Twenty-First Century Agitprop
In every political epoch, the role of art comes up for reappraisal—whether better to edify or illustrate, to sing or to condemn. These purposes are not so separate; but even at this moment of upheaval, it remains unfashionable to think of artworks as instructional, let alone socially beholden. Where high art and so-called literary schools package opportunities for secluded contemplation, mass media and DIY cultures alike tend to function as only so many positive representations, leaving the world in which these circulate more or less unchallenged. By this fatally familiar logic, the future once again looks like the present, with more options.
Whatever the intent, it appears that any number of marginalized positions are increasingly subject to representation; though one might add that this media tipping point hasn’t increased anyone’s material security in particular. Nevertheless, this optical verve feels necessarily ironic given certain anxieties of the moment: whether with respect to an environmental precipice, the escalating crises of capitalism, brutal restrictions on free movement for migrants, or recent legislative attempts upon the civil rights of trans people, the American political imaginary tends increasingly to project a landscape vacated of any human detail whatsoever. Against this backdrop, one might insist, any politics of representation must also exert a demand for a world in which it is possible to exist.
Jordy Rosenberg’s debut novel, Confessions of the Fox, makes this radical demand, relating the life of a transgender outlaw in eighteenth-century England as a militant survival manual for the present day. A certain amount of historical redress is implicit in this representation. But this isn’t simply a question of visibility, which may only open onto new regimes of media and state supervision. Rather, Rosenberg writes in conviction of the radical capacity of narrative to counter the intolerable circumstances it depicts. Accordingly, this historical fiction doubles as twenty-first century agitprop, insistent upon the subversive afterlives of language and its subjects.
The Historical Novel
Historical fiction itself has a vexed relationship to politics, in both reactionary and radical versions. Officially, the genre reassures its reader with depictions of an unchanging human essence, whose existential predicament persists across classes and societies. By the same stroke, writing about history authorizes the most extravagantly simplistic depictions based on present-day mores, guiltlessly imputed to a distant past. It seems that such fictions can neither escape the present in which they are written, nor the factual scaffold supporting their fantastically embellished past. This predicament is both a difficulty and an advantage, depending on one’s emphasis.
Transpiring between early eighteenth-century London and a New England college town in the present day, Confessions of the Fox presents as a story within a story: a found manuscript narrating the life of master thief and jail-breaker Jack Sheppard, with annotations by erstwhile Marxist academic Dr. R. Voth, forced by disciplinary action to navigate the snares of an investment-driven university. Over the course of the novel Rosenberg discloses two lives of queer fugitivity, centuries removed, and lets the correspondences speak for themselves: Jack is a trans man living at the outset of a hostile surveillance society, and for that matter, so is Dr. Voth, however differently.
This formal device—of two parallel plots corresponding to different timescales, obscurely but essentially related—is common to much contemporary historical fiction, but Rosenberg’s works differently, insofar as the seam between these stories, and the object upon which they gradually converge, is the very text that the reader holds in their hands. This may appear quaintly postmodern at a glance, but this is not a work of literary subterfuge; rather, Rosenberg offers a constructive vision of what the novel containing history might say to the present situation of its readership.
In his 1937 study of the historical novel, literary critic György Lukács makes a Marxist case for the form. Historical novels, he writes, are not simply characterized by a past setting, but by the explicit depiction of history as process. The historical novel thematizes social transformation, in which each of its characters stands for a condensed stake.
Lukács begins with the historical context in which the genre itself emerges, during the economic and social transformation of England in the eighteenth-century. Already a post-revolutionary country, Lukács adds, England’s working people have themselves experienced an awakening of some historical agency, however unevenly. This primes England in particular for the development of the social novel, which addresses the historical specificity of its milieu by realistic means. For Lukács, the historical novel emerges as both a critique and consequence of capitalism, which contradictory totality it would disclose. For this reason he tirelessly defends its certain hallmarks—elaborate moral typologies, the characteristic omniscience of the narrator’s voice—against the tricks of a literary avant-garde that he closely identifies with psychologism and private interiority.
Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht, perhaps Lukács’s most renowned antagonist, argues against the normativization of the novel on political grounds. “The oppressors do not work in the same way in every epoch,” Brecht writes. “Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change.” To impose novelistic form, itself historically contingent, upon contemporary experience gives the impression of a fixed human nature, mystifying the relation of social mores to a mode of production. Brecht’s own solution to this impasse famously recommends a mixed technique, encompassing pastiche, satire, and all manner of meta-textual devices.
With the context of this formal debate in mind, Confessions of the Fox appears a curious synthesis: an historical romance, set against the social backdrop that enables such a thing, embedded in an unevenly textured work rife with rhetorical signposts and stalling digression. This boundary breaks down, but only after one has noticed its importance.
