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The ‘Trans’ Book I Could Not Stop Talking About This Year

The ‘Trans’ Book I Talked About More This Year Than any Other

Is Trenton Makes just another in the long line of problematic representations of transness? 

Trenton Makes, the new novel by Tadzio Koelb (a translator, creative writing instructor, and book reviewer for The New York Times) is about Abe Kunstler, a post-World War II factory worker unraveled by his obsession with appearing to be a certain kind of man -- and hiding the fact that he's not.

Abe, designated female at birth, adopts a male persona for most of his life -- he is referred to as "she" in two passages that bookend that life, the moments leading to his decision to become Abe and the moment his "disguise" is discovered by medical professionals, at which point heseemingly reverts to female.

Is Abe transgender? In the book, Abe is never referred to as trans (but that makes sense, as it is primarily set in the mid-1940s to '60s before the word came into wide use). Abe never undergoes gender-affirmation surgery, instead simply hiding his feminine physicality from everyone -- his coworkers, his landlord, his tailor, his common-law wife, and their son -- to purportedly avoid capture and find work in the postwar period when even skilled women lost work to men returning home. Penguin Random House calls the character "a woman who carves out her share of the American Dream by living as a man." Press material for Trenton Makes calls Abe's life "a lie -- an invention forged in the heat of a violent crime." So it's hard to see this character as simply trans, even though once he adopts the Abe persona he studiously maintains it for the next quarter of a century.

What bothers me about Trenton Makes is not whether Abe is really transgender or a passing woman or simply a murderer on the run. Nor is it trying to rectify his extreme homophobia with his origins as someone whose "identity belongs to the man he once loved" (as the press release reads). No, what troubles me is whether we've reached a point where we can embrace a truly despicable character who appears trans. Because Abe Kunstler is evil. Not evil in the glorious tradition of, say, Hannibal Lecter -- one of the most compelling depictions of the depths of humanity, and a character we love to hate -- but in a mundane, misogynist domestic abuser kind of way.

Abe starts a relationship with a woman, not because he likes her but because he learns she doesn't like sex and is less likely to question his physicality. He never legally marries her, not because he doesn't think he could get away with it but because not marrying her makes him a son of a bitch, the kind of bastard that neighbors would resent, but who they would never imagine wasn't a dick-swinging, red-blooded American man. Then Abe chillingly sets out to repeatedly get his common-law wife drunk so strangers can have sex with her, without her knowledge, in hopes of getting her pregnant.

It's not that I think Koelb is suggesting that trans men are sociopaths like Abe. Instead, the author is clearly presenting Abe as a very flawed character whose flaws become his undoing. Abe's attempts to keep his wife drunk lead him to drink too much himself, which leads to him being hungover at work, which leads to him being maimed at his factory job. His wife being drunk at the moment of conception leads to the child having disabilities.

But given the long history of cis writers making trans or gender-expansive people out to be monsters (Dressed to Kill, The Silence of the Lambs, etc.), the fact that Abe appears trans is troubling. The true trans experience may be more about embracing a reality that was always there than about adopting a personality alien to one's own nature, but most readers cannot distinguish between a woman pretending to be a man and a transgender man. And the fact that Koelb is -- his publicist confirms -- not trans makes me even more uncomfortable with the portrayal. (Even though I recognize that some "assumed" cisgender people write/film/create trans characters before they themselves come out as trans or gender-expansive.)

Tadzio-koelb-courtesy-doubledayAuthor Tadzio Koelb

Where Trenton Makes does well is in examining the psychological impact of trying to pass as male when one does that through constant vigilance of one's masculine presentation, and constant concern about and monitoring of how one is being perceived by others. This pressure is one that many gay men will recognize from their own childhoods. In some ways, this book is about the pressure of trying to be perceived as a particular, culturally acceptable type of male (white, blue-collar, hypermasculine, and definitely not queer or feminine). Unfortunately, that story could have been told just as well with a cisgender male protagonist.

Despite the passage of time, Abe never grows comfortable in his own masculinity, it remains a facade. Interestingly this is true not of how others perceive Abe, but only how he perceives himself. Even decades later, Abe remains terrified he'll "be exposed." In fact, when he believes someone has stumbled upon his secret he is literally prepared to kill in order to keep it from getting out.

In comparing Abe's story to biographies and memoirs I've read of trans men from the same time period who were assigned female at birth (and some of lesbians who passed as male to defy gender expectations) and have gone on to marry women and live as male until death or illness, some of the experiences seem common. At first, most were terrified of being "discovered," but over time they begin to realize how little their gender presentation is actually interrogated once they've been passing for a while.

In the real world, I know some trans men who've practiced their walks, their sitting (manspreading), and their voices to appear that they were socialized as straight cisgender men. So I can completely buy Abe's initial fear and the lengths he goes to to pass as male, but I question if he'd really still fear exposure 20-odd years later.

You could interpret this book as a study of how internal fears of failing to "be a man" can ruin one's life -- and that's something that isn't specific to trans men. That's one impact of a culture of toxic masculinity. This character is like Achilles. His terminal weakness is not his heel but rather his own fear that his masculinity isn't "real." Or maybe "fear" isn't the right word; maybe I should say his knowledge that his masculinity isn't real -- since, again, the publisher is pitching the character as a woman and Koelb reverts to female pronouns at the very end. That text is set apart in italics and feels more like the character's thoughts, rather than the narrator's. Still, it leaves us with the distinct feeling that the "he" (Abe) that the character has been for 25 years isn't solid or even "real" to the character.

Maybe this is meant to reflect a Judith Butler-style understanding of all gender as performative, and to suggest all modern identities are transitory and fabricated. Or it could be meant to get readers to understand the trans experience itself -- not through buying Abe as trans but in seeing that he's not and never will be. That he'll always be a woman, even after decades of pretending otherwise -- just as a trans woman will always be a woman even after decades of pretending and presenting to the world as male.

But I'm afraid I may be giving the author too much credit here.

At least to this trans man, Abe's sudden emasculation instead simply reads as inauthentic to a character I had read through the novel as trans. Frustratingly, Trenton Makes is well-written and engaging. And critics at publications like The New York Times Book Review have raved about its "bewitching ingenuity." But I am left significantly troubled by the idea that two bookended "shes" render an otherwise male character retroactively female. And I'm more disturbed by what feels like abnormal, vile choices the character makes to continue to maintain the "illusion" of their manhood. Because even if Koelb never intended Abe to read as trans, I'm afraid readers won't see any distinction -- and it's hard to imagine how the author could truly have been ignorant of that fact.

Readers do want messy, complicated transgender characters, and the time is right for that kind of deeper visibility. But I don't think we're ready for such an unrelentingly unredeemable amoral character who appears trans, whether the author thinks he is or she isn't.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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