*Warning: this novel contains content related to sexual assault.
“A silence of meaning, a refusal to spell out the facts…We also never know what we know until after we know it.”
The scene: CAPA, a performing arts high school in the southern US where talent is the only religion and emotional exhibitionism is commonplace. The characters: David and Sarah, two students not talented enough to be the stars of productions but that capitvate the social drama. The story: well, that’s a bit more complicated. This award-winning novel is a frustrating knot of plot glazed over with the question of what it means to trust. The answer: it’s murky.
Trust Exercise: A Novel. By Susan Choi. Henry Holt. 2019. Hardcover.
How did I get the book?
I discovered Choi in a class with Alice Quinn at Columbia in Fall 2018. She was working on the edits for this book when she visited, explaining how she wrote it while trying to finish a different novel, during which time I also learned Barbara Jones—a former professor of mine at NYU—was her editor. A year later, I picked it up at Strand Books. My friend Stephanie Philp had some strong feelings on her YouTube channel [CONTAINS SPOILERS], which intrigued me even further.
You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores!
What did I think?
I was fascinated that this novel is genre-coded under “Love stories,” although Sarah and David’s relationship is the predominate plotline (at least to start). The two are uniquely linked. “Some chemical made her for him, him for her; they were not yet too fucked up by life that they wouldn't realize it,” Choi writes. “The intuitive parts of themselves are always highly aggravated when they are together…[Sarah’s] first time kissing him had been the first experience of her life that had exceeded expectation.” But like with most high school relationships, it’s more complicated. They define love differently—to David it’s a declartion; to Sarah it’s a secret—and as such they need one another differently, too. Sarah starts to unfurl when she and David stop speaking, remembering how the first time they had sex made them both cry while wondering if she’d had a photo of them together if it could capture something now hidden; illuminate why David has unconsciously discarded her. “What she'd literally meant was why did David love me,” Choi writes, “which was the cowardly way to ask David, Why do you no longer love me?” The dramatic relationship becomes like pornography at CAPA, giving the couple “a different kind of stardom” than the one most acting students seek out “where everything was reversed, and instead of discovery and love and success were distortion, disconnection, and failure,” where the question is begged, “Why was David responsible for [Sarah]? What about the adults in their lives?”
The line between adult and child is a blurry mess. “They were all children who had previously failed to fit in, or had failed, to the point of acute misery, to feel satisfied, and they had seized on creative impulse in the hope of salvation,” Choi writes of the CAPA student body. However, the school appears to reject the notion that its students are children, instilling in them the intangible ideas of freedom and selfhood by teaching them to throttle their emotions for complete access (no wonder Sarah’s mother doesn’t want her attending). It’s also often difficult to tell the difference between the adults and the children aside from who has a car, seeing as the teachers snap at the students in an unprofessional, highly-charged manner then host them at parties on the weekends. A prime example of this is Mr. Kingsley, the lead acting teacher—“one longed to live up to his brilliance and equally feared that it couldn't be done”—who deems Sarah and David’s relationship worthy of spectacle-like attention, a gesture the students read as worthy and a reader sees as worrisome. The students are also often frustrated by their expectations of the adults, filled with an intensely obscure anger that Choi writes off as “the obvious and the oblivious sharing the same mental space…That was fifteen in a nutshell.” But it’s more than that. The children are rubbing up against their own aging, wondering if they’re able to see the holes in themselves before they get as messed up as the adults or if, as David muses, they were never children at all.
Without giving too much away regarding the plot twists, I will say that the narrative voice remains important throughout, even as it changes. It can be close but judgmental, questioning Sarah’s decision to laugh in one moment before reading her mind about an observation of Mr. Kingsley’s teachings the next, then immediately labeling her and David “emotional hoarders.” Most penetrating, perhaps, is the statement, “Sarah has become the kind of Problem they would all like to be,” showing that this sharpness is directed toward everyone in this world. One young woman is “an implausible fictional character” because of her unique combination of looks and talents, while others are “Troubled students, the borderline ones.” In a way, this unreliability reflects a point Choi circles repeatedly regarding the difference (is there one?) between duplicity and storytelling; how one person’s mistaken belief or act of care can inflict violence on another. “We're none of us alone in this world. We injure each other,” she writes. “We overlap. We get tangled. You can't help but hurt.”
🌟 2.5/5 — Disappointing
In case the earlier quotes didn’t convince you, Choi is a good writer. She knows it. I was constantly underlining: “He felt skewered by lust and as if he could hang there, afloat on the pain;” “Heartbreak doesn't flow through the heart but along that frail shallow canal of the sternum;” “Possibly first love, despite all the fuss, is only mating with ideas attached.” She fills these characters with so much emotion they find themselves doing things like shoveling coldness out of their hearts as a result of love being “some kind of chemical error,” longing for “the sort of orgasm that feels like one's pleasure torn out by the root; a punishment for the pleasure as well as a final end of it” as they direct anger toward the person who has spoiled their idea of themself, made them feel grief followed by impatience. One of the strongest observations, actually, was a quieter note on suicide: “[It] isn't opting out of the future, it's opting out of the present...Reference to the future, to its unbroken promise, is the reflex of those for whom the future's mirage still exists.”
However, this can only carry a book so far. I nodded along through the first turn of events but found myself utterly boggled by the second. I also cringed at the callous exploration of sexual assault (“Unwanted pleasure...as girls do when vandalizing themselves seems the best way of proving their bodies are theirs”—hard no). The obsession with disorienting the reader almost felt like the policing of visions and thoughts the students experience within CAPA, capturing readers in a maddening loop. “Vague norms emerge and dissolve, are specific to people, don't apply generally or across time or across the whole group,” Choi writes at one point of CAPA. “They're arrived at by instinct, by naïveté rewarded with luck, or by naïveté not rewarded with luck.” This could be an accurate description of the two camps of people reacting to this book: those who fawn over its oddities, and those who are left annoyed and bewildered. I have to say I lean with the latter.
Beyond the book.
This novel won the National Book Award in 2019, perhaps a bit of a head-scratcher when you look at its competition. If you’re intrigued by Choi’s writing abilities at all, might I suggest My Education for a similar narrative of toxic relationships but with a more satisfying plot, though there is no lack of buzz around Trust Exercise, for whatever reasons. PBS featured Choi on their Newshour, and she was part of the National Book Festival. You can also get a free taste of the novel from her reading at Politics & Prose.
See you again soon!