The twofold plot is spurred to motion when a precariously employed scholar, Dr. Voth, happens upon a sheaf of papers at a university book sale, dated from 1724 and appearing to be the “lost Sheppard memoir” of philological lore. Voth sets himself to transcribing its contents, if only to distract from the aftermath of a relationship during a period of academic probation. As the source text exceeds Voth’s expectations, offering a glimpse of queer community amid the violence of early capitalism, his footnotes digress generously, gradually disclosing a biting satire of the liberalized academy and its increasingly obscene marketization. These plotlines converge upon each other in myriad surprising ways, as history springs to life as a matter of direct, and implicating, concern.
Where the life of Jack Sheppard is concerned, Confessions of the Fox fulfills a Lukácsian criteria, depicting large-scale social change as manifest in representative miniatures. Its hero is introduced from the gallows, having lived in glamorous shadows after escaping a grueling indenture. Jack’s lover and partner in crime, Bess Khan, arrives in “a place of shopping and Hollowness,” from the countryside in 1713, and immediately falls upon a preacher inveighing against world trade. In these situating details, the narrative of Jack and Bess transpires against the conditions of the development of the historical novel proper: global processes of colonial dispossession and capitalist accumulation shape and constrain their lives and desires.
In the novel’s present, Rosenberg’s formal means descend from slightly more Brechtian directives, preserving a commentary on the historical action. In this sense, Confessions of the Fox approaches what Amy J. Elias calls “metahistorical romance,” a postmodern development of the historical novel that self-consciously addresses the temporal distance it would overcome. The interruptions and addendums work to place the sublime enormity of History at a distance, resisting vulgar presentism and necessitating that a reader locate themselves somewhere along its wake. This layer elucidates historical material, by alienating it from the textual setting within which it “naturally” appears. In novels like Confessions of the Fox, one may observe a constructive tension between the linearity of narrative and the essentially concentric structure of historical movement, such that any text crests over and includes its antecedents.
The action of the Sheppard narrative roughly corresponds to that of John Gay’s 1728 work, The Beggar’s Opera; and more notably, its twentieth-century rewrite by none other than Brecht himself, as librettist for composer Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera. Both texts mythologize the exploits of a character Macheath, based on the historical Sheppard, who was already something of a folk hero by the time of his execution in 1724, which occasioned a carnivalesque procession through the streets of London. Rosenberg’s plotting plays plausibly upon this history, for a biography, rumored to have been written by none other than Daniel Defoe, was apparently sold at the gallows, securing Sheppard’s literary posterity on spot.
Appearing a mere four years after Sheppard’s death, the hero of Gay’s opera is more hapless womanizer than avowed anarchist; though in a concession to popular genre and goodwill alike, the fictional Macheath evades death in the end. Brecht’s Macheath is more rapacious, a figure of both class resentment and subversive amoralism, likewise pardoned at the last minute in an improbable jubilee. Brecht’s ambivalent depiction of a criminal milieu is nonetheless politically crystalline: the desperation of its actors is obverse of the sanctioned cruelty of bourgeois society. “Food is the first thing, morals follow on,” Macheath inveighs in song, which interrupt the action with the force of annotation.
Following a characteristic decision of both prior adaptations, adapted from the theatre of preceding centuries, Rosenberg’s novel hews tightly to the viewpoint of the underclasses, typically relegated to a satirical subplot. This is put across by the proliferant terminology of canting language; an argot of the streets, proficiency in which attests to criminal vocation. “D’you jaw the bear garden?” Bess asks Jack on first encounter: “I do flash,” comes his reply, affirming their common society.
Rosenberg amplifies the political articulacy of these texts and extols their real-life inspiration, but this is no simple rewrite. In equal and opposite fashion to the repressions of record, Confessions of the Fox proposes a defiantly revisionist account of these popular heroes. In the manuscript that Voth discovers, jailbreaker Jack is evidently a trans man, and his escape from servitude coincides with the subjective momentum of self-affirmation. Furthermore, textual clues reveal Jack’s philosophical lover-accomplice, Bess, as South Asian. A footnote expands upon this divergence from previous depictions: “Given that London was not by any means a white city in the eighteenth century… we have to take the unquestioned nature of Bess’s characterization as white as less a reflection of ‘actual’ history than as the occlusion of it.”
Insofar as the meta-historical novel sets out to depict the very conditions that permit the emergence of historical class consciousness, Rosenberg places Jack and Bess in the crosshairs of early capitalist accumulation. In a pivotal soliloquy, Bess narrates her childhood as a Fen Tiger—subsistence fishers of the eastern marshlands—and her firsthand experience of the enclosure of the fens. Otherwise, the London they inhabit is a node of trade, de facto multicultural, through which untold numbers of commodities, including humans, pass.
