The Drama of the Gifted Children

Trust Exercise: A Novel Susan Choi. Henry Holt and Co.. Hardcover, 272 pages. $27

Fifty pages into this novel—Susan Choi’s fifth—I was ready to write about it. I understood its design and I admired its execution. So let’s just start there—with what I knew. Two fifteen-year-olds, Sarah and David, attend a prestigious arts school, the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts (CAPA). Neither can drive, but both can have sex. They fall in love, though this is probably not the right word for what they experience. Their love is colossal. Monstrous. Steamy and feral. They are kids entrained by desire into appearing older and more savvy than they are.

He looked alien to her, unhandsome, though this quibble peeped faintly at her from beneath the hard weight of her lust. The lust in its turn was eclipsed by another and unprecedented emotion, an onrush of sad tenderness, as if the man he would be, full of unguessed-at darkness and weakness, had for a brief instant shown through the boy.

It is the early ’80s. CAPA and its esteemed faculty are teaching Sarah, David, and their assemblage of friends how to act—in this case, how to be. Among the faculty is Mr. Kingsley, a prime mover for the school and the kids, who mobilizes Sarah and David’s rapport for the betterment of the class, himself, or both. There are trust exercises. Repetition—the Meisner Technique—in which students take note of each other, voice their notes, and repeat. Observe, articulate, repeat. Dispense with pretense; embrace the spontaneity of the real. I liked this novel. You liked this novel. I liked this novel.

The atmosphere of these early pages is ripe, and the body is uppermost. Teenagers!

Joelle, precociously fleshy and pungent, so obliviously manifests the carnal that Sarah’s own self-conscious carnality becomes disgusting to her, along with her own flesh, her own scent. Joelle’s enormous breasts are heavily freckled, their trapped clefts and creases are constantly sweaty; Joelle’s crotch, encased in her jeans, trails an olfactory banner like some sort of sticky night flower to inflame jungle bats.

And so it goes, as Choi documents with flair what happens to these kids over the course of the school year. There’s almost an anthropological component here, a David Attenborough–like pleasure in looking at this strange species from afar, as they eat their Funyuns and SweeTarts, shoplifting some of it but always throwing the wrappers in the garbage. As they purport to know everything about each other, even as they know nothing. What a strange and marvelous lot.

It might bear mention that it is pretty difficult to write about teenagers—especially young teenagers—and expect an adult readership to care. The melodrama. The histrionics. The solipsism, which will seem especially galling in these apocalyptic times. For an adult readership, teen stories usually come off as nostalgic at best, banal at worst. How many novels can you think of that deliver a teenager with sufficient tenacity and aplomb to make her interesting? Five? I tend to like young characters when they’re able to offer up a different perspective on well-trodden terrain. A four-year-old who sees the Holocaust from the knees down. A thirteen-year-old whose menses syncs up with the destruction of Hiroshima. But a bunch of fifteen-year-olds in thrall to dramas of their own devising? Only an exceptionally good writer with a surfeit of guile and guts will be able to pull that off. Which makes the first half of Trust Exercise a feat in its own right.

And yet, something about these early pages felt off. The plotlines that never got going. The red herrings. The unrelenting fury of Sarah and David’s relationship as it implodes silently. The uniform intensity in which nothing is modulated. For instance: “The force of the wind as Karen’s car speeds along isolates Sarah in the back seat, her tornado of hair intermittently blinding and gagging her.”

Blinding and gagging. What will be left to say should Sarah actually be blinded and gagged? From a writer’s point of view, if you want to render with fidelity an especially profane snatch of dialogue you overheard on the subway, you don’t transcribe it verbatim. You stylize it so that in dropping much of the profanity, you actually capture just how profane it was. I am paraphrasing an argument in Douglas Bauer’s excellent chapter on dialogue in his book The Stuff of Fiction, but it applies equally to, for instance, rendering the molten-hot inner life of a teenager. You calibrate tone; you turn the volume up and down. Which is all to say: I expected a sentence maker of Choi’s caliber—and she is first-rate—to know something was off.

