Susan Choi's 'Trust Exercise' Demands the Reader's Restraint
Does the experience of reading Susan Choi's Trust Exercise leave us with anything but frustration? Is it all tease and no release?
Henry Holt and Co.
Susan Choi's Trust Exercise is about first love and artistic aspirations that are too big for the characters' actual ability. Like many young people (especially in the pre-social media era), the creative dreams swirling around in their heads are too overwhelming to contain. Some fall to pieces when their dreams take concrete forms.
All the relationships between these painfully precious teenagers in an early '80s performing arts high school are sweaty, raw, carefully mixed combinations of muscular assignations and shameful aftermaths. Choi keeps her clinical distance from these connections. For example, consider a line like this: "The hot slippery fit is accomplished." It's not a clumsy, bad line about sex. It's just detached, which may be her point.
Readers entering any strong literary novel like Trust Exercise should not have preconceived demands, such as the expectation that a crack will open and offer us a place in this story to set up base while we acclimate ourselves to the surroundings. That doesn't happen here. Teens Sarah and David love each other with a fevered, desperate passion. Things get tangled with a troubling adult role model. An acting troupe from a British school comes to perform Candide, and even the most patient reader may become anxious. Where will this story be going? What's the point?
Sex here is awkward, clinical, and difficult to embrace. This first section, in fact, the entire book, proves that Choi is more interested in prioritizing a structural experiment in trust than writing a narrative in which her reader will want to invest time and energy. Readers can overcome the most confusing and convoluted plot elements and structures. Whether or not they will want to invest the time and energy, however, is another issue altogether.
From its title down through to its three sections, Trust Exercise follows through on its thesis. Not only is it referring to the various drama activities the students engage in (via their charismatic teacher, Mr. Kingsley), the title is asking us to understand that stories probably can never fully be accepted. In the first section, the dramatic story of David and Sarah is set in the early '80s at a place called Citywide Academy for the Arts. Mr. Kingsley is an impossibly cool, dramatically flamboyant gay man, a true son of the theater. Trust Exercise is set in an unnamed Southern locale, but the dream is always New York City, and Mr. Kingsley represents that final goal. He is:
"…impossibly witty and sometimes impossibly cutting; the prospect of talking with him was terrifying and galvanizing; one longed to live up to his brilliance and equally feared that it couldn't be done."
This is basically the essence of part one and the key to understanding Choi's approach. She wants to heighten the drama, though it's hard to warm to these characters. In short, it takes longer than it should to fully understand where she is going withTrust Exercise and what she wants to do. For Choi, the focus is to understand "…transformation and emotion packed like gunpowder into the barrel." She wants us to recognize the "dilation and diffusion" of those times for these characters, and Kingsley wants to engage them in "Ego Reconstruction" theater exercises. He wants to break them down and rebuild them in his image. "So much of what they do," Choi writes, "…is restraint in the name of release."
That might be the first, biggest problem with Trust Exercise. Choi builds up the restraint and cool mood, but the release doesn't feel authentic. The other classes are suitably lame and laughable for the students and Choi's readers. Throughout this first section, Choi does not hesitate to remind us that this novel is a construct and she doesn't seem interested in whether we trust her. "Acting is fidelity to authentic emotion, under-imagined experiences." Characters have to observe each other objectively and subjectively. Our primary lead characters in section one, David and Sarah, emotionally crash into each other with all the ramifications of intimate physical relationships at the dawn of the AIDS era. Near the end of the first section, Choi pushes her readers into the future with those two characters and others. She tells us they will be dramatically changed. Some will run away, become famous actresses, and be changed by indiscretions.
It's likely that Section One was meant to be purposefully vague, voluntarily cluttered with too many teen characters with too much teen angst. Things become more understandable in Section Two, but the bait and switch of the narrative structure may be both jarring and annoying. Take this line, early in this middle section, (set 12 years later), as Karen, a character we met in part one sits in the audience for a bookstore reading (from Sarah) and considers their shared legacy:
"When we were children… we were taught that a moment of intimacy had no meaning unless it was part of a show."
This section proves to be very meta in its premise. Karen looks at her copy of Sarah's book, with a mark set at page 131, "…commemorating the point at which the end had come…" Did Karen write the section we had just read? We learn that "…Sarah was a bad actress, a worse singer, and a nonexistent dancer…" She didn't make it in the big world. Part Two exposes, in painstaking detail, more indiscretions that had taken place during high school, the type of unsolicited attention from teachers to vulnerable students that was swept under the rug in 1982 only to fester many years later. In this middle section, Choi offers a more mainstream narrative, more believable and honest, but it's still unlikely that even the most patient reader will care.
The problem with this experiment in form (Part One) is that Choi constructed a maze of cold, convoluted sentences and distant narrative directives in part one that doesn't pay off with part two. By the end of Part Two, as we prepare for the approximately two dozen final pages, one character says to another: "…you wrote so much just like it happened, and then left out the actual truth. Why even do that? Who do you think you're protecting?"
It's with these types of questions that Choi seems to be opening herself up to questions. We don't know what happened, and we lose interest in caring halfway through this confusing novel. The reader willing to go on this ride will not be rewarded with much, save for a headache. Does the experience of reading Trust Exercise leave us with anything but frustration? Is it all tease and no release?