Jordy Rosenberg’s debut novel queers the tale of Jack Sheppard, real-life thief, jailbreaker, and working class hero, who is here imagined as a gender non-conforming iconoclast whose very existence—from his uncircumscribed body, to his desire for his lover Bess Khan, to his tussles with underworld rogues trying to steal and profit off a mysterious testosterone elixir—subverts the emerging capitalist world order of eighteenth-century London where he lived.
Rosenberg is not the first to tell Jack Sheppard’s story. He’s been immortalized as the character Macheath in John Gay’s 1728 “Beggar’s Opera” and as Mack the Knife in Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Rosenberg’s version of the tale is narrated by a “slightly unhinged” professor R. Voth who discovers a manuscript entitled Confessions of the Fox (presumed to be Sheppard’s autobiography) at a library book sale. Soon after, Dr. Voth is placed on unpaid leave by the “Dean of Surveillance” as punishment for playing word games on a mobile phone during office hours, and is eventually conscripted to authenticate the Sheppard manuscript by a dubious and controlling Publisher/Sponsor who somehow knows Voth needs the cash. Voth’s own backstory and commentary on the manuscript frame the Sheppard narrative in the footnotes of the novel.
The book draws on a wide range of Marxist theory, as well as postcolonial and queer scholarship about constructions and representations of identity, which might interest readers of JSTOR Daily. The following is a written exchange that took place on good old Google docs.
Catherine Halley: Your novel contains what Publisher’s Weekly calls “lengthy discursive footnotes.” What relationship do you want your reader to have to these footnotes and to the scholarship that informs the book in general? Do you want your readers to read the source work?
Jordy Rosenberg: Well, I can’t help but leave this up to the reader. And, in fact, I’m happy to do so. It is such a pleasure and, really, a privilege to write towards the unknowability of how each individual person will receive the work. It’s so strangely and wonderfully intimate, the enormous amount of trust that that unknowable relation entails. There is a very venerable history of discussing and debating the “utopian impulse” in fiction—one that I am really invested in for many reasons—but I have to say that, in writing the book, I came to feel that the most utopian aspect, for me, was just the fact of writing itself and the idea of writing towards an exchange that you can’t know the character of in advance. There’s an Adornian way of describing this dialectical relationship between Utopia and the limits of imagination, but I won’t burden our interview with that here.
Of course I’m enormously indebted to the theoretical and historical texts I was able to draw on. Many readers will have some familiarity already with a lot of this work, but there is also an abbreviated bibliography at the end of the book. Moreover, I wanted to write the footnotes in such a way that they would be incorporated into the thriller structure and the diegesis of the novel as a whole, so that it would be possible to read and understand and hopefully enjoy the book even if you hadn’t read the cited material. For me, the sources that are cited in the footnotes aren’t only for reference; the arguments and intellectual traditions that the sources represent (such as key theoretical texts like Anjali Aronedekar’s For the Record: Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India, Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, Fred Moten’s In the Break, and Walter Mignolo’s The Darker Side of Western Modernity, along with a bunch of Marx) were foundational to the entire concept and structure of the novel itself.
If someone were to read only one of your sources from a footnote, which would you recommend? Why?
It’s hard to choose, but in terms of their centrality to the unfolding plotline and structure of the book, maybe either Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection—as the questions that book is asking and the analytic frameworks it is generating in talking about questions of race, violence, and narrative representation fundamentally undergirded this novel (this will be obvious to anyone who reads Confessions all the way through)—or Tisa Bryant’s beautiful and astonishing Unexplained Presence, which I turned to many times while writing, both for the unparalleled quality of sheer craft at the level of sentence structure, and also for its incredibly catholic and wide-ranging inquiry into and interrogations of a very long history of the representation of women of color in literature, visual arts, and film.
Do the footnotes represent some “anxiety of influence”? Do they always? Or is that reading of a footnote outdated?
I think you’re referring to an argument of Harold Bloom’s here, yes? I don’t know if it’s an issue of it being outdated so much as that I simply don’t subscribe to Bloom’s apparent belief that the Oedipal scenario is a frozen and kind of eternalized structure that can be simply transposed onto the scene of authorship and reading. To invoke (and twist) a phrase of Deleuze and Guattari’s, I believe in “one or several parents” when it comes to literary forebears and the writing process. Also, I don’t have any reverence for the cult of singular genius that undergirds Bloom’s entire theory and that, more than anything, renders it incapable of delivering anything resembling a materialist analysis of where literary forms and fictions actually derive from.
Does your relationship to fiction or narrative differ from your relationship to scholarship? Or does that question set up a false dichotomy between scholarship and fiction?
