Susan Choi’s thrilling new novel, “Trust Exercise,” is a rare and splendid literary creature: piercingly intelligent, engrossingly entertaining, and so masterfully intricate that only after you finish it, stunned, can you step back and marvel at the full scope of its unshowy achievements.
A beautifully textured, impeccably observed tragicomedy with a sense of humor as gleaming as its ire, this is a mighty, meta, #MeToo indictment of the cult of the Great Man, and of what Choi calls — damningly, mockingly — the “Elite Brotherhood of the Arts,” whose members shield one another reflexively.
But it begins as a story of first love, and if you’ve ever been 15, its opening pages will whoosh you right back to that time in your life, with all its roiling intensity and emotional drama — that sense of standing on the cusp of adulthood, the secrets of grown-up existence tauntingly just out of reach.
This is where Sarah, our rebel-heroine, finds herself at that age. It is the early 1980s in a city someplace in the South, and there are two things she wants most in life: David, a boy from school whose every breath seems in sync with hers, and a car of her own. If that second item sounds less like an object of passion than the first, then you have never been a teenager lusting for the freedom of the road.
For a while, Sarah will have David; eventually, car or no, she will escape from her stifling hometown. What Sarah will keep with her forever, though, is the scarring memory of her high school years as a theater student at the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts — a place that wins her devotion and shapes her identity, even though she doesn’t quite belong there. “Duplicity, or she’d rather call it storytelling, is her sole realm of inspiration, the entire basis for her mistaken belief she can act.”
Like Choi, who graduated in 1986 from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Sarah will grow up to be a writer, not an actor. The first half of Choi’s novel turns out to be Sarah’s roman à clef — not the whole book, but as far as a bitter, long estranged classmate gets in reading it before she’s too disgusted to finish. Once Sarah’s best friend, at 30 she has some very different recollections of their common past, spun out in the book’s second section. (To mention the friend’s name would be a spoiler.) The book’s third part, a brief coda, once again shifts the ground underfoot.
Each of the sections is titled “Trust Exercise,” each focused on a distinct era, a different set of betrayals. The term is one that the adolescent Sarah encounters in her acting classes, where there are “seemingly infinite variations” to the exercises: “Some involved talking and resembled group therapy. Some required silence, blindfolds, falling backward off tables or ladders and into the latticework of classmates’ arms.”
Becoming an artist, the students learn, requires immense personal vulnerability, not only to one another but also to their teachers. Chief among them is the magisterial head of their program, Mr. Kingsley, who uses his charges’ psychological turmoil to fuel their lessons. To the teenagers, of course, this intimate dynamic smacks of glamour and adventure, makes them feel grown-up. Certain of their own sophisticated agency, they would dispute any suggestion that it leaves them prey to abuse or lasting harm.
Part of the vital complexity of Choi’s novel is that Sarah, David, and their classmates do have agency; they are sexual beings; they are not merely passive victims. Which is not the same as not being a victim at all, as Sarah’s old friend comes to realize in adulthood. Her life was irreparably damaged by something that happened back then, when adults looked past her glaring naïveté to treat her like a peer.
“We were children,” she says to David.
“We were never children,” he spits back, his contempt venomous.
Choi, who in her acknowledgments extolls her alma mater as “a place of dreams, not nightmares,” uses the veil of fiction to tell a powerful version of a cultural truth. Sarah uses that same veil to tell an autobiographical truth. (Both seem to have taken with a vengeance the classic advice for protecting oneself from libel allegations: Give the character a small penis. The penises of the creeps here are vividly, comically unappealing.)
Whether Sarah’s book amounts to betrayal in the name of art — one of the principal subjects of Choi’s novel — is an extremely sore point in the second part, narrated by Sarah’s old friend.
But it’s not just what Sarah put in the novel that bothers her. It’s what Sarah held back from writing — damage wrought that she left unsaid.
“Who do you think you’re protecting?” the friend demands, furiously.
“Trust Exercise” traces a whole system of protections built around the Great Man. Then we watch those defenses start to fall.
By Susan Choi
Henry Holt, 257 pp., $27
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