This mobilization of bodies is a vector of plague, and Rosenberg depicts the racial panic around its containment. “Given the increase in plague in Chandernagore and the East Indies,” a bulletin reads, “and the vast potential for the transmission of this plague by merchant vessel, not to mention in particular the lascar sailors swarming these parts—it is thought appropriate, and hereby ordered, that additional watchmen be appointed to the plague ships in the interest of the Publick’s Health.” In such measures one may perceive the glaring contradiction between the global circulation of commodities and the relative restriction of laboring bodies, scapegoated for the health crisis of which they are the foremost victims. The allegorical bearing of historical fact on present circumstance is not to be missed.
Not only must Jack and Bess evade the clutches of Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker General, whose henchmen preconfigure a modern police as they protect Wild’s own criminal monopoly; they must also skirt the sentinels who oversee the movement of those marked for contagion on account of their class, race, or occupation. “Plague’s an excuse to police us further,” Bess orates furiously, lapsing miraculously into academic tongues to decry the “epidemiological-securitizational furor” overtaking the city. This anachronistic outburst brings to mind the work of philosopher Michel Foucault, who found a striking precedent for contemporary social control in various methods of urban quarantine, in many ways predicting the criminalization of AIDS. In the plague town of Foucault’s example, vulnerable sections are subject to pyramidal measures: a hierarchy is established according to vectors of plausible concern.
Daniel Defoe, the historical Jack Sheppard’s close contemporary and possible biographer, concludes his 1722 novel, A Journal of the Plague Year, with an observation as to the paradoxical optics of outbreak. At the height of the epidemic, Defoe explains, one would rarely see a visibly afflicted person in the streets, for the virulency of the infection was such that most would expire soon after the onset of symptoms. Conversely, the appearance of visibly stricken people in public spaces was a gradual sign of widespread immunity. The greater the visibility of plague, the less deadly its effects.
With Defoe’s anecdote in mind, one may bear further with Foucault, for whom plague rules supersede the leper colony as a paradigm of social control, insofar as the invisibility of the former affliction permits all manner of advantageous proxies. Rosenberg critically depicts the mood of this scaremongering: Jack and Bess read about “living ghosts” in Applebee’s Original Weekly Journal, a paper for which Defoe himself is thought to have written. These are citizens heedlessly acting out in late stages of infection, spreading disorder and shoplifting in the throes of death. Unlikely for obvious reasons, this fantasy nonetheless speaks volumes about the rhetoric of prejudice, in which a terrible power over everyday life is imputed to those most oppressed; an obscure intimation of a collective strength that shadows every underclass.
“Bursting with Histories to tell”
This is the ominous backdrop against which Jack and Bess, marked for both exclusion and attention, attempt freedom. Bess continues doing sex work while Jack thieves with virtuosic ease, garnering a reputation in the underworld. The scenes depicting Jack’s exploits are politically demonstrative, as well; for, in a magical realist development, Jack’s proficiency stems from a preternatural knack for listening to the voices of commodities. In one toy shop, these mount to cacophony: “the Mayhem was unrelenting, but it was resolv’ng into a kind of meaning. It wasn’t just sound—it was desire.” Within earshot of Jack, each object issues shrieks of thwarted purpose, an occult clamor that betrays the social essence of each and every seemingly discrete item: “they wanted him to take them,” we are informed.
As a commodity-whisperer, Jack intuits the demonstration that Karl Marx sets forth in the first chapter of Capital—that every object, once it enters into the market, is cleaved between use and exchange value: “Jack had learned that commodities understood much more about themselves than their buyers could ever begin to grasp. They were bursting with Histories to tell. A commodity that had escaped the infernal cycle of production-display-sale was a happy, content object—returned to serving a purpose.”
Over the course of a fanciful caper, Rosenberg remarkably conveys the humanist Marx, principally concerned with the problem of subjective alienation, to the objective analyses of commodity fetishism that would supplant this topic in his opus. According to Marx, commodity fetishism occludes the social, such that relations between people assume “the fantastic form of a relation between things.” This observation underwrites Jack’s rapport with the bric-à-brac he would restore to usefulness. “Frankly, like anything else, they wanted to be loved.”
“Two chousers on the run”
This is a romance, after all, and its insurgent energies anticipate a world in which it is possible to love, both physically and freely, without persecution or privation. In its first pages, Jack goes to the gallows rhapsodizing about cunnilingus, what else, in an impressively purple tongue: “Oh death that comes for me—O God of the Water-Mill—at least she once took me in her hands and mouth—at least she once spread her legs for me—at least I once dilat’d with her musk in every pore—at least once was I thus Found and Lost—” This ecstatic outpouring is for Bess, with whom Jack experiences a joyful self-actualization. If anything, their love attests to emancipatory chance, a feeling preconfiguring a better world: “Two chousers on the run are permitted questionable decisions based only in some miraculously Syncopated moment,” one reads, as though everything depends upon the practice of this liberty.
