Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Wednesday, November 28, 2018: Maximum Shelf: Trust Exercise

Henry Holt: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Henry Holt: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Henry Holt: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Henry Holt: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Trust Exercise

by Susan Choi

In this truly innovative novel, Pulitzer finalist Susan Choi challenges her characters--and the reader--with an elaborate trust exercise set at prestigious high school Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts (CAPA). CAPA teens compete for roles both onstage and off against the backdrop of 1980s Anytown, America. They envy their peers and idolize their drama teacher as they experience the life-shaping trials and tribulations of young adulthood.

Sarah and David are from different sides of the tracks. David's family is financially well off; they live in a gracious neighborhood of "chunky brick mansions" and have a coveted membership to the Jewish Community Center. David even has his own car. Sarah, on the other hand, lives with her mom in a "chintzy, labyrinthine apartment complex of many hundreds of two-story brick boxes, strewn about scores of algae-stained in-ground swimming pools." She's reduced to bumming rides from Joelle, a girl she pretends to like for the social benefits, while she works part-time at a bakery to save money for a car of her own.

Despite their differing socio-economic status, the teens find themselves caught up in a passionate love affair and, eventually, a bitter breakup. Thanks to Choi's expert rendering of the volatile power of first love, the audience can't help but recall the intensity of the emotions, the blindfolded, exhilarating ride of a wildly pulsing heart: "Remember the impossible eventfulness of time, transformation and emotion packed like gunpowder into the barrel. Remember the dilation and diffusion, the years within days. Theirs were endless; lives flowered and died before waking and noon." Of course, youth is heady in the moment, but perspective comes with age--a fact some CAPA kids will learn all too late.

The reader isn't the only observer of this intense connection between the pair. Joelle sees what's going on, but her thoughts and feelings are inconsequential to Sarah--a negligence that will go unconfronted until the girls grow into women. Other peers and, more importantly, their drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley, notice as well. Mr. Kingsley uses his students' vulnerability to his advantage. The charismatic, larger-than-life mentor everyone wants to please manipulates the young lovers for a theatrical activity he calls "Ego Deconstruction." Sarah plays into this heartless game because Mr. Kingsley does matter to her.

The drama of Sarah and David, as well as their classmates, comes to life on the stage of adolescence, directed by their idol. And for one act, Sarah lands the plum role--Kingsley's chosen one: "Her fellow students are loitering in the hallway outside in the hopes of obtaining what she's just received: his particular summons. Pride and humiliation strangely mingle their tastes in her mouth.... Pride she's been chosen, humiliation at what she presumes are the grounds for his choice. They all know the students with whom he is sometimes seen driving away, at lunchtime, in his olive Mercedes; whom he detains with no more than a look, as the rest of the class filters out of the room; behind whom he closes the door to his office at lunchtime. They're the Troubled students, the borderline ones, whose sufferings are eagerly whispered the lengths of the halls."

But Sarah's rise to stardom is short-lived, and the arrival of a contingent of British students and their teacher sends the kids of CAPA into a fresh drama, complete with new players, new lines and new costumes. The kids form capricious relationships, and Choi expertly probes the elicited emotions. She scrutinizes the influencing factors and their reverberations over the years to come.

She questions memory and consent, taking the powerful to task, giving voice to the forgotten and challenging preconceptions. And the reader is led along the propulsive narrative path, up the highest of highs and down the lowest of lows, then thrown off course when Choi twists Trust Exercise in unexpected, winding ways. Her inclusive approach to the stories of all the teens--rich, poor, stars and nobodies--traces their trajectories well into the future. And it's that vast scope that forces the audience to question everything they think they know about memory and how it's stored. "How many rooms house the past?" she challenges the observer to consider. "Even poor people's houses were flabby with space; they were just cheaply made."

Including a complex examination of reality versus fantasy, Choi encourages the reader to lay private memories next to the events of Trust Exercise, in order to compare the revelations of the plot with his or her own hard-earned insights into life. This trust exercise of Choi's construction will most likely challenge readers' relationships with their own histories. What will they see as a result? Probably not what they expected. --Jen Forbus

Holt, $27, hardcover, 272p., 9781250309884, April 9, 2019

Henry Holt: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Susan Choi: Creating for Solace

photo: Heather Weston
Susan Choi's first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction. Her second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and is being adapted into a film. Her third novel, A Person of Interest, was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2010 she was named the inaugural recipient of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award. Her fourth novel, My Education, received a 2014 Lammy Award. Holt will publish her fifth novel, Trust Exercise, in April 2019, and her first book for children, Camp Tiger, will be released in May 2019. Choi is also a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. She teaches fiction writing at Yale and lives in Brooklyn.

