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Trust Exercise: A Review

I’m curious about the current run on novels of teenage coming-of-age and how these novels aim to capture this contemporary #metoo moment. Anna Burns’ The Milkman captures the peculiar attentiveness of a late adolescent to the impasses of her daily life in a world that seems bent of gaslighting young women. In Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng has a young teenage girl narrate a family drama that captures the xenophobic class tensions of contemporary American life. In Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney dives into the details of friendship between women in their twenties trying to be friends and lovers before they really understand what motivates them (I guess reviewers thought this was a book about adultery — that seemed incidental to me). Asymmetry is a writerly coming of age story of a woman having a fling with a much older and more established writer. These are four of the last six novels I’ve read. Each of these stories is narrated by young girls and women early in their lives. The other two, Salvage the Bones — one girl’s account of the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina — and Euphoria – based on the life of Margaret Mead – are also novels narrated by girls or women about the central experiences that bring them into themselves.

Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is another novel narrated by a young girl. I’m almost at the point where I face a kind of dread when I begin a novel and realize it is narrated by a young girl or a young woman. What kind of angst and pain will be depicted in what follows? What insight will fail to protect this girl from the specific dangers that befall girls? This novel is no different.

Trust Exercise is a novel narrated by three different women at three different times. [SPOILERS: I am about to spoil some things that you might not want to know before you read it. I think that the experience of reading this novel contributes to its theme and so you should go read it and come back and read my take when you’re done.] The first is a high school student at a creative and performing arts high school describing her time in high school with an emotionally manipulative drama teacher, a boy whom she loves with whom she can’t quite make it work, and a foreign exchange group who take over the social scene. The teacher has the class do trust exercises drawing on personal information he knows about them in ways that expose their already sensitive and tender emotional selves. He gets close to students it seems to use this information in the trust exercises. The foreign exchange group includes two adult men who are definitely guilty of statutory rape and maybe guilty of further sexual assault against at least one but probably two girls including the narrator.

The second narrator is a woman friend of the first student writing ten years later after the first woman has written a novel of her experiences in high school. We learn from this narrator that the first narrator has not done justice to those events. The way the second narrator tells the story, what the “author” has not done justice to is this narrator’s role in the story. This narrator also tells of a drama production written by the older teacher in the foreign exchange group that brings them all back together, a drama production that seems to loosely reprise the events of their youth wherein an older man is guilty of some kind of abuse of a much younger girl. The second narrator finds a way to play the role of the much younger girl and in the course of things tells of how she became pregnant by the foreign exchange group’s older teacher and had a child that she gave up for adoption. At the play’s end, the second narrator’s character is supposed to shoot a blank at the old lech in a backroom showing his seemingly justified demise through shadows. But instead she shoots a real gun and she shoots it right in his crotch. That is the end of the second section.

The third section is narrated by a third woman, a young woman of 25. She is the child the second narrator gave up. Her adopted mother has died and she is looking for information about her biological mother. She only knows that her mother was a student at this school so she calls the drama teacher and meets with him. He continues to play out his emotional manipulation. It is very evident that this narrator is emotionally unsteady so it isn’t hard for her to be manipulated. He tells her little though he clearly knows about the situation. As she leaves the school, one of the people in the office expresses recognition and realizes her age. She goes to dinner at the drama teacher’s house and he forces himself upon her. She slips away, and that’s pretty much the end of the story.

Like I said, you should read the story yourself because the experience, like reading a Platonic dialogue, is important in itself, as I discuss here. I can tell you what I think Plato is trying to do, what he is trying to get us to think about, in the dialogue, but my telling you won’t get you to think about it the way that reading the dialogue would. This book is like that. This book is a trust exercise. But it is also an exercise in how difficult it is to tell the story of one’s own abuse. It’s a story of how easy it is to get the details wrong, to change the story because it is too much to tell all the details, to name precisely who and why and how it was so bad.

When you read the whole thing you realize that the drama teacher was clearly the one who got the second narrator pregnant. Reading the section of the first narrator I distinctly recall thinking that the whole last bit about the foreign exchange group seemed extra, beyond the story, about something other than what the story up to that point had been. But then you realize that indeed it was. You realize that the first narrator writes about the second narrator as a collection of other real people – something the second narrator takes great offense at – because the second narrator wasn’t the only one. You realize that the school was protecting the drama teacher because he was their fame and they continue to protect him long after his death. You realize that there might not even have been a foreign exchange group, but that projecting the perpetrator outside makes it easier to speak. You realize that the drama teacher wrote the play they were in. Then you wonder if the ending scene where the second narrator shoots him in the crotch is a fantasy and not what really happened. Because you realize you can’t quite tell what really happened from the novel. In fact, you worry, each of the separate narrators’ undoing seems to lie in their inability to tell what really happened. You worry that the third narrator is the biological daughter of the drama teacher and the second narrator and that he knew this and assaulted her anyway, and then you wonder who the trust exercise is really about.

