The first part of Susan Choi’s sharp, wily new novel, Trust Exercise, could come from any book in an average year’s crop of literary fiction. It’s intently focused on the volatile and often agonizing inner life of Sarah, its teenaged central character; it’s written in a slightly overripe style (“They needed distance to give them fresh darkness”), seemingly devoted to getting the turmoil of adolescence “right.” “Remember the impossible eventfulness of time, transformation and emotion packed like gunpowder into the barrel,” its omniscient narrator exhorts the reader. “Remember the dilation and diffusion, the years within days.” Like so many literary novels, it’s even apparently autobiographical; Choi, like her characters, attended a performing arts high school in 1980s Houston, although the city isn’t named in the novel.
Sarah feels a magnetic attraction to her classmate David that, over their 15th summer, kindles into an affair. But then their sophomore year starts, there’s the near-obligatory scene in which Sarah suddenly realizes that she no longer has anything in common with the girl who was once her best friend, and somehow her romance with David goes off the rails. They’ve got a charismatic theater teacher who prods the miserable pair to channel all this drama into Art, and a troupe of British students who arrive to perform a scandalous production of Candide. Sarah is miserable, an outcast, her torments operatic. The novel’s parameters are humid and claustrophobic, dripping with sex. Of her spurned former friend, Sarah thinks, “Joelle’s crotch, encased in her jeans, trails an olfactory banner like some sort of sticky night flower to inflame jungle bats.” Despite their estrangement, Sarah and David fuck desperately in a deserted hallway at school, like characters out of the book Sarah carries around everywhere but never actually reads, Tropic of Cancer.
Trust Exercise seems to be about the incendiary, ravenous nature of first love, nascent artistic ambition, hero worship—the students all yearn for the approval of Mr. Kingsley, the glamorously gay teacher who has them do weird exercises with names like “Ego Reconstruction/Deconstruction” and exerts an intrusive influence over their private lives. Every relationship in the novel is a sweaty, muscular knot in which pleasure segues seamlessly into cramp. Sex, both ambient and explicit (“the hot slippery fit is accomplished”), is the blossoming of all these entanglements, the point of things, their essence, the truth.
Not so fast, the novel’s second part commands. Here is where Trust Exercise busts out of its coming-of-age shell and becomes a stranger and far more marvelous creature. It is narrated, in an unstable fusion of the third- and first-person, by “Karen,” a character who plays a thankless supporting role in the first part. The first part, it turns out, is a novel published by “Sarah,” and “Karen” now, a decade or so later, stands outside a bookstore in L.A., preparing to confront her old friend about the version of their story she’s told. The steaminess of Sarah’s novel is a kind of camouflage, all that sex just a diversion from … what? Karen plans to tell the reader, but she’s going to take her time.
Spoiler-ish as this summary may sound, it seems a necessary spur to get readers unfamiliar with Choi’s work through the novel’s unexceptional first lap. Choi has a history of fictionalizing historical figures, including Patty Hearst and Wen Ho Lee. She knows well that the simplest story based on real lives is full of traps and misdirection. Karen divebombs Trust Exercise much as the fiendish Amy Dunne crashes into Gone Girl, laying waste to the fake, conventional narrative she’s constructed to punish her cheating husband. The first part of Trust Exercise, the reader may realize, is just a bit bad, with a foggy center you almost don’t notice thanks to the bogus frankness of the sex scenes. The reasons for Sarah and David’s breakup don’t ring true; Sarah’s ostracism, the hostility her classmates feel toward her as she sulks punkily at the margins in her Doc Martens and ripped fishnet stockings, seems undermotivated. But Karen knows what really happened.
About a hundred times more interesting than “Sad Sarah” with “her Solemn Notebook,” Karen brims with a fury that is as precise as Sarah’s emotional maundering is vague. She can articulate the significance of the name Sarah has given the character based on her to a point so sharp, it’s lethal: “ ‘Karen’ is a yearbook name, filler, a girl with a hairstyle like everyone else’s and a face you’ve forgotten.” Yet such is her old, bitter obsession with Sarah that she also can’t shake off the fictional identity her onetime friend has imposed on her: “My name isn’t and never was Karen, but I’ll be Karen.” Karen presents herself to the reader as an avenging angel on behalf of the truth, armed to the teeth with weaponized, therapy-derived insight. She can “analyze her feeling-states as clearly as if they were passing through prisms, that didn’t just make them visible but broke them down into all their components. Once you can do that, it’s a challenge to not view other people as blind.” Also working to her advantage is the fact that nobody pays enough attention to her to recognize what she’s up to. Instead of accusing Sarah, she fakes her way through a cordial reunion and manipulates the other woman into arranging a trip back to their hometown. Like the Count of Monte Cristo, Karen has a plan, and her purpose, like the count’s, is revenge.
By Susan Choi. Henry Holt.
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A good revenge plot makes for more compelling reading that a lyrical paean to teenage passion, but might it not also be a kind of distraction? As her scheme develops, one masterful maneuver at a time, Karen drops references to yet another story behind the melodrama of her sophomore year. She is more truthful than Sarah, perhaps, but not nearly as forthright as she claims to be. She makes scathing observations about what she calls “the Elite Brotherhood of the Arts,” an informal authoritative body made up of men like Mr. Kingsley and the adult David, now a director of highbrow productions back home. “The idea of stardom, of honing your talent and unleashing it on the world, organized everything that we did,” Karen recalls of her high school years. But what Mr. Kingsley never told them “was that the Elite Brotherhood of the Arts organized the stardom.” Then, finally, Karen’s plot culminates in an action that throws the rest of her narrative into doubt.
“We were taught that a moment of intimacy had no meaning unless it was part of a show,” Karen observes of her years studying under Mr. Kingsley. Now she recognizes that the exercises he made them do “were a kind of pornography,” a way of feeding on the energy of their youth. They included the trust exercises of the novel’s title, a ritual familiar to anyone who’s ever been forced to bond at a retreat or in a rehearsal, in which one member of the group allows their body to fall backward, trusting that the other members will catch them. Each of the novel’s three parts (the third is a relatively short coda) concerns a woman who feels betrayed, her trust violated—but the locus of that betrayal, the truly guilty party, looks different to the reader than it does to the women themselves. The first time around, though, how can the reader know any better? Like the unanalyzed souls Karen pities for their lack of self-knowledge, the reader of Sarah’s “novel” is blind. What choice is there but to fall into her version of what happened? And what choice can there be, once we’ve heard another, if equally blinkered, version, than to recognize just how easily trust can be misplaced or abused—often right under our noses, and with nobody any the wiser?