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Book review

Trust Exercise. Susan Choi (2019)

*Trust Exercise* squanders the potential of Part One’s promising narrative about ambition, love, and sexual power politics with Part Two’s dreary postmodern writerly devices.

I’ve grown up reading books written, mostly, two hundred to two thousand years ago. In my mid-20s I decided to read more contemporary writing. Widening the scope of my reading has been a mixed experience. I’ve discovered intricately-crafted stories, characters movingly flawed and suffering in stifling social settings, and novels that engage meaningfully with philosophy and psychology. I’ve also encountered novels that left me cold – novels with plots perfunctory or unfinished, novels peopled with characters about whom the writer herself doesn’t seem to care, novels presumably meant to sink or float on the merit of clever, hollow writerly devices.

Trust Exercise, critically acclaimed, disappointed me.

Trust Exercise is set in the Citywide Academy of the Performing Arts (CAPA), in an unnamed southern US city: a city hot, big, and culturally backwards. The novel has no chapters, only long subsections, each also titled ‘Trust Exercise.’ In Part One, Sarah and David, 14-year-old classmates at CAPA, play out a love-affair that lasts only a year, but casts a long shadow, darkening the rest of their lives – and a broad shadow, wordlessly affecting their peers and teachers.

This is a love-affair intended to be Legendary: but, in reality, it’s developed less in its own substance, via the actions and emotions of the principals – than by repeatedly emphasising the shadows it casts on others. Here’s how David strikes Sarah: “He looked alien to her, unhandsome, though this quibble peeped faintly at her from beneath the hard weight of her lust. The lust in its turn was eclipsed by another and unprecedented emotion, an onrush of sad tenderness, as if the man he would be, full of unguessed-at darkness and weakness, had for a brief instant shown through the boy.” Interesting feelings – pity they aren’t dramatised.

Sarah and David are surrounded by an adequately colourful cast of supporting characters. Classmate Joelle is lively, experienced with sex and drugs, and stupid. Classmate Manny hides in the woodwork until, one fine day during casting for the school’s next play, he excites his mates to an orgy of cheering and tears by a virtuoso singing performance. Teacher Mr. Kingsley is an urbane, witty homosexual who has an affair with a student, and intrudes unapologetically and publicly in his other students’ private lives – an interference they actively welcome. Choi does a good job creating the claustrophobic environment of a theatre-school: absorbing its students’ energies dawn to dusk, offering them an oasis of culture in a city which they otherwise can’t wait to escape.

The first 132 pages of this 259-page book jog along at a deliberate pace. There’s not much momentum, but there’s plenty of foreshadowing about characters’ motivations, and adequate colour.

In the second half of Trust Exercise, the narrative shifts. In time: approximately 15 years forwards. In narrator: Part One was in third-person limited, following Sarah; Part Two shifts between (i) Karen (a minor character in Part One) narrating in first-person, and (ii) third-person limited: again following mostly Karen, but occasionally stalking other characters. And in genre: from Part One’s competent if unremarkable narrative – to a postmodern jumble. Part Two’s third-person narrator observes: “P132 is where, for Karen, Susan’s book [i.e. what we’ve been reading as Trust Exercise] ended.”

So: the author, Choi, knows that for many readers, the end of Part One is the end of a semi-interesting book. As long as the author knows – I, the reader, should presumably feel reassured.

What, exactly, does Part Two contain? Repeated and repetitive fourth-wall breachings, generally via two preoccupations:

(i) Disparaging remarks on the craft of writing.

“A given person’s facility with words,” declares Choi, “Is not in fact their knack, gift, or talent; it only means they own a thesaurus and a dictionary.” This contemptuous statement is patently untrue: linguistic facility is not equivalent to lexicon access. But, clearly, this is in fact what Choi herself believes about writing. The language of Trust Exercise ranges from passable to bad: “No part of her body did not want to be cleansed.” “A few blocks away were railroad tracks on the literal wrong side of which the whole area sat; on the right side, a few miles away across total wasteland, you could see the tidy shape of downtown sticking up, where the traffic lights worked.” As occasional relief from this colourless language, Choi throws in a slightly unusual word: which sticks out like a sore thumb, making you suspect – even before her snide observation/prescription in Part Two – that a lexicon has been consulted at random.

Part Two defers resuming the narrative – and keeps interrupting it – with a further series of dreary writerly reflections: “The dictionary tells us that fiction is literature in the form of prose… that the imaginary exists only in the imagination… that what exists only in imagination does not exist in reality.”

What has any of this have to do with the story? Nothing. This is Post-Modernism, ultra-super-uber self-conscious.

(ii) The second of the two main forms assumed by Part Two’s fourth-wall breachings is Choi dissecting Part One’s characters.

If Part One was Susan’s third-person narrative situated in adolescence, then Part Two is Karen’s version of events in two time frames: the first overlapping with the timeframe of Susan’s narrative; the second set in the present (when Susan, Karen, and David are all thirty-year-olds). The idea of having a tertiary character from Part One (Karen) narrate the events of Part Two, then continue the narrative in the present day – though unoriginal as a device, would’ve potentially lent itself to an interesting story. But this isn’t what Choi does. What Choi does instead is to keep drawing the reader’s attention to this device of switching narrators midway: in order to inform us of the origin of all of Part One’s characters. Which of the characters was made up? Which ‘real-life’ (Part Two) character was split up to yield two ‘fake’ (Part One) characters?

As writer and reader, I don’t care.

Every writer creates characters and situations from a combination of reality and fantasy. The details of what real-life person is processed into what fictional character, and how, and why – have limited academic interest. I wouldn’t be interested in that level of detail about even my favourite books – never mind Trust Exercise.

As a reader, I assume that some real-life material has been transformed into some fiction. What interests me is the product – or, alternatively, not in novel form, a well-articulated, sincere description of this alchemical process. What Choi does, instead, is to keep interrupting her narrative to point out that her characters are fictitious. But it’s in Part Two of the same novel that she’s telling us this: so maybe this claim is what’s fictitious?

Again, I don’t care. Just tell me a good story.

If you really believe that all there is to writing is dictionary-flipping – then why write at all? Perhaps because you believe that readers will swallow anything you toss before them. Because it’s you.

Trust Exercise offers the occasional interesting insight: though even these tend to be told rather than shown. “He was acting, wanting direction but not getting it. This was the strange quality that hung around his handsomeness, a blur or a warp where he seemed to be lagging behind his own actions and wondering how they had gone.” “Unlike most of us I’d been raised in a religious belief system but even I didn’t recognise at that age that CAPA stardom was also a belief system, and not just the way that life was. David and Sarah’s different stardom gave the clue to some alternate universe where everything was reversed, and instead of discovery and love and success were distortion, disconnection, and failure.”

I was excited to read Trust Exercise. Its setting, a theatre-school, is totally unfamiliar to me. I did discover a few interesting things about how theatre is taught. The title’s ‘trust exercise’ refers to Mr. Kingsley making his students crawl around in a darkened room, forced to rely on touch and smell. I glimpsed the soul-sapping competitiveness of theatre-students waiting to be cast in school productions, most of them accepting over the years that they’re not onstage material. Part One offers a narrative slow-moving, but accumulating ominousness. Part Two entirely squanders this potential by a descent into cynical postmodern self-reflection.

I have trouble reading postmodern novels in general. Interpret my review of Trust Exercise accordingly.

Read Trust Exercise here. Buy a Kindle copy to save paper.

END

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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