Susan Choi’s ‘Trust Exercise’ a fresh, nuanced take on identity and agency

"Trust Exercise" by Susan Choi is out Tuesday.
"Trust Exercise" by Susan Choi is out Tuesday. Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Issues of identity and agency have been on the national stage for a while now, but Susan Choi‘s fifth novel, “Trust Exercise,” out Tuesday, manages to add a fresh, nuanced voice to the discussion.

The story initially focuses on the physical attraction between the 15-year-old Sarah and her classmate David, both theater students at a performing arts high school in the 1980s. Their relationship is consummated, misconstrued and manipulated, often in ways uniquely painful to youth. Their drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley, is popular with students despite repeatedly interposing himself into their emotional lives. His behavior is likely to set off alarm bells for readers, as a number of his methods, such as having teenagers crawl around in the dark and grope each other, would see him fired instantly in 2019.

Halfway through the book, the narrative perspective switches when a thus-far ancillary character knocks down the fourth wall and starts parsing the events of the novel’s first half. It’s a meta technique deployed masterfully by Czech author Milan Kundera, and Choi uses it effectively, if at times tediously, to direct her reader’s attention toward consideration of artistic license, how some people appropriate the lives — not to mention pain — of others. On one level, that’s all acting or fiction really is after all — inhabiting another person. But when that other person is real and known, what duty is owed to the archetype? And what are the consequences for shirking that duty?

Choi writes passages of real beauty, some of which stumble forth raw and unformed, fragments and observations that double back, accreting. Other times she deploys descriptions that feel more planned out and note perfect.

The onion is not fully peeled back until the book’s final 20 pages, when a third narrator reveals the “truth.” Maybe. It all depends on whom you trust.