You start off thinking that the first narrator is a problem. Then you feel this is confirmed by the second narrator who you think of as more reliable because she reveals the little lies of the first. The third narrator seems to have no pretense at all. She doesn’t even know the truths her story reveals. She seems trustworthy, but she seems most of all to point to the failed trust.

I was starting to wonder about the excavation of young women’s minds that so many recent novels pick away at. Why the young girl or young woman with her constant inner monologue and self-consciousness? Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about my college experience and I think that’s been making me recoil a bit from the reminder of the young woman’s mind full as it is of insight and expectation and hesitancy and self-doubt. It almost made me laugh to recognize my own resistance as capturing the recoil of this moment in our collective history when people wonder if #metoo has gone too far and if women can really be trusted. Trust exercise, indeed.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mick #

    I am confused. I did not come to the same conclusion. You say. “When you read the whole thing you realize that the drama teacher was clearly the one who got the second narrator pregnant.” Really? Then who was Martin? And why did Karen shoot him? If she shot the drama teacher he wouldn’t have been around to talk to Claire. I get that this novel wanted to stretch the confines of narration, but come one. Something has to be the real story. And reviews talk about a revealing of a great secret in the last scene. I did not see any reveal. Claire asks who the women was that she obviously looked like. Are we to think Sarah, instead of Karen? Is so, give us a hint!

    December 1, 2019
    • I think the point is that there are reasons that narrators change the story to protect themselves. We get a story of Karen saying she shot Martin. But should she be believed that it was Martin? It seems like there could be good reason to believe that the drama teacher was the one who was shot? Could she have shot him and he lived? I think the point is that it is difficult to get to the real story. I don’t have any more information than you do from reading the story. But I thought that it was clear that who the story was about was in question. And that Claire would have been the daughter of the woman the drama teacher got pregnant — Karen. I think it is pretty clear that both stories are contrived. But that doesn’t mean that the abuse didn’t happen. It just is hard to get to the real story that you are looking for. And the novel tries to show why it might be difficult to get to the real story — how the trauma, the lost of trust, makes it difficult to tell the real story.

      December 1, 2019
    • Sally Eastman #

      Karen shot Martin in the balls. She said that he’d survive but in different form. So if Martin and Kingsley are one in the same person, acc to this reviewer, when Kingsley goes to molest Claire the molester has no balls. This book was confusing on purpose I think. This review helped me sort it out somewhat. Good book group book.

      May 11, 2020
  2. Glenda Cohen #

    I was underwhelmed after reading this book, so I felt that I needed to read its reviews to get some kind of clarity on why this book has been so acclaimed. Your review is the best by far of all those that I’ve read. Although I don’t like Choi’s wordy, over-wrought writing style, your discussion of the threads that connect the plot lines helped me to appreciate the book’s structure.

    January 1, 2020
  3. Rick Rasmussen #

    My head is still spinning from reading this book and I can’t seem to make it stop! I agree this review makes more sense than others I have read and has helped me slow my spinning head down somewhat. Were both Karen and Sarah assaulted? One by Liam, one by Martin. According to this review there was no Liam. No Martin. So did Kingsley assault both girls or only one of them? I wondered why Karen stopped reading Sarah’s novel at more or less the half-way point. Same spot we are forced to stop reading Sarah’s novel. It is the night of the assault of Sarah by Liam. Did Karen stop at that point, because it was too painful for her. Knowing that the assault was actually perpetrated by Kingsley and to Karen? Possibly. But I feel I am missing the great secret from the last scene. Somehow the secret should clear things up for us. Or I guess Claire things up. But nope. I’m starting to sping again

    June 8, 2020
  4. Sarah Curtis Graziano #

    I’m so glad I found this review! I had the exact same thoughts as you in several places; i.e, this British storyline does not ring true (I actually listened to this as an audiobook, and the British storyline was intentionally fake and irritating to the ear), and yes, the drama teacher was the villain. To support this theory is Sarah’s argument with Karen before the dramatic final performance. Karen and Sarah start arguing about how much Sarah (1st narrator) hates Kingsley. Sarah says to Karen he’s *your* experience and Karen basically asks her why she wrote the book if she didn’t tell the most important truth? I did not understand that comment in the moment, but I did at the end. Because Kingsley is Lord and Lord is the pain that the author cannot quite reveal to the reader, because she cannot quite admit it to herself.

    I do not know if Karen actually shot Lord in the crotch, but I think we are meant to be hazy about the details. Such is the unholy marriage of creation and self-deception.

