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Trust Exercise has gained a fair amount of attention from critics because it is so meta-. The first half of the book turns out to be a novel based on real experience within a novel, and the next part of the book is another memoir by one of the people described in the first part, angry at how they were described by the first author, and angry about the past. The book ends with a shorter final part, this time told by an impersonal narrator, apparently the voice of truth, about two characters from the earlier story. It takes some working out how the three parts fit together, and it isn't clear that they do fit together.
Sophie Gilbert has written a wonderful discussion of it in The Atlantic, which covers a great deal about the meta-status of the work, its pushing of the limits of genre. Lara Feigel covers similar ground in The Guardian. A lot of reader reviews of the book announce decisively that they really hated the novel. It is certainly hard for the reader in trying to work out what is going on, being left with the option that it doesn't make ultimate sense, and that Susan Choi is making some point about truth and power that remains rather elusive.
One of the central questions in evaluating Trust Exercise is whether the first part is rich and interesting enough to stand a disruption and forced re-interpretation by the following parts. It is set in a high school for aspiring actors, in a rather anonymous area that critics suggest is modeled on Houston, Texas. There are many characters, but the main ones are 15-year-old Sarah and David, who are attracted to each other and end up having sex. All the young people are wrapped up in their feelings and relationships with each other, worried about friendships and popularity, as well as their own skills and success. This school seems to be relaxed in its boundaries, and the charismatic teacher Mr Kingsley puts his students through group exercises that get them to explore their own psyches, bearing them to each other. Readers may wonder whether these exercises push the limits too far, or whether they give the students extraordinary opportunities that few others get. Mr Kingsley also takes some students into his special relationships, and there are rumors that another teacher sometimes has sexual relationships with some students. Then there are some foreign visitors to the school, including adults who seem straightforwardly exploitative. To a large extent, the novel is an exploration of teenage character, self-conceptions, and sexuality, and how teachers become caught up in the students' development. So it is also about gender and power. There's even a fair emphasis on class and ethnicity. The first part of the book, the novel within a novel, does have a lot going on. It can stand alone as a novella.
The second and third parts are less rich and are more like gestures on the part of the author. They lack the subtlety of the first part. They are reminiscent of the painter who paints broad strokes over their own original painting, or even slashes that painting, as Titus Kaphar does in some of his work and does with one of his paintings at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. These are the parts that try the readers' patience. Choi's experimentation does seem angry and a little artless, making one wonder whether that was her intention.
The unabridged audiobook version of Trust Exercise is particularly well performed by Adina Verson, Jennifer Lim, and Suehyla El-Attar. There are sections describing acting exercises and performances which raise challenges, and they cope admirably with those.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.