Tracing the Transgender Body: A Discussion on Confessions of the Fox (2018) by Jordy Rosenberg
In this essay, I aim to discuss the narrative representation of the transgender body in the novel Confessions of the Fox (2018) by Jordy Rosenberg. By exploring the thematic trajectories of desire, language and historicity, I hope to accord significance to the relationship between the aforementioned notions and the characters’ emotive experience of transition.
To begin with, Confessions of the Fox (2018) tells the re-imagined story of Jack Sheppard, the infamous thief of 18th century England. The novel by Jordy Rosenberg comprises a metafictional commentary by a transgender scholar on a fictive lost manuscript, which reveals that Jack Sheppard was a transgender man. As the manuscript is found by Dr. R. Voth, he becomes the document's transcriber and decides to bring the character’s story to the fore. Along with the manuscript that tells Jack Sheppard’s story, the novel also provides the editor’s footnotes throughout the transcribing process, offering insights into 18th-century England’s sociopolitical context, academic observations on the primary text, as well as information on Dr. Voth’s own personal life story. In other words, the three narrative levels that are constructed in the novel are the following:
1) The external/metafictional level comprises the context for the narrative that unfolds after the foreword; this level’s (first-person) narrator, the academic Dr. R. Voth, is the fictive editor of the fully transcribed manuscript, namely, “Confessions of the Fox”, the book which the reader holds in their hands.
2) The first narrative level comprises the primary narrative, namely, Jack Sheppard’s story; this level’s (third-person) narrator is anonymous and tells the main story that derives from 18th-century London.
3) The second narrative level consistently unfolds in the form of footnotes; this level’s (first-person) narrator is again Dr. R. Voth, however, this time as he processes, reads and transcribes the manuscript, before, thus, it fully becomes “Confessions”.
What governs the representation of the non-normative body in all three narrative levels is the body’s contiguity with love, and with desire. “Love’s mysteries in souls do grow, // But yet the body is his book” reads the epigraph of the manuscript, to which the editor keeps returning throughout his discussion of the text. The experience of love in the novel’s realm is gender euphoric, since it challenges historic and personal trauma, and entails a sense of repletion in the conception of one’s gender. Through the description of Jack Sheppard’s childhood and relationship with his mother, the manuscript reveals at the beginning of the narrative that he was assigned female at birth: “Be a good girl.* Do what you’re told. Behave. […] And walk like a lady! Try not t’ stomp like an animal” (Rosenberg 12). The asterisk in the main body of the narrative refers the reader to Dr. Voth’s footnotes that expand on this, connecting all narrative levels: “Jack was assigned female at birth? This is a significant departure from the extant Sheppardiana. While nearly all the texts note him as “slight” or otherwise effeminate – his wiriness and compact size frequently cited as integral to his ability to escape tight spaces – […] this I’ve never seen” (Rosenberg 12).
After having suffered from gender dysphoria throughout his childhood, Jack sheds his dead name and reclaims his gender identity only after meeting Bess Khan, a woman of “lascar” descent from Srihatta. (Rosenberg 27, 31). Being one of the only survivors of the Fen-Tigers, “a dwindling band of Freedom fighters” whose land has been severely exploited by surveyors, Bess’ tragic story is connected to Jack’s since they both share the experience of existing in a historically oppressed yet multi-crossing body (Rosenberg 183). Jordy Rosenberg’s choice to highlight Sheppard’s non-cis-gendered identity along with Bess’ non-whiteness is of great importance. It safeguards the representation of a dual embodied identity, which in other forms of canonical historicity, has been utterly unquestioned, succumbing to a presumed and unchallenged cisness and whiteness. Thus, the embodied contiguity between desire and identity, serves to raise the fundamental questions of erasure and visibility throughout history: Whose voices are erased in the trajectory of history? Which bodies are given prominence? Who is silenced? In other words, it is through Jack and Bess’ love, through their mutual desire’s inscription on each other, that the oppressed body is being freed from suppressed truths and dominant narratives.
