Set in a performing-arts high school in the American South, Susan Choi’s newest novel, Trust Exercise, opens with the teen love affair of Sarah and David, both aspiring actors. At first, the narrative seems bound to their doomed relationship, offering us the infatuations and misunderstandings of a conventional love story. Their abrupt breakup comes as a surprise, redirecting our focus to the web of passions and betrayals not only among the students, but also between the students and the adults charged with educating them. As adolescents often do, the characters in Trust Exercise perceive themselves to be mature beyond their years, and their decisions ripple with consequences across generations—a hallmark of Choi’s writing.
Choi’s previous books—The Foreign Student, A Person of Interest, My Education, and American Woman, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—have always been immersive experiences, offering a depth of feeling and perspective as well as a Biblical aura. But Trust Exercise uses Choi’s quality of voice to vault the book in an entirely new direction, after a minor character interrupts the narration, demanding to be heard, telling her own truth about events we previously thought we understood. In the hands of this more-reliable narrator, the book launches forward once again, although the reader’s doubts begin to grow. To whom does the past actually belong? It may be unknowable, yet the consequences are very real.
Choi and I met recently at a Brooklyn coffee shop, where we had a lively discussion on the vagaries of voice, the Pulitzer-winning poet John Berryman, and the world’s peculiar love/hate relationship with adolescence.
—Christopher M. Hood for Guernica
Guernica: In many ways, Trust Exercise seems in keeping with your other novels: that intensity of feeling, the plunge into the perspective of a character, and then the limitations of that perspective.
Susan Choi: I didn’t set out to explore limitation of perspective; I actually just experienced it. And I didn’t set out to write this book. I was working on a different thing, dipping into this intermittently, just for fun. At some point, there was a fair amount of it, and one day I actually thought about the limitation of perspective. What if there’s a perspective that hadn’t been shown—that felt, for lack of a better word, snubbed? A voice that disputes the voice that we’ve come to trust, maybe because it suspects that we’ve come to trust that voice and it doesn’t want us to?
Guernica: It’s also a voice that disputes itself. The mingling of first and third person reminded me of Berryman’s The Dream Songs. I was amazed the novel was pulling it off, even as it was pulling it off.
Choi: The voice was so complete when it first occurred to me. I was enthralled, and entertained. Dazzled by it. That sounds really immodest because it’s a voice that I made up, but I didn’t feel that way. I felt like I knew it, and I knew right away what it was irate about. It was saying, You’ve been narrating me, and eff you, because I can narrate me way better. I can be the narrator, I can be the narrated-about. I can pop back and forth between being the object and the subject. I’m not going to be your object, but I can be my object.
Guernica: Sounds reminiscent of Ralph Ellison and Invisible Man. He was working on another novel, but this voice kept coming into his head, saying, I am an invisible man, and he had to listen to it.
Choi: Wow. That’s not a terrible comparison. It’s really the kind of thing that sounds made-up or over-romanticized, this idea that as a writer you would hear a voice.
Guernica: But it’s just how it works sometimes.
Choi: It sounds like a myth, but it’s actually true. When I’m writing, I either get a feel for the voice or I don’t. I’ve written a lot of stuff when I didn’t get a feel for the voice, and I was always trying very consciously to pull it together, and it never sounded right. I get the narrative voice, even if it’s a third-person voice, seemingly out of the air. I know it when I hear it.
Guernica: Your fiction seems fascinated by the almost Biblical theme of the sins of the older generation being visited on the younger. It’s like your novels aren’t finished until we’ve seen the ways consequences unfold not only over years, but generations.
Choi: Oh boy, yeah. I guess it could almost be called a tic. If you look at the ways in which my other books have ended, there’s always this intergenerational reckoning. I think this book is also about that reckoning, but I would argue that it doesn’t provide it. Or, it doesn’t provide it in the sentimental way other books of mine have.
Guernica: It’s entirely unsentimental, but I think there’s something about the promise of someone young and their hopeful interactions with the world after seeing the way the older people have fucked everything up.
Choi: I wanted the book to arrive at a place of authenticity, and that place does contain a younger person who maybe has more of a capacity to stave off harm, and repair harm, than some of the people who have come before.
Guernica: In a book about high-school kids, it’s the adults who consistently abdicate the positions of honesty we need them to have. As a high-school teacher, I was offended by the actions of several of my fictional peers, though I found myself drawn to Ms. Rozot—a teacher at Sarah and David’s school—even though she was a minor player in the story.
Choi: I’m so glad you liked her. She’s a very peripheral character; she has a really small role to play. It’s interesting, but I did an interview with a—no offense—much younger writer, someone who’s much younger than you and I. She also talked about Ms. Rozot and spoke of her as, in her view, the only adult who really respected her students. Sarah has this interaction with Ms. Rozot that ends up being one of the things that I was interested in throughout the book, because it articulates the singular emotional turmoil of the teenage years.
