The affair between Sarah and David in Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise begins long before they touch each other. They’re both 15, freshmen at the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts (CAPA), an elite institution for teenagers who show early promise as performers. The school is special, the students are special, and the energy between Sarah and David is special too, so much so that their relationship has its own prologue. They’re not a couple, yet, but everyone around them understands that they will be. They live, Choi writes, “with exclusive reference to each other,” and they’re “viewed as an unspoken duo by everyone else.” The fantasy of Sarah and David prefaces the reality; the story of the two of them is tacitly accepted before it begins.
This is how Choi ushers readers into her story—by introducing two characters and sketching out, in quick but meaningful flashes, the history that has brought them to this moment. And this is how Sarah, David, and their CAPA co-students live, too, in arcs and acts that are consciously theatrical. Some combination of their immersive dramatic education, their cultural touchstones, and their emotional plasticity as teenagers has brought them to a shared experience of the world as a malleable kind of fiction, where truth and art blend into a heady, addictive brew. Their feelings in reality inform their work onstage. Their lessons at school lead them to project heightened, histrionic scenes onto their real life. “They were all children who had previously failed to fit in,” Choi writes, “or had failed, to the point of acute misery, to feel satisfied, and they had seized on creative impulse in the hope of salvation.”
One fateful day after the summer in which Sarah and David actually begin sleeping together, David walks into class with a gift for Sarah, “striding through the big double doors, in fact bouncing, in fact funny-walking from lightness of heart because he was finally stepping onstage in the role of her boyfriend.” But the public nature of his devotion unsettles her, as he stands “flanked by a dozen of their classmates, who clung to his charisma like lint.” To David, love is a declaration. To Sarah, it’s a shared secret. Their polarized interpretations of their relationship, based on narratives that have built throughout their earlier life, precipitate a rupture between them that Sarah will try—and fail—to comprehend for the rest of her story.
Which is, it turns out, shorter than it seems. Midway through Trust Exercise, Choi reveals that the first half of the book is a story within a story written by an adult Sarah (who’s not actually called Sarah), being read now by an ancillary character named Karen (who’s not actually called Karen). Quickly, lethally, “Karen” runs through the inaccuracies and fudges in Sarah’s story, the composite characters and acts of artistic license—not to mention the abuses of power that Sarah has revised and sanitized. “The dictionary tells us that fiction is literature in the form of prose that describes imaginary events and people, is invention or fabrication, as opposed to fact,” Karen thinks. In that case, then, what is she reading? What are we?
Trust Exercise is an elaborate trick; it’s a meta work of construction and deconstruction, building a persuasive fictional world and then showing you the girders, the scaffolding underneath, and how it’s all been welded together. It’s also a work that lives in the gray area between art and reality: the space where alchemy happens. Real life bleeds into fiction, of course it does—Choi, who attended a performing-arts school herself in Houston in the 1980s (the place and the time where Trust Exercise appears to be set), has presumably drawn upon some of her own experiences in writing the book, even if only superficial ones. For the people whose ordinary lives are unceremoniously exposed, autopsied, and resurrected as amalgams for the purposes of creation, Choi seems to own, that process could easily feel like a violation.
But what Trust Exercise details, too, is the osmosis happening in the other direction. The students in Choi’s story shape their identity and their imagination around art, letting its colors seep onto their blank pages.
The first half of Trust Exercise, Sarah’s part, features a charismatic teacher named Mr. Kingsley, who slides “into the room like a knife” the first time he appears. The simile suggests that some kind of mark, trauma, or wound is about to be inflicted, and indeed Mr. Kingsley dissects the students in his class with surgical proficiency. In the Black Box, the sacred space where the theater students congregate, Mr. Kingsley has them participate in trust exercises—activities familiar to anyone who’s ever been on a corporate retreat, or in a cult. “Some involved talking and resembled group therapy,” Sarah recalls. “Some required silence, blindfolds, falling backward off tables or ladders and into the latticework of classmates’ arms.”
Returning as sophomores, the students are permitted to take a more advanced class, one Mr. Kingsley calls Ego Reconstruction, and which requires a foundation of Ego Deconstruction. As the students sit in a circle, Mr. Kingsley asks them questions intended to whittle them down to the core of their tender self, so they can start the process of authentic rebuilding. (Or something—Mr. Kingsley, if it isn’t yet clear, is possibly a charlatan, a tiny dictator among the acolytes wowed by his unconventional methods, his charisma, and his status as a member of the original cast of Cabaret.) In one exercise, he pitches the room into darkness and demands that the students identify one another by touch. The energy between Sarah and David—their potent chemistry and their acute heartbreak—is irresistible to Mr. Kingsley.
