The Pulitzer-nominated novelist develops the issues raised by #MeToo within the setting of a suburban American drama school
Sarah and David, 15-year-olds at an elite and unconventional drama school in 1980s suburban America, fall in love. An early misunderstanding is manipulated by a charismatic teacher, Mr Kingsley, who sets a series of emotionally exposing improvisations known as trust exercises to confuse and divide them, using adolescent emotion as the raw material of his art. Then visiting teacher Martin arrives from England: he seduces Sarahs best friend Karen with a callousness that she later sees as deforming her. Twenty years later, Sarah turns these experiences into a novel.
This is the terrain of the fifth novel by Pulitzer-nominated US novelist Susan Choi. Summarised like this, its a familiar story of power and its abuses, consent and its ambiguities. Trust Exercise is marketed, accurately, as a #MeToo novel, and it shows with painful rawness how much damage can be wrought without anyone realising they are the victim. But this designation doesnt capture the complexity of Chois investigation into human relations. What shes done, magisterially, is to take the issues raised by #MeToo and show them as inextricable from more universal questions about taking a major role in someone elses life, while knowing that were offering only a minor part in return.
What right do we have to co-opt others into our story? Here this is asked not only of the sexual couplings but, perhaps most painfully, of Sarah and Karens friendship. As the friend least invested in the pairing, Sarah has power over Karen that she exerts semi-regretfully when she decides shes outgrown her. The reader has no reason to question Sarahs version of events but then, halfway through, Sarahs narrative ends and Karens begins. The adult Karen has read half her friends novel and is angered that it misrepresents her. She discards the novel and hijacks the narrative with her own story as it unfolds in real time, describing the scene where she ambushes Sarah at a reading and then the dramatic reunion between Sarah, Karen, David and Martin, who all meet to stage a play by Martin investigating the kind of power dynamics that have shaped them.
Karens first-person voice, clinically precise and self-consciously confiding, is brilliantly differentiated from Sarahs wry third-person voice. Both create cluttered worlds sometimes overwhelmingly so in which the reader risks getting lost amid the moth-eaten dust curtains and ironing boards backstage, or among the large cast of minor characters. Within these worlds the more intimate scenes have a stark intensity, reminding us how much is at stake in adolescence. The sexual encounters are especially well told, whether they are fulfilling (his mouth is nothing like hers because made for hers) or awkward (a baffling struggle to accommodate his wildly poking, flicking tongue). Along the way there are aphorisms in both narratives that could be irritating if less pertinent or wise. Sarahs first encounter with opera, for example, reveals it as the highest redemption of longing. All this combines into a cohesive investigation of what the novel can be and of what feelings are, and what place they have in art.
Mr Kingsley has taught his students to be masters of feeling, not slaves, encouraging them to throttle their emotions in order to channel them on stage. Subsequently, Karen has learned in therapy to give her feelings their due. Thoughts are often false, she tells Sarah. A feelings always real. Not true, just real. Here Karen is engaged in the trust exercise not of the actor but of the memoirist. Having exposed Sarahs novel as false, she stakes her story as truth, though shes too intelligent not to wonder if the greatest emotional truth can reside in imaginative creation Sarahs novel, Martins play. Cumulatively, Choi reminds us that the ultimate trust exercise here is the one performed between her and her reader. Theres a kind of gradual Brechtian exposing of workings that allows the story to be simultaneously true and made up: Chois achievement is to do this while never seeming self-consciously tricksy. Indeed, the self-consciousness of her form seems partly necessitated by the self-consciousness of adolescence, with the narrators using fiction to reenact their adolescent inquiries into the place of moral truth in a world that reveals its constructedness at every turn.
The world is me and not me, Karen says near the end, recalling the lesson of therapy, one shes found difficult to learn. Its the lesson failed by the abuser of power, the lesson the novel at its richest takes it on itself to parse. Choi does so with consummate wit, punchiness and feeling, and in the process shows how much we need our female novelists within the sea change of our current moment.
Lara Feigel is the author of Free Woman (Bloomsbury). Trust Exercise is published by Serpents Tail (14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.