meant to have. What ensues is a picaresque adventure through a London rarely seen in literature of the period, one filled with sentinels and fear of plague but also with a thriving subculture of mollies (18th-century slang for queer men) and prostitutes and a celebratory aura of sexual freedom.
Jack’s adventure may not be immediately accessible to all audiences. Voth informs the reader that his manuscript may only be decoded by someone who can “cry a certain kind of tears,” by which he means someone who has lived on the margins of society. Someone who also, I might add, enjoys queer theory, 18th-century frame narratives, prison abolition literature, Marxist historical readings, a surprisingly lengthy subplot involving a copy of Spinoza’s “Ethics” and a running footnote hall of mirrors to rival Borges. Perhaps representative of the novel’s aim is a marbled page midway through the book, a homage to “Tristram Shandy.” Like Sterne’s marbled page, Rosenberg’s offers a key to his narrative. It serves primarily as a rebuttal to an indignity many transpeople have faced at some point in their lives: the intrusive gaze of a non-transperson eager to glimpse their genitals. This novel is an antidote to that gaze.
Rosenberg’s chimeric prose prevents all of this from feeling too pedantic. His numerous stylistic influences — everyone from Ali Smith to Angela Davis, Ferdinand de Saussure and Allen Ginsberg — while jarring at first, cohere by the third act, once the manuscript’s secret, which I will not spoil here, is revealed. Rosenberg, a professor of 18th-century literature and queer theory at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is also very funny, a virtue that may persuade readers to persevere through some of the novel’s more theoretical sections. His satirical passages on academia and its unholy union with capitalism ring only too true. And in the novel’s final paragraphs, he offers one of the most trenchant calls for progressive action that I have read in a very long time. The climb may be steep, but the view from the top is grand.