    July 26, 2020
  5. V #

    Spoiler alert*** This review was so helpful and thought provoking. I agree that one way to see the three stories is as three different versions of sexual abuse survivors trying to understand their experiences. Sarah separates out her sexual and emotional pleasure from the abuse by splitting the characters in two: David, a teenager with whom she has pleasurable sex who has “the hands and cock of a much older man” (perhaps because he is a thinly disguised older man recast as a teen in her retelling) and “Mr. Kingsley,” who is an older gay teacher/father figure/friend. “Karen” was in love with “Martin,” an older man who has sex with her and abandons her when she is pregnant. She spends her adult life in therapy and thinking about revenge against him, but towards the end of her story, forgives Sarah (perhaps her younger self?). “Karen” notes that girls’ love and hate for each other are intermingled – that part of the complication of thinking about sexual abuse is women’s and girls’ internalized sexism towards themselves and each other. Claire’s experience of sexual abuse is the most straightforward: she only wants information from Robert Lorde, who toys with her and then lures her to his home by the promise of information about her birth mother (Karen, whom he perhaps assaulted and impregnated). He suggests that a woman will be present, which makes Claire ignore her fear of him and agree to come to his home. Robert gives her no information but instead grills her, there is no woman present, he sexually assaults her and, when he cannot get an erection and she resists, he tells her she has embarrassed him. She apologizes to him, and she leaves. Afterwards, she realized that an older woman at the school recognized her and had information about her birth mother, but she was so focused and upset by Lorde that she dismisses the woman, only realizing later that the woman would have helped her while Lorde, who she thought would help her, instead abused her and blamed her. Each of these stories echo the evolution of thought and memory sexual abuse survivors might experience – indeed, these three stories could all be from the same sexual abuse survivor at various points in her thinking.

    August 27, 2020
  6. Karl #

    I agree with a lot of what you say about the book but if I understand your theory, I completely disagree with your conclusion concerning what “really” happened. (If it is meaningful even to characterize something as “really” happening in this work of meta-fiction.) You seem to take the position that “Liam” and “Martin” are fictional constructs (a consensual confabulation by both “Sarah” and “Karen”? Really?) and that the “real” predator of both is the drama teacher known as “Kingsley.”

    This makes no sense. Why would Karen — who otherwise despises Sarah precisely because she fictionalizes events and conflates “real” (within the context of the novel) people into composite characters — willingly play along with and buy into the creation out of whole cloth of an English performing troupe? The two girls’ trip to England is the key dramatic fulcrum of the second section of the book — it explains everything that precedes and follows it in the Karen narrative. And, apart from a general doubt of unreliable narrators (as both Sarah and Karen are, for different reasons), what evidence is there to contradict the seemingly generally accepted knowledge that Kingsley is gay — and very likely a predator with respect to his young male students? If that was all a fictive disguise in Sarah’s book, why wouldn’t Karen — who is not the least bit shy about exposing Sarah’s inaccuracies — give the least indication that Kingsley is not gay? Is there any reason to doubt he lives with his husband, as Sarah indicates? Yes, he acts in a predatory, controlling, manipulative manner to Sarah, but it is emotional predation, not sexual. And I fail to see any evidence he had any sigifcant relationship with Karen.

    No, Martin got Karen pregnant, then blew her off; she gave up the baby (whom we will meet as Claire); and she orchestrated events to bring Martin, David, and Sarah together for her (not clear to me whether actual or fantasized) act of revenge.

    So that leaves the question, who is Lord of the third section? If I understand you correctly, you posit that it’s the man we know as Kingsley. Not surprisingly, I disagree. I think it’s Martin. It all fits together. After escaping to Houston, rather than going back to the UK and facing scandal, he decides to remain in Houston. Through his connection with David, he gets a job at CAPA. After all, he was a very successful theatre arts teacher in England. Eventually, he is promoted to director of the school, in which position he meets and assaults Claire. That is completely within Martin’s predatory wheelhouse, the incestuous nature of the violation would simply add to the thrill for him. His age fits as well — he was around 40 when he impregnated Karen, so given Claire’s age of 25, he would be around 65. The description of Lord fits this age.

    The remaining objection to Martin as Lord would be that Karen shot Martin. But as she says, “he won’t die, he’ll just be different.” As you mention above, she might not “really” have shot Martin, it might just be a revenge fantasy. But even if she did, that’s not inconsistent with my reading. Surgical reconstructive techniques can do pretty amazing things these days (witness John Bobbitt), and moreover, it’s not clear his male organs are in good working order — when he forces Claire’s hand to his penis, she notes that is is flaccid and wormlike. He could very well be impotent but still get a thrill from dominating her physically, even if he couldn’t consummate.

    September 7, 2020
    • @karl the evidence that Kingsley is not gay and was predatory towards Sarah comes in Karen’s section. When she is trying to piece together who Manuel represents, she comes up with several candidates, but none who had a relationship with Kingsley. She suggests that Sarah’s invention here is ‘projecting’ implying that Kingsley had molested Sarah.

      November 13, 2020

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  1. “Trust Exercise” by Susan Choi – The Saturday Reader
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