I almost stopped reading “Trust Exercise”, by Susan Choi, about a third of the way into the novel, and I cannot tell you how glad I am that I didn’t. It’s an amazingly clever and psychologically astute novel.
The novel, purportedly written by a former student of a Performing Arts High School somewhere in The South, describes the lives and various dramas involving a number of students in said high school, who seem to be enrolled in this school as many are dropouts from other schools, and a few appear to have genuine talent. (All the students portrayed in the novel are studying theater, and the author’s singularly good at interweaving the emotional ups and downs of adolescence with the dynamics of acting). One great (white, male, gay) teacher dominates the theater department; he’s eccentric, a seeming sophisticate to the students, and the first married gay man any of them have met; he gives lots of after-production parties at his house, too.
Two students, David and Sarah, dominate the first section of the novel (Sarah will become the author of the novel itself–the first of many extremely clever tropes on the author’s part; she herself once attended a high school of performing arts). They begin a passionate love affair–you’ll be astonished at how much sex these kids are already having–fraught with psychological misunderstandings; the teacher tries to get these two to work out their honest feelings through theatrical techniques, such as The Trust Exercise, many of which are described in the novel with affection and humor by the author. I admit I found the daily dramas of the students a bit dull and repetitive; friendships form and break, heaps of tears and melodrama are the stuff of daily life, and the like–no doubt true to adolescence, indeed, but a bit of a strain on the reader.
And then this novel shifts perspectives, shifts narrators, and Sarah’s now thirty or so, signing copies of the novel she’s written about these high school days in a bookstore in LA, when one of the “characters” in the high school part of the book shows up at the book signing–in the novel, she’s come across badly–and the reader knows that some revenge is in store. The shift in perspective from Sarah’s high school days to Sarah the (ongoingly solipsistic/narcisstic) adult meeting the friend she’d betrayed in the novel makes for superb reading (the reader must remember that this shift from the “novel” to “real life” is all fiction, of course). Susan Choi, the author, is at her best as and when she shifts these perspectives, which she will do several times in the rest of the novel, and these shifts are what make this novel brilliant. Which version of “the truth” of the characters the reader chooses isn’t entirely the point, but the idea that someone upon whom a character in fiction is based coming back to confront the author/her former best friend in “real time” is managed exquisitely by Choi. “Karen”, the former friend/character brings Sarah news of David, her former love, who’s returned to the Southern town he grew up in (he a son of privilege) and becomes a younger, very straight version of the theater teacher in the high school (the author refers to these types as the “Brotherhood of The Arts”, people who become a kind of perennial “in” crowd of theater types–Choi’s takes on the affectations of these artsy adults is spot on and truly impressive).
A theater troupe from England, which arrived at the high school while everyone’s still a student, adds comic relief and a further measure of the poseur nature of acting /adolescence, and more sex to this often sex-saturated book; two of the male actors are houseguests of the theater teacher and his husband, and at one party at their house, when the teacher and husband are out at the opera, the students have a party and literally get caught going through these men’s sex toys–a wildly hilarious scene that Choi excels at when she’s in a funny frame of mind.
Of course, “Karen” lures “Sarah” back to the old home town for a production of a play written by the by now disgraced English actor/playwright, so that David and Sarah will cross paths once more (real life/theater/theater/real life) in a denouement that is hilarious and deadly serious concurrently. And Choi will switch narrators once again at the end, and we’ll meet a child of one of the students/actors who meets the original theater teacher , who turns out to be a horrid old creep and a sexual predator. Or does he? Where’s the fiction, who’s the narrator, which is the invented story, which the novel, what’s real life, what’s theater: Choi manages to raise these issues throughout “Trust Exercise”.
The novel raises all sorts of issues about art and life and truth and fiction and acting and its relationship to “reality” with wit and brilliance and beautiful writing. How much of “real” life is in any work of fiction or theater runs like a thread throughout this novel, and is actually its dominant theme. Choi has written an astonishingly fine and clever novel that is far more serious and complex than it seems to be when you start reading it, so I hope that others who start it and get a tad bored with the adolescent antics early on will keep reading, as what follows is superb literature.