“The world is me and not me,” Karen says near the end, recalling the lesson of therapy, one she’s found “difficult to learn”. It’s the lesson failed by the abuser of power, the lesson the novel at its richest takes it on itself to parse. Choi does so with consummate wit, punchiness and feeling, and in the process shows how much we need our female novelists within the sea change of our current moment.
Susan Choi’s fifth book is a Russian doll of a novel: a tricky, clever and ultimately delightful set of narratives tucked inside one another in a complex take on truth and art, and the grey area in between. Its title alone implies a necessary leap into the unknown; what starts as a tale of two messed-up teenagers falling in love at an elite drama school under the eye of a dangerously charismatic teacher evolves into a knotty, self-aware tale of power and consent... Given the nature of their education, these teenagers are even more histrionic than most. But Choi captures wryly yet compassionately the emotional chaos of any adolescence. Feelings are so intense they’re physical, sexual encounters are grotesquely awkward, and her protagonists are simultaneously self-conscious and self-centred. Even as Sarah and David’s interactions play out as a soap opera for their year group, there’s more going on, including a fellow pupil, Karen, having an affair with another teacher, Martin.
Once in a while, a novel’s plot takes such an unexpected turn, breaking the unspoken contract between reader and writer, that it’s hard to know whether to fling the book at the wall in anger or proclaim it a brave attempt to push the boundaries of the form. Susan Choi’s fifth novel is such a book and while it remains unbattered, having made its way safely from my armchair to my shelves, I’m not convinced that it succeeds in its valiant efforts... It’s a bold and original way to create a work of fiction but it’s difficult not to feel cheated by the result. As readers, we invest in characters and story, agreeing to suspend our disbelief as a narrative draws us into unexpected places. We rely on the fact that in the mysterious world of the imagination, everything we’ve read so far is true. If these covenants are tossed aside, then it’s hard not to ask whether we’ve wasted our time. Perhaps the title itself is meant in an ironic sense but reading a novel is a sort of trust exercise in itself, the trust that the reader has in the writer to convince us that something that never happened actually did, and when our faith in the story is betrayed, the novel itself becomes damaged. Choi is a talented writer, her paragraphs filled with dense sentences that capture every nuance of her characters’ lives and she is to be applauded for surprising the reader with her twists and turns even if, for this reader, her innovations do not entirely succeed.
To read the first hundred-odd pages is to find yourself in a vividly depicted, but ultimately fairly straightforward tale of teenage turbulence... Choi’s prose is damp with tears and sweat, bruised with hurt and lust, sprinkled with sugar, salt and e-numbers. Hormones practically drip off the page... Then, suddenly and without warning, Choi executes a bravura bait-and-switch, after which everything changes. The entire structure of the novel folds in on itself like a piece of origami, and what emerges is something sharp-edged and prickly: a narrative propelled by white-hot rage and the desire for revenge... To employ Trust Exercise as a #MeToo novel would be to do this challenging, mercurial work a disservice. Although it resonates with the contemporary moment, its genesis clearly lies in Choi’s back catalogue.
Choi writes about teenage obsession well, capturing the mayfly life span of young friendships and alliances. She successfully exhorts the reader to remember the expansiveness of adolescence, in which a year can be crushed into a morning and emotion is “packed like gunpowder into the barrel”... Yet the book is hard to fall for. It wants to mess with your expectations, to whip the rug from under your feet. Some readers will find its forays into metafiction tedious or navel-gazing; I did. This is a novel about trust: the testing of it, the straining of it, the blowback that can ensue when trust is severed. Nothing, Choi indicates somewhat laboriously, should be taken at face value, least of all the fevered stories we tell ourselves about our teenage years.
It’s the Eighties and teenagers David and Sarah are students in love (and lust) at a prestigious U.S. performing arts school.
It’s an already febrile atmosphere, dense with a dangerous emotional intensity that Choi expertly conveys...
The second act, which takes places 20 years later, shifts the spotlight and calls into question all that has gone before.
If that sounds annoying, it isn’t — Choi might be tricksy, but she’s also deadly serious in her pursuit of timely, MeToo-era themes including the misuse of power and the effects of abuse. Taut, distinctive and deeply unsettling.