Thursday, 15 August 2019

Book review: Trust Exercise, Susan Choi (2019)

This is a big novel and it has made a splash. I have read two positive reviews of it and I share with those reviewers a need to praise this novel, which takes its central theme from something that is very topical: the #MeToo movement.

The novel is made up of three parts, the first of which takes you up to about 50 percent of the way through the book. This is an account of the lives of a number of teenage students at a performing arts school in Houston, Texas. The central characters in this section of the book are students Sarah and David. The narrative in this part of the book is focalised through the character of Sarah.

The two young people have a romance and this part of the book examines their relationship through the lens offered by the linkages that exist among the faculty of the school and the pupils. There is also a number of people who come from England to put on a performance of Voltaire’s ‘Candide’, and some of these people go on to occupy an important place in this part of the book, as well as the second part of the book, which starts in the middle of the volume.

This second section is focalised through a person named Karen who has an ambiguous relationship with the Sarah of the first part of the book. Sarah is also present in Karen’s narrative, as is David and as is Martin, one of the actors who had come from England and whose exploits had been covered in the first part of the book. In the second part of the book, it turns out that Martin has written a play and David, who now, 13 years after the events chronicled in the book’s first part (a time that took place in what we are told was the early 1980s), is a theatre director, wants to stage it in Houston. Martin has also been accused, in England, of sexual impropriety in relation to a student of his and this occasions some alarm in the mind of Karen, who sets in motion a plan.

The third part of the book starts at about the 90 percent mark and involves a young woman named Claire who is looking for her biological mother. She goes to the school described in the first part of the novel, which has expanded and which is now housed in new premises, and there talks with a man named Robert Lord who is the school’s head. He invites her to dinner at his place and she goes along but the outcome is not satisfactory for either person.

Now, this complex and brilliant novel has a tight plot but it also relies for a good deal of its allure on the quality of its language. The page-long sentences and subtle examinations of motivation and awareness put this book in the same league as the greats of the past. One of the authors that Choi deliberately nods toward is, of course, Nabokov. But it’s not ‘Lolita’ that you think of in relation to this challenging novel. The novel of his that I was put in mind of is the less well-known and less well-liked ‘Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle’, which came out in 1969, 14 years after the author’s more famous work.

As in that novel, here time does not move in a uniform or predictable manner. There are detailed descriptions of small events and there are also, unexpectedly, quick jumps across time that span periods of years. Choi’s medium is adequate to both types of narrative, attesting to the superior skillset that she has at her command.

Choi’s book does more, furthermore, than just dramatise the problem of what is sometimes bad behaviour by males once they are sexually active. The way that the different sections of her book are structured says important things about not only the writer’s craft and the art of fiction, but also more broadly about the ways that reality is constructed after the fact, and the ways that key individuals can get left out of the really important stories that need to be told. From what Karen says in the second part of the book, her story is central to events that are communicated in the first part, even though she only plays a minor role in it, as “Karen”. In fact, she is present in many ways that only become evident later.

If the narrative in the first part of the book – a text produced by one of the students – had been written differently the events that close its second part might have been impossible to conceive of. But as in the Nabokov book already mentioned things that might have revealed dark secrets went unnoticed by many people involved in the story. The metafictional elements of this book are competently handled and have a signification beyond a purely rhetorical one belonging to novel writing and the fictional act itself.

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