Henry Holt and Co.
If high school didn’t exist, writers would have to invent it. A writer’s job is to articulate what others feel; and what other time produces so many feelings amongst so many? Its where an audition for Guys & Dolls can feel like make or break and the end of a relationship might as well be the end of your life. When I read a novel, even an excellent one, I often wonder why the person, as a narrator or protagonist, felt so much? Everyone has emotions, but few of us wonder deeply about those feelings and certainly not enough to fill 200-some pages of a novel. High school solves that problem. It is an epic naval-gazing that adolescents and authors coalesce. They both know that your interior life is where the action is at.
Susan Choi brings her fierce eye to a bulging backpack of inner issues we all carry in her new novel Trust Exercise. Set in a featureless and unnamed 1980s suburb that could be the outer ring of Houston, or Atlanta, or even Chicago, the story begins with the common teenage lament: “neither could drive.” The unlicensed subjects in this case are Sarah and David, the stars of the freshmen theatre class at a performing arts high school and an on-again-off-again couple. What they lack in motoring skills, they make up for in displays of affection, often in their theatre class overseen by the imperious Mr. Kingsley. He portentously lectures to his class of 14 year olds about “ego reconstruction,” demands they spell ‘theater’ as ‘theatre’, and leads them in the titular acting exercises meant to hone their craft.
So far, so obvious. Lovestruck teenagers and demanding teachers are the bread-and-butter (or pizza basket and fries?) of high school narratives. Choi is interested in something more though. “Acting is fidelity to emotion,” Mr. Kingsley decrees during one intense rehearsal. But what happens when the facade is the most authentic part? Teenagers think about themselves so much, after all, because they know the least about themselves. Detailed labels proliferate in high school (Choi does a great job of delineating the pecking order between “the Broadway Babies” of musical theater kids with their Cats sweatshirts down to the “serious Theatre artists” who wallow in Uta Hagen acting treatises) in the absence of any deep understanding. The first section of the novel follows Sarah as her relationship with David deepens and then falls apart. What starts as an unspoken intimacy shared between them becomes almost like acting as they take on the public roles of boyfriend and girlfriend. The transition from a private love to high school it-couple is difficult for Sarah. High school becomes a locker-framed stage set for her where the outward action, not inner emotions, is the only thing able to expressed with any honesty.
The language and narration reflect this unease. Choi’s sentences can be gangly, like limbs after a growth spurt, commas marking progress like stretch marks. Stage directions will suddenly appear in a sentence. Paragraphs will snap tight into lines of dialogue, as if we’ve been dropped into a play. Third person narration, previously as omniscient as a Greek chorus, will hover so closely to a character you feel they have taken control of the text.
The book is separated into three sections which shift the perspective radically from the story that came before. Each part has the same title: Trust Exercise. Acting, the one shared obsession of every character in the novel, is just an exercise in perspective-taking after all. I am this, and you are that. I am a guy, and you are a doll. As the viewpoint of the novel suddenly shifts, as a reader you feel disoriented and wonder if you missed something or weren’t reading close enough. What was this is now that. Minor characters become major ones and revelations occur that, to beat a theatrical metaphor to death, pull back the curtain on what you as a reader thought you knew. I won’t reveal the twist in each section, but each one opened up a breach in my own conception of the characters. As a reader, you start to question your own sense of authenticity within the novel (or play? or journal? or memoir?). You become as clueless about the book as teenagers are about each other.
The structure also exemplifies the violations—of the body, of authority, of a sense of self—that form the core of the novel. Some are presented straightforwardly, but many are alluded to or not even understood as transgressions at the time they take place. Like the narration, the pain in the novel is elusive. The apex of it often comes far after the abuse itself, as the now adult characters grapple with the actions of their adolescent selves. Consequences are compounded when you can’t fully grasp what happened to you. Karen, a fellow theatre student who struggles with the effects of a relationship with an older man throughout her whole life, is obsessed with defining words. As if she doesn’t even trust language, she offers dictionary definitions for seemingly simple words like “remember,” as she recalls her own high school years later in the book. The descriptions are so thorough they are almost meaningless in their verbal density. Her attempts at articulation just seem like one more failed effect of a painful experience.
Here, again, Choi is able to use the murky but vibrant interiority of adolescents to offer insight into how we understand the connection between selfhood and abuse, particularly sexual abuse. Still, it would be too simplistic to call this a #MeToo novel. Choi doesn’t want to offer moral clarity to the reader and the characters certainly never find something so reassuring as closure for themselves. “We almost never know what we know until after we know it,” Karen reflects late in the novel. Even when just trying to trust yourself, it matters what perspective you take.
Trust Exercise is available from Henry Holt and Co. and can be purchased at most local bookstores.
Carr Harkrader is a writer and educator living in Chicago. He works for a nonprofit where he writes and designs online educational resources and content. Originally from North Carolina, he is often the slowest talker amongst any group of Northerners. He enjoys both crappy reality tv and literary fiction, while often not really grasping the meaning of either.