Which, it turns out, she did.

Derek Ridgers, Stoke Newington (detail), 1981, silver bromide print, dimensions variable.

Vladimir Nabokov famously likened his characters to galley slaves. They do what he wants. Choi’s relationship to narrative is similar; she is in complete control. Everything is by design. If the executing of this environment of teenagers seems even slightly dubious, it’s because Choi wants it to be.

Which brings me back to my initial observation re: what this novel was about. I thought I knew, but I had no idea.

Unfortunately, to engage with Trust Exercise’s second half, which means engaging with its actual project, is to disclose what that project is, which I cannot do without ruining its power of effect. So I will dance around it. Dance with me.

Sarah’s and David’s adult selves haunt the novel’s early pages from the wings, so it’s not a huge surprise to encounter these adult selves later. They both end up in the arts. They have a complicated relationship to their past. And their story gets told by someone else. Sort of. Consider the latter half of the novel full of new perspectives on the material we’ve just lived through. The heat gets turned off, and in its place: analysis, in the guise of an adult voice that is shrewd and tempered—essentially the opposite of what we’d gotten comfortable with. What once flew in the rarefied air of teen feeling plummets into the dark, petty, and mean streets of adulthood. If nothing else, this new voice is testament to Choi’s facility with voice—she can do it all.

In the second half, vantage becomes an issue—who’s telling this story, anyway? Likewise, new characters emerge as loci of pain and vectors for Choi’s thematic concerns. To what degree can we let ourselves be known? To what degree do we permit ourselves to believe we know each other? These are some of the questions that come up as the novel takes a closer look at just what transpired that sophomore year so long ago, but which fated so many lives to veer in the directions they did.

If these characters as we meet them now are less introspective than they could have been, it’s because the novel does the introspecting for them. It is self-aware. And involuted—less in the sense of being abstruse than of being turned in on itself to have a closer look.

This novel is bold.

This novel is bold.

This novel is bold?

It is. And just by reemphasizing some parts over others, the novel gives us a different way to think about what we’ve learned so far. Just what did happen?

Well, there were the English People—a performing troupe from a high school in Bournemouth—who tangle enough with Sarah and her friend Karen to warrant pages of the troupe’s chaperone and star engaged in simian banter. Why?

There is a sexy and revolting scene (Choi is a master at depicting how mutually exclusive feelings often coexist) between Sarah and her new, albeit temporary, love interest from the English troupe:

He didn’t touch her so much as he yanked, poked, jabbed, squeezed as if her body were some sort of toy—and yet she heard herself, a rising note of protest or a siren of warning, “Noooo, noooo, noooo.” And the horrible pleasure, pushing outward from her like a flower of flesh with great muscular petals like tongues, in its enormous agonizing opening so overpowered her she could not even feel his “willy,” or any other part of him anywhere in or near her, as if he’d shrunk to a speck and been swept out to sea on the flood of her unwanted pleasure.

Jesus.

There is innuendo and insinuation and a hint of the sinister that gets explored more aggressively as the novel proceeds. Trust and, by extension, consent are not exercises anymore. Turns out they never were.

In the end, there’s no shortage of insight in this novel. Or pathos (there is a wonderful set piece with two girls on a plane that is heartbreaking in the extreme). But what we really have here is a meditation on trust. Trust between people in a power dynamic, but also, importantly, trust between reader and narrative. How much can we trust what we’re being told by this novel? How much can we trust what we’re being told by anyone?

In sum, this novel is not as it seems.

Now, look: There’s always someone crying “gimmick” at a writer who departs from tradition. But what distinguishes gimmick from strategy depends on how necessary that strategy is for prosecuting a work of art’s central argument. In this novel, it’s necessary. Choi has us acquiesce, with reservation, to her design. And then she works us over. Not everyone likes to be worked over. But I do.

Fiona Maazel is the author of the novels A Little More Human (2017), Woke Up Lonely (2013; both Graywolf), and Last Last Chance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).