As far as Jack’s emotive experience of transition is concerned, although he passes as male and takes pride in being read as such, he identifies his gender expression as a “Demon”, as “Something” which renders his attachment to his corporeal self estrangingly impossible (Rosenberg 33). His transness is only truly realized as the embodiment of his desire for Bess; for his longing to “have a Body in her presence” (Rosenberg). It is worth noting that the relationship between romantic/sexual orientation and gender identity is approached by Jordy Rosenberg neither as causal nor as indicative of the former for the latter. On the contrary, desire “inscribes the body” not by assigning it an identity, but by liberating it of the norms that society imposes on it (Rosenberg xii). It bridges the “Chasm[s]” of one’s past, by forming a sense of Togetherness and, ultimately, a sense of sociopolitical solidarity and belonging (Rosenberg 111, 114).
Bess describes Jack’s body by reclaiming certain terms whose negative connotation is linked with abnormality, such as “Daemon. Sphinx. Hybrid. Scitha, man-horse, deep-water Kraken, Monster-flower” (Rosenberg 109). The author’s choice to reclaim harmful and fetishizing speech, and render it gender-affirming and erotic functions as a resistance against the hegemony of language. Moreover, an important scene in the novel is Jack’s top surgery, which ends up being performed by Bess. The symbolism of the subject’s lover being the catalyst for his gender affirmation is powerful, as it demonstrates the cathartic effect of the transitioning individual being fully perceived, both figuratively and literally, by his lover during all stages of his (medical) transition. “For Bess had freed him of a chest-burden so great he hadn’t even known, until it had been removed, what weight he had carried. […] Bess had closed the chasm, sutured it when she sutured Jack’s chest” (Rosenberg 151).
The narrator’s description of Jack’s feelings of “togetherness” towards Bess, as well as of alleviation of gender dysphoria after his gender-affirmation surgery, resembles the emotive experience of returning home. In the words of Sara Ahmed, drawn from her book Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (2000), “[t]he lived experience of being-at-home hence involves the enveloping of subjects in a space which is not simply outside of them: being at home suggests that the subject and space leak into each other, inhabit each other. We can think of the lived experience of being-at-home in terms of inhabiting a second skin, a skin which does not simply contain the homely subject, but which allows the subject to be touched and touch the world that is neither simply in the home or away from home” (Ahmed 89). Ahmed’s reference to both inhabiting and touching one another echoes the concept of love’s inscription on the body and the longing for embodiment in the presence of a loved one. Thus, “home” acquires a dual meaning for Jack: to be with Bess and to be in his affirmed body.
Furthermore, of great importance is also the role that language demonstrates in the conception of the transgender body in the novel. Words seem futile in certain contexts, since particular experiences transcend utterance and justification. Where language is rendered insufficient, the erotic corporeal discourse is the one to ultimately prevail. “I don’t give language to things that are beyond it” (Rosenberg 93) states Bess after sharing a sex scene with Jack. The utilization of language employed by the narrator of the manuscript to describe such scenes is characterized by authenticity and expressive generosity:
“He kiss’d her breasts - her mouth - her Neck – petted between her legs, where she puls’d against his Fingertips. […] But he loved the Scent, the taste most of all. Sweet marshmallow and warm breath; saltwater threaded with Violet. All these bouquets – and more – and more. He toyed with her between her thighs until she shiver’d magnificently in his arms” (Rosenberg 92-93)
Although it is rich in its description of longing, lust and ecstasy, rendering the novel a deeply sensual and erotic narrative, one of the most vital aspects of this representation is the dislodging of any sense of voyeurism and tokenism of both the female and the transgender body; the erotic language is always as generous as it is cryptic. Both of those characteristics derive from the use of immensely sensorial and figurative language, which -by being so richly metaphorical- is rendered non-exposing and non-voyeuristic:
“She brought her hand down between them and drew her fingers across the front of it, tracing his outline with a Fingertip. The thing between Jack’s legs swelled bigger. “Cinamoli.” Bess placed her fingers around it and tugged him towards her, tickling herself with the tip. “Man and dog, dog and-” Bess spun so she was atop him, legs astride his thighs. The heat of her surrounded his Swollenness” (Rosenberg 109-110)
The transgender body in the novel is neither “othered” nor medicalized. Rather, it is inscribed by a liberating and anti-capitalistic non-normativity, resisting any binary-bound categorization.
