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.”