I don’t see this as a dichotomy in spirit. For me, the same concerns animate fiction writing and scholarship—concerns largely to do with politics and history and the way that both are lived in the body. But I suppose the difference is in the form that the writing takes, and I do take that question very seriously. In his indispensable book, About Writing, the great author Samuel Delany has said that, “the fiction writer is trying to create a false memory with the force of history.” I love this line, and did obsess on it in writing this novel. To me, part of what Delany is saying has to do with the fact that in writing fiction we have to be concerned with creating certain effects through the use of language and narrative structure—and that these effects and affects are to some extent specific to the experience of reading fiction.
When I write traditional, peer-reviewed forms of scholarship, I am trying to communicate an argument as clearly as possible, and there isn’t a very significant disjunction between what I am thinking and the language I am using to communicate that thought. I have to add the caveat here that, obviously, with scholarly writing, even if you don’t use the word “I,” there is still always the projection of the fiction of an author; and, too, I’ve written kinds of theoretical or creative non-fiction that is also experimental in form where either I’m trying to draw on humor to make an argument, or have aimed for some kind of essayistic/autotheoretical mashup. But in general, the creation of fictive effects as Delany describes them applies, I think, to the question of where and how the underlying arguments or motivating concerns get secreted into a novel. And I take it that in order to create novelistic “false memor[ies] with the force of history,” unlike with traditional scholarly writing, you have to kind of obscure what you yourself are thinking (and whatever your “argument,” for lack of a better word, might be) and sequester that process into the architecture of the text itself.
I understand that some fiction is invested in deconstructing the process by which the novel creates these fictive effects, but to me, although I was working with certain metafictional elements, that particularly deconstructive type of metafictional experiment wasn’t one I was especially interested in performing. With the exception of Tristram Shandy, I don’t find many works within the tradition of the (largely) white cis-male metafictional novel that endlessly performs its own epistemological slipperiness particularly compelling. This is largely because I feel these texts tend to collapse some mirage of “political stakes” with the performance of the instability of language in a way that feels very abstracted and tortured and uninteresting to me. It doesn’t accord with my sense of what politics are, and seems beholden to a version of 80s-style poststructuralism that is very much solely a product of the university system. Honestly, my commitment to lived political struggle, along with a certain devotion to creating pleasure for the reader, kept my writing at some kind of a distance from that hyper-self-referential “play.” I mean, there are many different kinds of metafictions, right? I wanted and needed to write a fiction with metafictional elements that steered somewhat clear of the subgenre (that often, problematically, stands in for the genre more broadly) of self-reflexive, ultra self-conscious epistemological slipperiness. For me, trying to keep readerly pleasure at the forefront was one way to anchor the writing away from all that. Ultimately, I really focused/obsessed on this possibility of creating a “false memory with the force of history,” and I don’t think that just because you’re writing a kind of metafiction, you can’t have fidelity to this principle of pleasure/memory-mirage at the same time. But the question of how to weave together this specific, immersive readerly effect—and to carry that through not only the traditional thriller structure of the book, but the footnote structure as well—and the kinds of questions that the book is also asking not about language per se, but about what might be described as certain (variously) Fanonian and Hartmanian questions to do with epidermalization and representation? That weaving-together is something that I have really no idea how it will read to people, and I’m not sure if I “succeeded” at it, or what succeeding at it would even mean.
I will say, though, that this was one of the places where I relied heavily on the very close working relationship I had with my editor Victory Matsui. Victory went very deep with me on this book, producing volumes and volumes of editorial notes that are another kind of paratext to the novel that I wish we could publish with it. There was one juncture where they had mapped out the narrative arc of the footnotes separately from the narrative arc of the novel, so we could look at them together, and sort them out together. And we did this while also thinking through the kinds of questions around representation I mentioned above. This would have been a very different book if I had not written it with Victory and in that editorial relationship. I see it as an extreme privilege to have gotten to work with both Chris Jackson and Victory (and the One World imprint at Random House), and I’m very aware that certain risks that the book takes are underwritten, for me, by that working relationship.
The final thing I want to say about this question about scholarship and fiction is that the heteroglossic nature of novels (their fundamental incorporation of other discourses—scholarly, legal, political-economic, etc.) is not a contradiction, or even especially new. At least this is the perspective of someone who has studied the British eighteenth-century novel. Because of course this heteroglossia has been one of the founding gestures of the Western novel as a form from the outset. If you think about Defoe (and I thought about Defoe a lot throughout writing this novel), you readily recognize that there is a necessary relationship between the false frames he’ll use (the found document convention, for example, which I did draw on, and which Defoe uses to great effect in Journal of the Plague Year) and his ability to really concretize novelistic form as a kind of fetish—a story that we read as if it is true, but know that it is not.