And yet the process, it seems to Sarah, is a lie. After one student, Joelle, is “stripped bare, her essence exposed” by Mr. Kingsley’s machinations, Sarah sees the “truth” of Joelle in front of her. But she also understands that “at this moment … there’s a story unfolding into which [their] true feelings don’t fit.” Acting, to Sarah, seems to require throttling her true emotions in order to have access to them at a specified time. It is, she deduces, “fidelity to authentic emotion, under imagined circumstances.” If Sarah can’t quite sense it, the reader can—Mr. Kingsley is in some ways breaking his students down so he can craft their component elements into something else; he’s directing their lives in ways that please him, as if they’re fictional characters instead of hormonal, impulsive teenagers. Only Sarah and David resist him, an act of rebellion that seals their fate in his class.
The layers in Trust Exercise are so profuse that trying to perceive them all can feel dizzying. Sarah, in the latter half of the book, is Mr. Kingsley, cutting characters out and re-gluing them in an act of literary decoupage. But so is Susan Choi. The truth of what happened at CAPA, the authentic experience, has been chopped up and reconstituted so that a different kind of truth emerges, one shaded and delineated by the author’s own experiences. “Writing fiction is like dreaming,” Choi writes in an author’s note at the end of the novel. “The recognizable and the unthinkable, the mundane and the monstrous, coalesce in the least predictable ways, in the end turning into something entirely unlike real life, and yet hopefully relevant in some way to our shared human life.”
Last weekend, after I read Trust Exercise but before I started writing about it, I ran into someone I knew from school, someone else who’d studied drama, and we talked about our shared experiences, and about that teacher. Talk to theater kids, music kids, art kids, and you will often hear about that teacher. Most educators work within the realm of fact, imparting information and assessing the ability to retain it. Artistic education is different. Some teachers interpret and posture themselves as stewards of their charges’ very creative souls, and some even go on to betray the trust that role engenders.
Karen, in Trust Exercise, recalls an event that happened to her. “She knows she’s not a special kind of victim, for having gotten shown the ropes by a much older man who, it turned out, did not care much about her. She knows this is perfectly common; just look at the stories/plays/movies about it.” Look, indeed, at Kate Walbert’s 2018 novel, His Favorites, about an English teacher who manipulates a student into a sexual relationship at an elite boarding school, and her attempts to shake not only her sense of trauma, but also how his teaching methods contoured the very ways in which her brain operates. Ann Beattie’s recent novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck even explores how non-abusive educators can imprint on their students’ psyche, telling the story of a manipulative philosophy teacher whose methods seem to doom one student to a life of relentless introspection.
Trust Exercise’s Karen section—for want of better phrasing—is a striking piece of work, one that exposes the fictions of Sarah’s story while engineering its own. Karen is furious. Karen is aggrieved. Sarah has taken a moment and a series of events that Karen has discussed in therapy and analyzed down to the nuanced meaning of words themselves (“by ‘dazzling’ we mean extremely impressive, beautiful, or skillful, and we also mean so bright as to cause temporary blindness”) and distorted them. Karen, in the 14 years since CAPA, has reconstructed herself, training as a dancer in a willful antidote to the wishy-washy psychological work of theater class. “True arts require discipline,” Karen thinks, “they require that you sculpt muscle and bind it to bone.” Sarah’s story destabilizes Karen’s new narrative.
And so Karen creates a new one. She devises a means of revenge that positions her as the architect of events, for the first time. She puts herself in Mr. Kingsley’s role, in Sarah’s role, in Choi’s role. She creates a simulacrum of a work of art, something that exposes the lie at the heart of her education—the idea that a performance of something can be as profound as the reality of it. And Choi, for her part, adds another layer to her work—a fictional play with “real” events inside a fictional narrative inside another work of fiction. Then she upends things again, in a final section suggesting that there were pieces within this world that neither Sarah nor Karen has honestly addressed. Sarah, Karen suspects, is also angry, and so she “inflicts an unspeakable wound, a strange sort of revenge.” Karen, at this point, is not a reliable narrator either.
And so what we’re left with, in the end, is fragments of testimony, each colored by its own particular kind of trauma, its own distorted perspective. And yet it’s possible to see all these elements independently and take away some kind of abiding reality that supersedes them all. Sarah, Karen thinks, “tells this story to reveal a hidden truth—or to hide the truth under a plausible falsehood, scrambling history unrecognizable with the logic of dream.” It’s a mission statement that’s eerily similar to the one Choi espouses in her author’s note: the intention of jumbling and distorting real things so that we can see them, somehow, clearly.