Before reading Susan Choi’s National Book Award winning I novel I had heard tell of an effed up twist partway through the book. As I dove into the first half of Trust Exercise I found the initial content unsettling enough and semi-dreaded the coming twist.
And then the twist twisted my expectations. Instead of abuse or betrayal or sexual assault, I got a jolt something like the turn in a Radiohead song—jarring, weird, literary, somehow perfect. The book transformed from an exploration of teenagers in a performing arts school, acting adulthood, to playing about with the idea of performance and creation: the performances we give as part of the normal run of life, the blurriness that fogs private and public self, the fakes that help us live with ourselves and others and the things we don’t want to look at.
Which maybe sounds more boring that it should…? It’s not boring. No spoilers but keep your Chekhov in mind during the second act.
And then Trust Exercise includes a final third chapter, almost a coda. Taken at the most obvious level, the book does deal with abuse and betrayal and sexual assault. Which may be the least interesting aspect only because, as the book itself points out, the use and abuse of young women is so common as to be almost cliché. Move up a level, though, and it explores how young women contort and bend themselves to thrive and survive anyway. And yet the performance always remains, both salvation and the thing that obfuscates. Performance keeps us from ever knowing who we, and who each other, truly are.