Didn’t you start out as a scholar of the eighteenth century? How did you wind up writing a novel? Did you set out to do so?
I did do my PhD, for better or worse, in eighteenth-century studies, and I’ve also published and teach in queer and critical theory as well. All of these pursuits have deeply informed the novel. And yes I did set out to write a novel. I had written and thrown away several novels over several decades, basically denouncing them by the time I’d finished them. This system of self-denunciation had to come to an end and I had to get to the point of just embracing a project, admitting to the desire for completing a project and letting go of it. This is a different register of conversation, honestly, to do with certain kinds of what I see as a queer (or as “my”?) hyper self-control around desire—or a tendency toward that—but I won’t go into that here.
I’ll just say that at a certain point I became very bound up with the Jack Sheppard history and the way in which his prison-breaking had taken hold of the British popular imagination during the eighteenth century. His story has been told many times, not only in famous works like John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, but also in a great deal of popular material at the time. There are numerous anonymously-penned “autobiographies” and biographies of Sheppard, and there are also numerous occasional writings, missives he supposedly sent from beyond the grave, broadside reports, etc. I have no investment in some fantasy about “original” stories—in fact, what I really liked about this project was the idea of getting to write something that was already in conversation with these other works: crucial popular histories and actual histories of resistance.
In the eighteenth century, being accused of property theft was a crime punishable by death. We’re talking about this incredibly spectacularized, sadistic system that operated to legitimate the birth of consumer capitalism, imperial profiteering, and the rise of the bourgeoisie. This was, of course, also the beginning of the colonial project in the Americas, and there was a very intense debate going on amongst the technocrats and political economists and jurists about what to do with people imprisoned for property crimes: whether to execute prisoners and dissect their bodies (both for “scientific” research as well as as a form of supererogatory punishment, humiliation and a display of state power) or whether to transport people accused of property crimes to the Americas to serve as indentured labor toward the project of colonial dispossession. This terrible juncture of the body, dispossession, imperialism, and commodity culture was something I kept being drawn back to as a way of understanding not only the history of racial capitalism, but that history as it extends into the present. I can’t get into this from a scholarly perspective at greater length here, but I’ve written about it in more detail elsewhere.
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In any case, the early eighteenth century was, not unlike our own time, a terribly brutal moment, and along with that, there were these incredible submerged histories of resistance to that system. For every execution, there are innumerable unrecorded histories of resistance to that execution—resistance that took the form of gathering, shouting, demonstrating, but also plotting to steal back the body of the fallen comrade, preserve the body from dissection, attempts to resuscitate, etc. I wanted to capture some of that resistance, and also speculate about forms of resistance lost to history or perhaps ones that never technically came to pass (because they include supernatural elements, or other magical realist components), in the novel.
Another thing is that in so much of the material from the period, Jack was described as what we might understand as very genderqueer. As far as we know, he was assigned male at birth and identified as male. But it was frequently the case that his ability to squirrel through prison walls and evade the law was represented in terms of a kind of gender nonconformity, kinds of effeminacy, a certain smallness of body, etc. I was curious to literalize that history—and I’m curious in general about counterfactual fictions that take the form of literalizations of popular metaphors (the most prominent recent example might be Whitehead’s Underground Railroad)—through the lens of the present and contemporary questions, debates, and issues around the rise or coming into popular focus of transgender as a category of analysis and as a lived identity category. Incidentally, I will also say that the novel could perhaps be understood as a literalization of something I also care about a great deal, and feel to be emotionally true, which has to do with the collective nature of gender identity and the intimate exchange between butches and femmes around the felt experience of masculinity.
The novel starts with a quote from John Donne’s “The Ecstasy,” which I’ve never read:
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.
Presumably this book is your body? How so?
This epigraph is meditated on several times by the editor-character in the novel, and he does provide an “interpretation” of it that poses gender as something of a Kafkaesque inscription-process: a kind of excruciating but also (at least for this character) pleasurable set of practices. And I think that people familiar with the discipline of gender and sexuality studies may see this epigraph as rubbing up against a truism that has been handed down to us from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Perhaps you remember these somewhat canonical lines:
I have argued [there is a long deconstructive disclaimer here about the “I” being an effect of the “arguing”]… that, for instance, within the sex/gender distinction, sex poses as “the real” and the “factic,” the material or corporeal ground upon which gender operates as an act of cultural inscription. And yet gender is not written on the body as the torturing instrument of writing in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” inscribes itself unintelligibly on the flesh of the accused. The question is not: what meaning does that inscription carry within it, but what cultural apparatus arranges this meeting between instrument and body, what interventions into this ritualistic repetition are possible? The “real” and the “sexually factic” are phantasmatic constructions—illusions of substance—that bodies are compelled to approximate, but never can.
