Trenton Makes brings to life mid-20th century New Jersey before and after a manufacturing industry boom, but Tadzio Koelb’s debut work rings true to current times as society further examines gender roles and weathers economic changes and new security threats globally and within national borders.

The nameless main character, emboldened physically and mentally by World War II factory work only to lose that independence after marrying her veteran husband, resents the restrictions imposed by assigned gender roles and expectations. When she kills her husband in self-defense, she decides to assume his identity, “Abe Kunstler.” She changes clothes and manages her periods in secret, resists medical visits of any kind and builds walls in place of intimate relationships even with the family she devised to represent the suburban dream.

However, as the city’s motto states, “Trenton makes, the world takes.” Kunstler can financially support himself and control his behavior around others, but upholding the guise of a man becomes its own prison. In the 1970s, when America makes a turn away from the industrial work that drove the economy and dives into Vietnam, a conflict of which younger generations question the morality, Kunstler’s carefully constructed life cracks under the pressure of lost jobs, wounded pride n and disappointment in what he perceives as his wife Inez’s boring, complicit domesticity and his son Art’s weak countenance.

References to Kunstler’s female identity are either derided—he resents his biologically or stereotypically womanly traits—or erased completely. Her inattentive father calling her “my girl” in italicized recollections is the closest to a name Koelb offers her. Despite seeming the advantageous choice, being a man breeds Kunstler’s compartmentalized paranoia. Textually, it’s evidenced in Koelb repeatedly acknowledging the former spouse as “the man, her husband” and the new wife “the girl, Inez,” while manifested narratively in Kunstler’s hyper-vigilant self-care routines and testy social interactions.

Kunstler feels justified resorting to force and unsavory acts to maintain the facade because society values aggressive masculinity as strength. Viewed through today’s perspective, one could say Kunstler is lured into the cycle of toxic masculinity. He idealizes his deceased husband’s abuse and deception as self-preservation and despises his son’s sensitivity and birth defect as not man enough. He believes his husband’s attack birthed in him a resilient, self-made man and hopes in the end, as he’s violently outed to his family, that he can do the same for Art. The trickery Kunstler pulls to get Inez pregnant when he can’t do it himself exemplifies an uncomfortable case of #MeToo, calling to mind another modern movement in a historically set book.

On the surface, Trenton Makes could be exasperating and exhausting. The few female characters are often desired as sexual or material objects and, along with the supporting male cast, are hazily defined. Kunstler’s persona is persistently angry, distrusting, entitled and ready to blame other parties for his misfortunes, some self-inflicted. It begs asking whether these were authorial choices to emphasize how diminished women are within society, or if perhaps male gaze and self-importance seeped through an otherwise self-reflexive narrative. Following Kunstler so attentively could sour a reader’s enjoyment, and the snippets from Art and a minor character’s points of view feel disjointed rather than worthwhile, substantive reprieves. The plausibility of how long and well the protagonist keeps his secret feels shaky, though Koelb says in an interview with PANK magazine that his book was inspired by jazz musician Billy Tipton. But contextualizing Kunstler’s story against the encompassing social climate and weighing how much it influences people’s views and treatment of men and women lends Koelb’s novel an imperative significance as a literary work and a manifesto on understanding gender dynamics, despite plot believability issues and unfavorable characterization.

  • Thurston Moore: By the Fire

    At this point in his career Thurston has leveraged droning instrumentals in lieu of actual…
  • Róisín Murphy: Róisín Machine

    Murphy creates hypnotic dance tracks that are just as suitable for the club as they are fo…
  • Public Trust

    Crafted to appeal to the masses, the film is a sober, moderate call for a return to reason…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

The Vanishing Half: by Brit Bennett

The novel is soberingly relevant, especially in light of 2020’s racial and cultural tensio…