Set in the early 1980s, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise (Henry Holt & Co.) is an artful and bold novel that elasticizes form and content. The plot centers on a love affair between Sarah and David, students at an elite school for the performing arts in an unnamed city. As in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a charismatic teacher anoints a small group of students as his followers, thereby creating a clandestine—but fleeting—sect. The teacher in Choi’s universe is named Mr. Kingsley, and for a time, he takes a keen interest in the young lovers. As the narrator observes retrospectively, Sarah and David achieve a “different kind of stardom” through their relationship and the attention it attracts.

The titular “trust exercises” play out in numerous ways on the page and in the plot. For one, Mr. Kingsley exhorts Sarah to confess her feelings to him, assenting to—and, therefore, trusting—her emotions. As he impresses upon his students, “Acting is fidelity to authentic emotion, under imagined circumstances.” Soon, we suspect that Mr. Kingsley is using Sarah’s trust in order to elicit a performance from her. Later in the narrative, Sarah and her friends violate Mr. Kingsley’s privacy, again breaching implicit codes of trust and responsibility.

The book includes startling observations about the insular and secretive, almost cult-like period of adolescence, what the narrator calls “[t]hese long days, this life conducted almost wholly away from their parents.” The madness of the teenage years is made even headier by the characters’ precocious talent and personal suffering as they reconcile themselves with class and racial differences and with the limitations of their promise. As Sarah and David later learn, they’re talented enough to win admission to this rarefied world, but not to shine.

Choi also plays with a reader’s trust in herself as the author and in fiction itself, inserting a tectonic shift at the midway point of the narrative that calls everything preceding it into question. Many reviewers have compared this to Lisa Halliday’s debut Asymmetry, although the writing here is wildly different from Halliday’s cool and pared-down prose. To my mind, Choi’s over-the-top, pyrotechnic style is closer to Lauren Groff’s.

Throughout, I was reminded of the urgency of the high school years, its twists, compressions of time and paucity of personal reflection. These are characters who act, not only on the stage but in their lives. Their friendships gel and disintegrate in an instant, and they hurtle themselves into love affairs and minor scandals.

Other recent experimental writers such as Rachel Cusk have stripped away narrative scaffolding and language as a challenge to artifice. Choi seems to me to be responding with an alternative: free-flowing writing that feels almost improvisational, less the comforts afforded by more traditional formats. With disquieting and unexpected shifts in point of view and a lack and chapter breaks, the reader is led on a thrilling chase after an impossible-to-predict story.

Trust Exercise is now available for purchase.

About Susan Choi

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.  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.  Her fifth novel is Trust Exercise (April 2019) and her first book for children is Camp Tiger (May 2019).  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.