Well now, I agree with the fact that sex is not prior to gender, and find myself resonating with much about this. But I also find myself resonating strongly with something Johanna Burton, Reina Gossett, and Eric Stanley recently have described as the “trap door” of transgender visibility: “We are living in a time of trans visibility,” they argue. “Yet we are also living in a time of anti-trans violence. These entwined proclamations [are] lived in the flesh.” This is an eloquent way of saying that visibility and the commoditization of trans do not eliminate the contradictions that texture our lives, and don’t change the way in which the visibility and the violence are distributed very unequally along lines of race, class, and gender. And, furthermore, this line gestures to the phenomenological experience, for lack of a better word, of these contradictions. So I think in terms of this epigraph, there was a quality of the fleshly as an experience of lived contradiction that I wanted to draw out in the book, however much it might not sit squarely within a Butlerian paradigm.
The authenticity of the manuscript the narrator discovers in the novel is indeterminate, is it not? As a work of fiction, there are presumably, ahem, fictions in Confessions of the Fox. But it’s also written from the perspective of an expert. Do you think people will read it as history?
I did draw heavily on a number of intersecting histories: the history of the eighteenth-century London underworld, the origins of modern sexology and the medicalization of gender non-conformity, the rise of British imperialism, and also the formation of the British municipal police force. To me, these histories are inextricable from each other, and one of my entry points into them was through the history of the body. After all, bodies register the pressures of historical developments in singular and profound ways. And so maybe we should take up this question about history specifically in terms of the relationship of trans and gender non-conforming people with the question of “case history.”
In writing the book, one of the things that most interested me was how the idea of non-normative gender shifted in the early eighteenth century from being thought of as a kind of supernatural monstrousness, to being understood as a medical condition, and thus “correctable”—or, what the scholar C. Riley Snorton describes (in a different context) as “amendable”—through medical intervention. Medical intervention that, as Snorton shows, often involved coercive experimentation, and the spectacularization, display, exploitation, and torture of enslaved people. One of the most influential practitioners of sexological science from the early modern period was James Parsons, who wrote A Mechanical and Critical Inquiry into the Nature of Hermaphrodites, and who not coincidentally provides another horrifying chapter in the history of sexual “science,” as he based some of his claims on his observations of an Angolan woman who had been captured and put on display in London. Parsons—who forms the basis for one of the villain characters in my novel—was arguing against the notion of gender nonconformity as a kind of supernatural monstrousness; he was essentially secularizing gender nonconformity—trying to disprove the existence of hermaphrodites, or “chimeras.” He basically argues that gender-monster/gender-chimeras don’t exist. Instead, he claims, what we think are monsters are in fact simply persons with medical conditions who could be “corrected” or “cured” through medical intervention.
So, in fact, this early modern history of sexological science hinged on making a kind of anti-speculative or anti-supernatural claim: what we thought were monsters are actually people with illnesses. Now obviously the pathologization of trans people is something activists have been fighting for a long time. One area where we fight this is in language. So, for me in writing this book, I wanted to do so in ways that resisted or didn’t have to utterly be absorbed by the demand or very intense pressure for trans authors to turn themselves or their work into case studies. And, further, I wanted to reflect a bit in the book on those early modern efforts to regard gender nonconforming individuals within the medicalizing frame.
What I loved about meeting my editors Victory and Chris was that they made clear right away that they had no interest in pushing to turn the story or its characters into a case study. Whereas a lot of editors had asked immediately which aspects of the novel were factual and which speculative, Chris and Victory did not ask that question even once throughout the entire writing process. I think it really needs to be noted what a chance they took in believing in this work as fiction and not demanding a “case-study,” either as straightforward memoir (obviously there are elements of the author that have made their way into the book as a kind of meta-memoir or what the brilliant author Sofia Samatar refers to as a “speculative memoir”) or as a real history of the period. That was incredibly meaningful to me and allowed me a lot of necessary latitude in writing and editing, because I wanted to write a speculative history of a transgender character that partook in some ways of the fantastical (and also monstrous) pre-history of transgender. Or, a novel that didn’t begin and end with the case-study model, but instead took place at a moment of transition and tension between a monstrous or supernatural model, and a medicalizing one.
I’m not saying one model was better than the other—it was sort of a choice between two differently pathologizing models. But my question was, first: How would that tension shape the demands of the story? But also, what kinds of unrealities could be provocatively imported back onto that period? What kinds of unrealities might be mined and metabolized from the archives? Given new shape or a different life? I’m not sure that all readers will read the book that way, per se. But hopefully they will experience the speculative effect as a form of readerly pleasure.