If you’re in a book club, you should definitely read “Trust Exercise” by Susan Choi. Be prepared to disagree about it.
I’m not talking about a spirited disagreement about a character’s motivation or about the meaning of a subtle metaphor. I’m talking about some people in your book club may think one thing happened at the end of the book and others will think something else happened.
I won’t get into spoilers about “Trust Exercise,” an inventive novel that begins among the high school students of a borderline-abusive theater teacher and then time-jumps to their adult lives in its second and third sections. But I can safely say that the third section is both the briefest and the mindblowingest, taking a chain saw to what you’ve already read and leaving enough interpretive room for there to be competing theories about the identity of that section’s main character.
Much has been written about this, including one Irish Times review that suggests that the book cheats readers. I’d argue that it doesn’t cheat us and that, in fact, it places an enormous amount of faith in our ability to come to our own conclusions.
Of course, it can be fun for a book club to be in agreement, piling on an egregiously awful book (I may never have laughed harder than at our evisceration of Ruth Reichl’s “Delicious”) or piling up the praise for a novel everyone loves (we still talk about Ron Hansen’s elusive “Mariette in Ecstasy,” which we read decades ago). But, for my $26.99, the best book-club books are the ones where there’s room for smart people to disagree.
That can be books like Choi’s or Jeffrey Moore’s tricky “The Memory Artists,” a novel about perception that features hundreds of footnotes. Our discussion of it was wild because half of us read the footnotes, which reversed the meaning of the book, and half of us did not. As a result, some thought “Memory Artists” was sunny and optimistic and the others found it bleak and terrifying. And all of us were right.
It doesn’t have to be a new book, either. I hear “Tristram Shandy,” which I’ve never read, does something similar to “Memory Artists,” for instance. When we discussed Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” one member of my book club suggested that the events of the novel only existed in Victor Frankenstein’s drug-filled mind. (I loved the idea, even though I disagreed with it.) Less of a stretch is Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair,” a novel about romance and religion that deliberately offers lots of room for interpretation.
Those kinds of books have become easier to find in the age of Google; Goodreads even has a list called “Popular Open to Interpretation Books” because of course it does. But the truth is that most good literature offers room for the reader to figure things out for herself, if she wants to.
I also get that there are readers who prefer books whose meaning is crystal-clear. But, for me, hearing an interpretation that differs from mine is a big part of the fun of being in a book club, or any discussion about art — I once showed a group of strangers a beloved movie that I have seen at least a dozen times, “The Sweet Hereafter,” and was gobsmacked afterward by one person’s very reasonable theory about the main character.
Maybe that interpretation will occur to you, too? Before it was a great movie, “Sweet Here-after” was a great novel by Russell Banks and, if your book club chooses it, it’s filled with open-ended questions for you to disagree about.
Chris Hewitt is a critic at the Star Tribune.