Choi, Susan. Trust Exercise. Henry Holt, 2019.
Defined by the author as an exercise in dreaming, this winner of the National Book Award, to call this work a novel seems deceptive. That’s what Choi is – deceptive. Posing as love stories so well that the Library of Congress catalogs this work as such, the three sections of this work, the Trust Exercises, require the reader’s trust and their perception beyond the engaging tales Choi offers. Choi requires us to feel the cost of trust betrayed.
Trust Exercise #1 is easy to accept, we fall back into the arms of this story of David and Sarah, young love, first lust, the special drama high school, CAPA. Mr. Kingsley, the drama teacher, may be a little overwritten but we all have known too many of these to dismiss him as false. And, of course, this is a novel, so the reader must believe. The other students, Joelle, Manuel, Pammie, Karen, and Sarah are alive because we believe. “Acting is: fidelity to authentic emotion, under imagined circumstances” (48) and so we trust. But we get jolts (64) of an author’s voice to remind us of “truthful emotions in false circumstances” (66). But readers prefer the story, the beguiling story. In one exercise the students repeat a phrase, with varying emotion, intensity, meaning. So does Choi repeat with growing intensity the tune of youthful Eros until the ‘Month of the English’ and the performance of Candide. Choi repeats the sexual intensity until Sarah’s autonomy is lost in poor decisions, trust crushed, violated by power. Voltaire’s Candide discovering a disappointing, obscene, ugly world, retreats to the farm. Choi presses on.
Trust #2 opens by pulling the mask from the actor with a discussion of character naming. “I” arises and confronts the reader with the author of the first story. Karen, the narrator; Sarah the character. Choi continues mixing and deconstructing her characters within another plot in which, older Sarah takes revenge on Karen by orchestrating a play that maims Martin, the lecherous playwright. “I hadn’t broken the fourth wall for my own satisfaction…” Choi hints, poking the reader to pay attention; this is not just a fun ride. In her play within her play, there is violent revenge.
Trust #3 presents a therapeutic conversation between two “I”s before we rock back into the crib of story with Claire, a new name, “Claire means ‘clear’… (246)”. Candide was a bastard child, so is Claire. At the tribute for dead Robert Lord, a famous playwright, Claire flashes back to her visit to him. Convinced she is seeking the name of her mother, a former student. Lord’s response is to reject her, then lure her to his place and sexually assault her. Clair defends herself, but the reader now knows, maybe. Returning in time to Claire’s exit from Lord’s grand building in their first meeting, the reader realizes why names don’t matter, and do. “What did they name you, sweetheart?” asks Velva, the receptionist gatekeeper, her name a synonym for an exceptionally smooth vulva. (257)
Claire, Karen, Sarah, Joelle, Pammie, Manuel, all the children could carry the same name. As could the abusers. Choi tells who they are. Again and again. Three acts, three convincing stories deconstructed so to lay bare the wounds of youthful trauma, the annihilation of optimism, and rend apart the curtain, the reader’s desire to trust the story, yet keep a safe distance. Published in 1759 Candide was banned but continues to be read. Choi temps us to risk lifting the curtain to full recognition of the cost of emotional trust, to move beyond the story, to come up on the stage. She busts out the trope of the unreliable narrator, the novelty of autofiction, and the dazzle of bright lights to ask: “Are we still recognized if seen by the wrong eyes? (257)” If you see me on the stage, my own stage, am I myself?