Not only does Bess’s recruitment effectively politicize the otherwise listlessly dispossessed jail-breaker Jack, but aspects of his physical transition proceed in her care. This is a major plot point, but the narrator otherwise declines to indulge the prurience of a cisgender readership, in spite of both Jack’s, and Voth’s, frequent braggadocio. Euphemistic displacements proliferate as the characters talk dirty to one another, but the found manuscript and its representation never stoop to sexological invasiveness; a sure sign in Voth’s estimation that the Sheppard papers may well be “the earliest authentic confessional transgender memoirs known to history.”
The plot, as ever, only thickens. As Voth persists obsessively in unraveling the mysteries of this text, his research is commandeered by shadowy bureaucrats, whose interest is itself invasive. Working under contract to P-Quad Inc., a pharmaceutical company with a hand in academic publishing, Voth is forced to comply with ludicrous demands upon his time and integrity. To the reader of both texts, P-Quad’s proprietary designs on Voth’s research clearly parallel those of the novel’s chief villain, the Thief-Taker Wild, upon Jack. Not only does Wild seek revenge for a perceived humiliation, corresponding to the motivation of his Threepenny counterpart, Jonathan Peachum; he is looking to corner the market in a testosterone elixir that Jack has unwittingly, then cravingly, lifted in a recent heist. This ‘strength gravel,’ developed by a cast of mutineers along the course of colonial accumulation, could as soon affirm one’s being as enrich its only vendor at market, and Wild’s stake consists solely in the latter. In Rosenberg’s fictionalized account, the autonomy of queer and trans life is negatively implicated in the privatizing drive of capital from its earliest emergence.
Put differently, the history of capitalism is nothing but a history of resistance, collective in its very essence. As Voth attends to the irregularities of the Sheppard manuscript, he begins to sense a hydra-headed multiplicity to its address. It soon becomes clear that these pages are not so much a time capsule as an intergenerational collaboration, subject to alteration in underground circulation by myriad guerrilla scholars. In this, the historical plot converges upon the contemporaneity of the text.
This Pynchonesque twist turns a niche artifact into a trans-historical manifesto for radicals; a textual embodiment of queer community spanning centuries, whose practices of inter-annotation ambiguate the fixity of any inherited record. This speaks to the readerly necessity of interpretation, too: one could compare John Keene’s exemplary Counternarratives, which allows a first-person account of slave revolt in a religious outpost, dated 1630, to quote from the work of Audre Lorde. As any historical record is itself a product of power, retroactively secured, the revolutionary must bring their own strength and intellection to bear on the illusion of distance and fixity. In an address to the reader, Voth explains: “I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that the confessions of Jack Sheppard contain, as they say, multitudes,” echoing the Spinozist trope of an absolutely general social body. “Put more simply, they are not exactly a singular memoir. They are something else.”
This “something else” confronts what scholar and activist C. Riley Snorton calls “the problem of history as a mode of organizing time according to antiblack and antitrans ‘rule,’” which operate at the very inception of civil society. Accordingly, the archive Voth uncovers is not simply a vehicle of representational novelty, but intervenes in the matter of history, forcing a confrontation from below. Here textual integrity entails fidelity to an idea, without which any document would remain closed and archaic. As seen, apocryphal events may prompt important application in the present, to which end Confessions of the Fox functions in several registers—as popular history, as softcore pornography, and most importantly, as political agitation. That these purposes frequently coincide speaks to something on the order of utility, and to the capacity of language to move bodies.
If the political calling of the novel is to encapsulate historic change, the problem of the genre’s own historicity remains. This was precisely Brecht’s misgiving: that a representational means may be too closely bound to the conditions that it would depict. Throughout Confessions of the Fox, Rosenberg plays within this tension; eventually imagining a text that changes, too; an epic in its occasions rather than in incident. The revolutionary presentism of the novel, which asserts that Jack and Bess are our contemporaries, that their struggles are our own, may be contrasted with the inert historicism that assigns to everything its isolated place, as though history were so many books and not a movement.
This reading bears directly on the present; and as surely as reality changes, Confessions of the Fox is an historical novel for our time—repeating neither the dialogic realism that Lukács prescribes, nor the carnival of formal elements one may idealize as Brechtian, but nonetheless thick with occasions for radical critique. As Dr. Voth discovers, this book, like the history that it depicts, remains unfinished; and a spirit of revolutionary futurity puts the onus of a happy ending on a reader’s politics.
As long as the state escalates violence, legislative and otherwise, against queer and transgender people; as long as mass incarceration persists at unprecedented rates; as long as colonialism effaces the earth and displaces whole cultures; and as long as people own nothing of the wealth that they create, stories such as that of Jack and Bess are of pressing importance—for every detail of their world that one may recognize as more or less the same today screams only of the need for total change.