In its three wildly different sections, Susan Choi’s latest work is concerned with, and engaged in, the practice of deception.
At first glance, the novel’s primary interest is the love story of Sarah and David, sophomores at CAPA (Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts), where, under the tutelage of the captivating, irreverent Mr. Kingsley, they engage in personal confrontations disguised as theater coursework. “Trust Exercise” has no condescension for its adolescent subjects, for the tenuousness of their friendships and the all-consuming nature of their sorrows; if anything, there is excessive devotion to the details of CAPA’s inner workings and the aspirations of peripheral characters.
The main stage, Choi writes, is “their cathedral.” CAPA itself is “meant to set apart, to break bonds that were better off broken, confined to childhood.”
A visiting acting troupe from England brings with it the potential for all manner of heartbreak at CAPA, and Choi leads her readers through a night of debauchery with the CAPA students, the English students and their chaperone, Martin, whose uninhibited manner portends trouble of some kind.
The novel delays the revelation of this particular trouble — Karen Wurtzel’s unplanned pregnancy — until well into the second section, which teems with other revelations: Sarah’s name isn’t really Sarah, nor is David’s name David; Mr. Kingsley is modeled on a teacher of a different name.
The first section of Choi’s novel is actually Sarah’s book; when the second section opens, Sarah is about to give a reading at a bookstore in Los Angeles.
Of the many intriguing ways Choi plays with voice, perspective and nomenclature, Karen’s section is the most striking. Karen stumbles into first-person narration and quickly backs out, shifting to third. After declaring that she is not Karen — noting, in fact, “[w]ith apologies to actual Karens,” that it’s “a yearbook name, filler, a girl with a hairstyle like everyone else’s and a face you’ve forgotten” — she takes up the mantle of “Karen,” gives “Sarah” back to Sarah, and decides not to clarify.
Choi moves from a novel-within-a-novel to a play-within-a-play — Martin’s play, directed by David, starring Karen, with Sarah backstage. Such a confluence is forced and unlikely, but the novel uses this overdetermined quality to its advantage. A melodramatic moment takes place, rightfully, on a stage.
The scant third section is the only one unburdened by layers of costume and disguise — at least in the name of art — but as 25-year-old Claire searches for her birth mother and seeks answers from a teacher named Robert Lord, the novel maintains its interest in the notions of roles, titles and names.
Choi gives the work a quality of restlessness, as if these characters pace, unable to stand still in their search for the unknowable.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Narrative, Glimmer Train, the Millions, Lenny Letter and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
By: Susan Choi.
Publisher: Henry Holt, 257 pages, $27.