Guernica: The breakup of an adolescent romance may seem silly to the adults, but it really does hurt. It’s almost as if we get older and forget how difficult this portion of our life was.
Choi: It’s not an illusion: it actually is this period that’s so much more complicated and painful—and disabling at times—than analogous moments of being down in your childhood or later in your adulthood.
Guernica: Ms. Rozot describes Sarah’s emotional sensitivity as a painful gift. Feels like the perfect way of describing adolescence.
Choi: It’s a uniquely consequential and important and difficult period of life, and no one has managed to come to consensus about it. I see it through all these different lenses: remembering my own teenage years, parenting a teenager. The ways humans of this age are depicted on film and in other books and in their own dedicated literature. It’s fascinating that, despite all of the attention we pay to this age group—or maybe because of it—we can’t resolve the amazing contradictions. We can’t decide if they’re adults or children. We can’t decide if they’re ready for things or not ready for things. When they can serve in the military, when they can drive, when they can drink. All these ages are different. I think the reason there’s so much incoherence in the way we respond culturally to this age group is because it’s a really radical and unstable age.
Guernica: When I tell someone I’m a high-school teacher, the immediate response is, “Oh my God, I don’t know how you do it.” I find that amazing, because kids are so wonderfully interesting. They’re dealing with this inherited world screwed up by adults who, it’s increasingly clear, have no idea what they’re doing.
Choi: Yes, that is clear from the very top down.
Guernica: There’s no time quite like high school.
Choi: Nothing, apart from birth to age three, really compares. We never again go through this insane transformation. And it makes sense that, mentally and emotionally, it would be one of the consequential periods of our lives. But we still have no idea but to make it the subject of really tawdry or insulting movies. I think it’s really underestimated. There are a few things that I have encountered that I felt, like, wow, that really…did you see the movie “Eighth Grade?” Oh my God. I almost couldn’t bear to watch it.
Guernica: “Boyhood” by Richard Linklater was similar.
Choi: Yeah, yeah. They are the exceptions to the rule, in terms of cultural productions that really want to see what’s happening and not just tell some hackneyed story about it.
Guernica: There’s a great Berryman poem where fellow writer Delmore Schwartz arrives at his house in a Cambridge taxi. Berryman’s living in Providence. It’s like ten in the morning, and Schwartz just strolls into the living room. Clearly a manic episode. There’s an incredibly moving moment when Berryman says: “His mission was obscure. It was real, but obscure.” We judge the feeling and the intensity that adolescents bring to life but it’s real, even if it’s obscure. Even if it’s not real, it’s also real.
Choi: Oh, I love that. I think the very fact that often it’s obscure to them and outside their control makes us, thinking that we are better at self-knowledge and self-control, respond in a very condescending or dismissive way. When, actually, I think that the importance of that emotional experience for that young person is all the greater, the less they can understand it and control it.
Guernica: In Trust Exercise, I could tell I was reading a Susan Choi novel, but also that you had gone into exciting new territory. The prose is tighter; the style is different, more compressed. You took liberties with the conventions of a novel that require a real experienced hand. Could you have written this book earlier in your career? I can’t imagine trying to pull off the shifting narrative voices in the second half of the book in the way that you do.
Choi: Me either. I really can’t.
Guernica: It just happened?
Choi: It kind of did. It really evolved. Even talking about this book sort of spooks me because I’m like, Oh, how did that all happen? It’s really lovely to hear people say things as insightful and positive as the things you’re saying, but there’s something daunting about it too, because I’m like, Man, I don’t really know how that all happened. At the same time, it does feel like I ought to walk away from things with a little bit of information about how to possibly do them again, but I don’t really have that information.
Your question—could I have written this book earlier? Obviously, the simple, uninteresting answer is no, or I would’ve. But I like the question, because I did at some point become way less interested in aspects of prose that used to absorb a lot of my attention.
Guernica: Aspects such as?
Choi: It sounds weird to say, but I’m a lot less interested in things I would associate with style: the beautiful metaphor or the perfectly apt physical description. Things that really preoccupied me a lot. Even to the point that I sometimes look back at older work and I’m just slightly impatient, because I can see myself straining for a really lyrical way of describing something. I’m in a different place now, where I kind of roll my eyes inwardly at my own tendencies to do that.
It has to be said that there’s one really straightforward source for this book’s style, which is that I really wanted to write something short.
Guernica: How short? Short-story short?
Choi: When I wrote the first sentence of this book, I actually had the idea that I would do a story, which is something that I’m always trying to do and never succeeding in doing. I was trying to adjust myself forcefully to that incredibly distilled efficient story-length pacing, where you don’t meander a lot, and you don’t wallow around in the exposition a lot. You just, boom, set things off. You have a limited scope and you wind it up.
I didn’t succeed in doing that. But it is a shorter, leaner book, at least.