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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.

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