In terms of the second narrative level (namely, the one deriving from the footnotes), Dr. Voth traces in his annotations the manuscript’s trajectory from being claimed by the University’s Dean of Surveillance, in order to be profitably sold, to being taken away by the editor as a part of his own individual research and as a part of a significant collective historical moment, which is only revealed at the very end of the novel. Finally, the editor shares with the narratee his findings: that Jack Sheppard’s “Confessions” does not render a singular memoir, but a “collective diary-keeping”, “[t]he diary of a trace” (Rosenberg 259-260). The manuscript, the editor realizes, composes the material of heavily edited texts through centuries of engagement, with the purpose of decolonizing aspects of archival history and of restoring the power of the communal heterogeneous bodies. Thus, the manuscript is not an original biography of the transgender Jack Sheppard, but a pseudo-biographical text that has been created and ceaselessly edited by collectives of anonymous people. This continuous, intervening engagement with the text functions as a collective practice of actively resisting canonical historicity and hegemonic discourse:
“There is no trans body, no body at all – no memoir, no confessions, no singular story of “you” or anyone – outside this broad and awful legacy. So when they ask for our story – when they want to sell it – we don’t let them forget” (Rosenberg 315)
The manuscript is written, edited and reclaimed by and for the systematically oppressed throughout history, “[i]n the name of those who came before, who fought the police; those whose names we know, and those whose names we can never know. In the name of those who come after, who will never know our names” (Rosenberg 316). Therefore, Jordy Rosenberg, being transgender himself, queers the canonicity of recorded history, rendering the transgender body a symbol of sociopolitical non-normativity, while also according great significance to the wider multiple-border-crossing collective unconscious that this emotive experience of gender transition belongs to.
“The body is transformed by love," (Rosenberg xii) writes Dr. Voth in his editor’s foreword, to which notion he returns at the end of the novel. In one of his footnotes, he mentions that to be loved is to be carved into one’s history by “casting [the] body anew” (Rosenberg 169). The embodied historicity is offered here both as individual and communal, being a part of each body’s separate story and inherently rooted in the communities whose bodies have comprised a systemic battlefield and whose bodies have been finally reclaimed. The editor, echoing the manuscript characters’ stories, regards love’s inscription as the second history of the body. While the first refers to the homogeneity of the heterogenous identities, binding over white supremacy and oppression, the second informs the embodied liberation, the course of being “unmarked”; of being free of any presumed expectations and of any unquestioned premises (Rosenberg 315).
Following that, the metafictional nature of Confessions of the Fox adds greatly to the novel’s aforementioned idea of liberation from one’s embodied self. This narrative frame of “meta” (“after”), of “going beyond”, serves as the formalistic manifestation of the emotive experience of letting go; of departing from the idea of the manuscript’s authorial singularity, as well as of the idea of singularity regarding the identity of the body in the novel. Metafiction is centred on self-consciousness and then, self-reference. It presumes observation and awareness first, in order for a necessary emotive distance to take place, which will later enable the author to create from a point of departure. Similarly, the novel’s initial aim is to focus on the transgender body and the embodied experience of transition. But then, its scope broadens, and the transgender body is perceived as a part of a larger community of embodied identities. The departure from a specific point of reference serves the bigger purpose of rendering the transgender identity a synecdoche for all marginalized discourses.
In conclusion, Confessions of the Fox (2018) contributes greatly to the discussions on (trans) gender identity, queerness and decolonization, through the lens of metafiction. Through his novel, Jordy Rosenberg succeeds in raising important questions on the historical erasure of multiple embodied experiences, without succumbing to unproductively and self-defeatingly attempting to provide all the answers. The non-normative body is perceived in the text through a language that is always aware, respectful and strengthening. Where sensuality and resistance will continually meet, the characters in Confessions of the Fox will always trace the trajectory of a better and more justice place for us to find our way to, without “need[ing] a map” (Rosenberg 316).
Ahmed, Sara. Strange Encounters : Embodied Others in Post Coloniality. Routledge, 2000.
Rosenberg, Jordy. Confessions of the Fox. Atlantic Books, 2018.