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For the Performing Arts Students in This Novel, Drama Is a Way of Life

Category: Art & Culture,Books

It’s always been easy to admire Susan Choi’s novels, especially “American Woman” (2003), loosely based on the Patty Hearst kidnapping and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. It’s been harder to love them. She’s so poised on the page, so reserved, that distance can slip between teller and tale.

Choi’s new novel, her fifth, is titled “Trust Exercise,” and it burns more brightly than anything she’s yet written. This psychologically acute novel enlists your heart as well as your mind. Zing will go certain taut strings in your chest.

They did in mine, at any rate. Perhaps this is because “Trust Exercise” is a densely imagined high school novel and, like most of her central characters, I graduated from high school in the early 1980s. Choi gets the details right: the mix tapes, the perms, the smokers’ courtyards, the “Cats” sweatshirts, the clove cigarettes, the ballet flats worn with jeans, the screenings of “Rocky Horror,” the clinking bottles of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers.

These things do not explain this novel’s appeal. “Trust Exercise” is set at a performing arts high school in a large Southern city (it appears to be Houston), yet it is hardly a chicken-fried “Fame.”

It’s about sophomore theater students, their souls in flux. It’s about misplaced trust in adults, and about female friendships gone dangerously awry. In the end, it’s about cruelty. Satisfyingly, it’s also about revenge.

“Trust Exercise” begins as a love story. Sarah and David are so smitten that it’s as if “some chemical made her for him, him for her.” They’re famous, the school’s chosen couple. A spotlight seems to trail them around. That spotlight turns into a searchlight.

Choi takes Sarah and David as seriously as they take themselves. Her writing about their ardor is as vivid and true as anything in Scott Spencer’s great “Endless Love” (1979), that audacious teen novel that comes with a permanent asterisk attached, reminding you not to confuse it with the damp and witless Brooke Shields movie adaptation.

“Seeing him for the first time, last year, she had stared with recognition at his mouth, at its unhandsome, simian quality, his lips slightly too wide for his narrow boy’s face,” Choi writes. “His mouth is nothing like hers because made for hers; her first time kissing him had been the first experience of her life that had exceeded expectation.”

This relationship unfolds under the watchful eye of Mr. Kingsley, the school’s twinkling and iconoclastic gay theater teacher. (F. Murray Abraham would play him in a movie.) During the emotionally lurid “trust exercises” he runs in class, he forces students into unwelcome catharses regarding their relationships and friendships. He may also be sleeping with some of these students.

Sarah and David’s relationship unravels. So does one of Sarah’s key friendships. She becomes a semi-outcast. When a troupe of young British actors arrive for a month to put on a production of “Candide,” she will be sexually preyed upon by an older member of the group, a sickly sort of goat-footed satyr.

Susan ChoiCreditHeather Weston

Choi builds her novel carefully, but it is packed with wild moments of grace and fear and abandon. She catches the way certain nights, when you are in high school, seem to last for a month — long enough to sustain entire arcs of one’s life. One aspect of this kind of night tends to involve running along a roadside somewhere, searching for a pay phone.

Choi attended a performing arts high school like the one she writes about, she explains in an afterward. This isn’t surprising. She gets the theater-geek details right, the way the students “who couldn’t sing or dance solaced themselves with Uta Hagen, Beckett and Shakespeare. They reminded themselves they were serious Theatre Artists, that Broadway was cheeseball one end to the other.”

It is about at this point that Choi pulls the tablecloth out from under “Trust Exercise.” The cutlery and the glasses remain, warily quivering. But you realize you’ve almost entirely misunderstood the primary characters and the mise-en-scène.

The plot fast-forwards about 15 years. Minor characters become major, damaged ones. I do not want to give too much of this transformation away, because I found the temporary estrangement that resulted to be delicious and, in its way, rather delicate.

Here is what I will say about the second section of “Trust Exercise,” which becomes a metafictional commentary on all that has gone before.

It is a phosphorescent examination of sexual consent, especially when applied to student-teacher relationships. It is also a devastatingly apt analysis of what men have gotten away with because they are seen to be members of what is ironically referred to as “the Elite Brotherhood of the Arts.”

In a crucial bit of dialogue, a male character (now grown) says about an older director: “I’m sure he slept with his students. I’m sure they slept with him. They knew what they were doing! We knew what we were doing. Remember what we were like?”

A woman replies, “We were children.” His scornful response: “We were never children.”

Late in this novel, a play is professionally staged, this one written by a man who has been disgraced for preying on his students. A member of the cast sets a complicated kind of ambush, not only for him but for a female friend who betrayed her. There is a sense of final puzzle pieces snapping into place, of someone scooping up all the jacks before the second bounce.

A gun is placed on a table. The suspense builds gradually. Old humiliations are revisited. The themes that emerge share some links with Ariel Dorfman’s play “Death and the Maiden,” about a woman who comes to suspect that a dinner guest is the same man who tortured and raped her for weeks while she was blindfolded.

It’s become fashionable in some elite fiction to suggest, as a character does in Rachel Cusk’s novel “Transit,” that “bringing up a completely undamaged child was in bad taste.” I am guilty of romanticizing messed-up childhoods myself, having had a perfectly safe and dull one.

In Choi’s novel, all the characters want from adults is what they so rarely get: competency and decency. They want them to grow the hell up.

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