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March 21, 2018

Book Notes - Tadzio Koelb "Trenton Makes"

Trenton Makes

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Tadzio Koelb's impressive debut novel Trenton Makes is both evocative and innovatively told.

Laird Hunt wrote of the book:

"A novel cut from the same startling bolt of literary cloth used by writers like Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner or James Baldwin. Trenton Makes is about America now. Not the one that gropes at phantom meaning in gilded towers; the one filled with fierce, indelible human beings who squint out, unblinking at the raw, beautiful, wrecked world."


In his own words, here is Tadzio Koelb's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Trenton Makes:



There is naturally truth in the commonplace that a novel’s characters all to some extent mirror the novelist from whom they arise, but the Book Notes exercise offers an important reminder of the independence those characters can, should, and—on the reader’s behalf—deserve to take if they are to have life on and beyond the page. There they are, bearers of my intellectual DNA, the fruit of my mental loins, walking as I never would, saying what I would shudder to say, facing situations—by design, because extremity is where our stories ripen—I urgently hope never to face. In the end my characters are me, but also not me; I am certainly not them.

So if some listen to music I like or love, many prefer music I don’t especially enjoy. Meanwhile Abe Kunstler, the main character—can one call him a hero?—of Trenton Makes, cares for no art of any kind save that of his own self-creation. The music he hears (but doesn’t listen to; an important distinction) is chosen by others. From Dennis Day’s nasal tenor (his dreary “A Few More Kisses” is the only song named in the book) to the R&B and psychedelic-tinged rock his son listens to, Abe’s sonic landscape is, like so much in his life, something to endure rather than enjoy.

A novel that spans a half-century offers a wide range of musical options (my research using old radio programs and TV broadcasts means I heard and internalized several without even trying). If I were to set the novel to music I would naturally search for pieces that could help reinforce my thematic interests, but at the same time I would want the music to cast a light of its own—a different, musical light—onto things otherwise obscure.

For example, Part 1 begins soon after WWII. The war is often presented as a clash of cultures: our deeply segregated side so unlike the ghettoizing racists across the front; our small-batch, artisanal genocide of Native Americans so different from their galloping, mechanized genocide of people who, if they managed to escape to America (as my grandparents did), arrived to find the best rooms were reserved for Wernher von Braun. So it’s enlightening to learn that you could have traveled from Berlin to London via Axis or Ally and everywhere heard the same song: “Lili Marlene”, sung in German by Lale Andersen, in French by Suzy Solidor (as “Lily Marlène”), and in English—the version my characters would have known—by freshly minted American citizen Marlene Dietrich.

Clearly there is something in “Lili Marlene” that touched people deeply, and the shared love of this melancholic complaint highlights something about how unhappiness, pace Tolstoy, cements (and in this case highlights) our endangered similarities. But my score must highlight our unchallenged inequalities, as well, and for this purpose perhaps I can do no better than Judy Garland’s version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”—from a film performance she gave in blackface. Shirley Temple’s infant blackface outing sadly produced no songs, but “Abraham”, performed in blackface by Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds, makes good the loss by being, with a dramatic irony the performers seem entirely to have missed, an intended celebration of Lincoln and emancipation.

Europeans didn’t have the wild optimism you can hear in so much American war-time music. Abe’s wife Inez would have loved the go-get-’em, feel-good war-time swing number “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” by the Andrews Sisters; she would also have hummed along happily to such agitprop confections as “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap” without much thinking about what they meant—just so long as she could dance to it. (The Korean War didn’t get a similar soundtrack, but the Vietnam War would be just as thoroughly, if very differently, scored.)

In the 1950s jazz musician Billy Tipton released his only albums. Tipton was discovered at the time of his death—after multiple marriages and an almost 50-year career as a public performer—to have been biologically female. His story, along with those of Eugene Falleni, Dr James Barry, and other historical figures, was a significant inspiration for my novel, so it would be fitting to include Tipton’s performances of American standards…with all the many meanings that phrase can conjure. I enjoy his gently sad version of “Don’t Blame Me” and his almost throw-away “Sweet Georgia Brown”.

I like to think the title “Don’t Blame Me” says a lot about how we should approach the “deception” of passing. For that reason I might compliment Tipton with a performance (“Angry” is a good one) by Ina Ray Hutton, the “blonde bombshell” and bandleader who may (according to the Chicago Sun-Times) have been of mixed race. If the report is true, Hutton broke hundreds if not thousands of “one-drop” laws, statutes, and ordinances by eating, drinking, swimming, and traveling in diners, bars, pools, and bus seats reserved for her racial superiors. This crimewave went entirely unnoticed, but then again, as she sings in “Angry”, “I was only teasing you.”

Part II takes place in 1971. Readers of any novel set over the past century who find a generation gap will know to imagine a musical gap to match. Abe and Inez’s son, Art, grows up in a soundscape completely alien to his parents, one made of protest songs and the San Francisco Sound. The protests could be humorous, as in Phil Ochs’s “Draft Dodger Rag” (“Sarge, I’m only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen/And I always carry a purse”) and the Woodstock sing-along “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish, with its rousing “Give me an F!”—but while Art and his friends would have listened and laughed, Dion’s low draft-lottery number would have drawn them to songs expressing sadness and anger: “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, “Handsome Johnny” by Richie Havens, and “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye.

The year 1971 was the year of my birth. It was the year Charles Manson was found guilty of murder and the Supreme Court ordered the release of the Pentagon Papers, the year when American political innocence might at last have died and, as if to compensate, Disney World opened its gates to a nation of young people worried they would be sent to war—a strange year that was the prelude to a stranger decade. One of 1971’s most popular songs was “Draggin’ the Line” by Tommy James. I listened to it a lot during the eighteen months I worked on that section of the novel. For reasons I can’t entirely name, I find it pertinent that “Draggin’ the Line” has been almost completely forgotten. Maybe it’s because I worry that we are on the verge of forgetting just as completely the important lessons of the past.

Tadzio Koelb and Trenton Makes links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Publishers Weekly review


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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