In My Education, you said you wanted to write a book about being young and making mistakes. In Trust Exercise you've followed that idea but ventured even younger. What made you decide to explore the high school experience?

It wasn't my ancient memories of being a student but my more recent experiences of being a teacher that got me thinking about how radically our expectations of the student-teacher relationship have changed, over just a handful of decades. One sign of this is the proliferating number of misconduct charges against teachers, concerning events sometimes decades in the past. For some observers, charges like that invalidate themselves--if something happened way back then, these observers will say, why didn't the alleged victim come forward? The people who make such objections simply can't grasp the speed and the scope of the paradigm shift we're undergoing, regarding all relationships between people in disparate positions of power, the student-teacher relationship being just one.  And so it's both the shift itself, and the clashing values that shift has laid bare, that I wanted to explore in the novel.

What did you find most challenging about exploring those characters at that period in their lives?

Being true to the in-betweenness of that age--the really unique life situation of being both a child and an adult, of requiring both protection and freedom, of having the agency to make one's own decisions and at the same time operating at such a disadvantage, experience-wise, while making those decisions. When I was a teenager I truly felt myself to be capable of making choices that, when I look back on them now, horrify me. It's such a charged and ambiguous and important time of life, and yet so confusing that as a society we're constantly changing our minds about how to manage it, on behalf of the people actually living it. Witness not just our clashing laws--about when people can drink, serve in the military, drive cars, or consent to sex--but all our larger arguments about the very nature of adulthood, of childhood. I wanted to be clear, in the book, that there aren't bedrock answers to these questions.

Did your experience writing My Education help you write Trust Exercise?

Alas, no. Every time I start a novel it's as if I'd never written one before.

Prior to these two novels, you wrote historical fiction. How does writing the historical novels compare to these two?

Historical research is, for me, a real crutch; I lean on it for plot developments while I'm writing, and for a pretext to procrastinate when I don't feel like writing. And so, in a lot of ways, the two novels for which I didn't do a lot of historical research were the hardest for me to write.

The drama teacher in Trust Exercise puts his students through "trust exercises" and you as the writer put your reader through trust exercises. Where did that come into the process of writing this book?

The question of reliability bubbled up out of the writing itself and sort of oozed its way all over the book. The real world also played a role. I was working on this book while teaching on the Yale campus in the fall of 2015 during historic campus turmoil; and then the fall of 2016 came along. It wasn't possible to write without thinking about the privilege inherent in any act of narration, the people silenced, and what it might look like if those people decided they were sick of not being heard.

You mentioned wanting to be an actress at one point in your youth. Did that influence your decision to feature a drama program in Trust Exercise?

My desire to be an actress lasted exactly long enough for me to audition for and somehow get into a performing arts high school which bears a superficial resemblance to the school in the book. Pretty much as soon as I got there I regretted it, because I'm way too self-conscious to ever be comfortable onstage.

We meet numerous characters throughout the novel, but two important females are Sarah and Karen. Would you say elements of yourself are in either, both, neither?

Elements of myself are in every single character I've ever written. Readers see superficial resemblances most readily, but it's the core stuff--the emotional logic--that always has to be mine, or I wouldn't know how to express it.

Your advice to fledgling writers is "Write to enjoy yourself, not to have a career." What do you enjoy about writing?

Having written. Ha ha--that's one of those quotes attributed to so many writers you can only conclude they've all said it. But, seriously--it's solacing for me to feel that I've made something other people might get something out of, and hopefully even enjoy.

In addition to Trust Exercise you also have a children's book coming out next year. What took you into writing for children?

I've wanted to write for children since I was a child--my first embarrassing efforts when I was around six were shameless rip-offs of my favorite books. But I never had a genuinely good idea for a kid's book, and still haven't.  The idea for Camp Tiger came from a dream my then-five-year-old shared with me.

And, finally, what's next for you?

I plan to lie on the couch and read other people's books for as long as possible. --Jen Forbus

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