Friday, 17 August 2018

Book review: Confessions of the Fox, Jordy Rosenberg (2018)

This ambitious experimental novel presses all the buttons in the progressive control panel, the one that generates soundbites for public “debates” that take place on social media. (They’re not debates, they’re actually pile-ons and slug-fests for the hyper-partisan who otherwise live peacefully in our communities.) The author is a transsexual academic who has done a lot of reading for this book and his erudition shows. The bulk of the work is fantastically realised and you actually feel as though you are living in 18th century London, with its smells, sounds and residents all powerfully realised in the author’s flexible prose.

But the ideological bias that informs the work is actually also the cause of its downfall. I got about 45 percent of the way through the book before becoming disillusioned. If only the author had tried a little less hard to make his points, I thought glumly as I decided, one morning, to write this review rather than pick up the book again. If only he’d been a bit less “correct”.

The problems start with the way that Jack Sheppard (who is actually a girl her mother commits to indentured servitude with a London carpenter in October 1713) is treated by his master, whose name is Kneebone. The man shackles the girl to her bed at night so that she won’t escape, and this poor treatment inspires Jack to flee one night, having picked the lock on the device with a file she normally uses for her work. On the run, Jack meets up with a prostitute, Bess Khan, who is from the subcontinent and serves customers out of an establishment where she hides Jack. The romance between the two is at the core of the book and it is a credible device.

There is a supernatural component in the book as well. One night when he is robbing a toy store (the personal pronoun used in this review for Jack from here on in is “he”), Jack’s ears are assaulted by the sounds that are made by the products on sale in the darkened store. They cry out to him as they sit unused on the shelves. This gift makes itself felt again, later, when Jack enters a lighthouse on the Thames where fees paid in kind on account of official customs charges are kept. In the place, Jack comes across boxes of opium that let out a desultory cry, underscoring the misery that the production and consumption of the stuff in the interests of the monied classes made. The monied classes are fulsomely ridiculed by the author, who has Jack under Kneebone making tuffins for them (a product I tried to find a definition for online, but could not).

The feelings that inspire this artifices the book deals in are no doubt good and praiseworthy in themselves, but from me they fail to convinced because there were too many of them pointing in one direction. I had the same problem when watching Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet Country’ at the cinema earlier this year (my review is dated 27 January). When you screw down the narrative to such a degree that movement is impossible without upsetting the dramatic tone of the story, you fail to give the characters the freedom they need to exist as credible entities within it. Thornton, a black man living in contemporary Australia, had a point to make with his film, just as Rosenberg does with his novel. It’s all about making your enemy as grotesque as possible, regardless of the damage such a campaign can have on the quality of the stories you want to tell.

The same problem infected ‘Mary Shelley’, the biopic that was released this year that was directed by Haifaa al-Mansour (my review was published on 10 July). Her imagining of Mary Jane Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepmother, was unnecessarily negative, and the imbalance that this piece of characterisation set up in the narrative threatened to unsettle the structure of the movie. Poetic justice might seem attractive to artists who have borne grudges for decades before they are finally able to give free expression to an animus, but you have to be careful that you don’t upset the apple cart by loading it too high with talking points that belong to the partisans on your side of the argument.

And if ever a book had to have been promoted with a rider saying that the Kindle edition doesn’t work, this is it. The novel is full of footnotes that, accessed using the links provided in the text in the Kindle edition, take you to another page. After reading each note at the end of the chapter, you then have to tap your way back to where you were in the text so that you can continue reading the story. A paper copy of the book would have been much better. I ended up skipping all the footnotes and just reading the main text, which does damage to the narrative because the footnotes contain a story of their own.

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