Reading Susan Choi’s “Trust Exercise” is an exercise in itself, one that requires enormous amounts of patience and endurance. As an impatient and easily agitated person, I was almost defeated. The novel is a finalist for the National Book Award and has received critical acclaim from sources including The New York Times, TIME Magazine and The Atlantic. Naturally, my expectations for this novel were high, and I felt comfortable trusting Choi to deliver a transformative reading experience. Little did I know that “Trust Exercise” would utterly betray me, leading me to question not only the establishment, but my own sense of self as a reader.
The first part of Choi’s novel explores the relationship between Sarah and David, two students at a performing arts high school, and their relationships with their fellow classmates and popular teacher, Mr. Kingsley. Within a few chapters, it becomes clear that the characters in this novel are static and boring. It is, frankly, difficult to conjure up interest in any of them. Sarah and David’s relationship is unrealistic and confusing because of its total lack of chemistry (even if Mr. Kingsley takes a creepy interest in it). Later in the first section, matters become complicated when a group of visiting drama students from England cause tension and rifts between the American students. Most of the first section of “Trust Exercise” is presented as a bildungsroman young adult novel. The monotonous narration combined with a dull plot make the reading process both tedious and difficult to endure.
Midway through the novel, Choi slaps readers with a surprise shift in the narrative, presumably intended to offer an exciting re-orientation of the plot. This tactic may work for some authors, but the decision to uproot the narrative structure unintentionally comes across as a cheap attempt to re-invigorate the plot. In fact, it ultimately has the opposite effect, forcing readers to go through the painful process of becoming acquainted with a new cast of characters who are identically insufferable as those of the previous section.
A criticism of “Trust Exercise” would be incomplete without addressing its sex scenes, one of the most condemning aspects of the entire novel. Within the first ten pages, the two main characters, both barely adolescents, are fondling each other in the middle of theater class when their teacher dims the lights for a demonstration. This is indicative of how the rest of the novel will play out, written in the style of a cheap romance novel one might find in a supermarket. Although upon further consideration, they are perhaps even worse. Take this passage, for example:
“When he jammed his tongue into her ear she gasped … and twisted her head to take his tongue in her mouth … She tasted the bitterness of her own earwax … He flailed; his dead white hairy limbs appeared impaled on the stem of his unaccountably wrinkly erection which he took in his fist and seemed to squirt redly at her, for he’d yanked back the covering skin.”
Somehow, the other sex scenes are arguably worse, one of them including a comparison of a penis to “a single clammy mushroom … unwholesomely pale and wet.” Amazingly, there is another, different sexual encounter that involves ear penetration for a second time.
Not only do these parts of the novel make me reluctant to engage in intercourse ever again, they make me embarrassed to even inhabit a body. Such passages are objectively poorly written, and they are explicit in an exploitative way, especially in regards to how the scenes all contain elements of nonconsent and power imbalances in favor of the male characters. In simpler terms, these sex scenes are akin to rape fantasies, and are made even more disturbing when one remembers that the most intense ones largely involve intercourse between adolescents, further adding to their exploitative undertones.
Several reviewers have characterized “Trust Exercise” to be a nod to the #MeToo movement, specifically in regards to the many scenarios of young women being taken advantage of by older and more powerful men. But the simplistic depictions of male aggressors as clear-cut antagonists, characterizations devoid of any nuance, detracts from whatever commentary she hopes to make. It is obvious who is the “bad guy;” there is no subtlety or critical thinking involved in examining these power imbalances and their implications.
“Trust Exercise” nearly broke me. Other readers have gushed about an inability to put the book down because they were so invested in the pace of the story, or were so riveted by the complex characters and engaging plot that they were undeterred by the novel’s graphic depictions of sexual encounters and harassment. My experience with this novel, on the other hand, forced me to question if I was lacking the level of intelligence required to fully appreciate the apparently sacrosanct text.
But then I looked down at my open book and glimpsed the underlined phrase, “a single clammy mushroom” and thought, well, perhaps this novel is an exercise in trusting oneself. Of being able to hold an opinion and know when something is objectively bad — even when higher powers claim the opposite. Perhaps this is the transformative reading experience I had initially hoped for, though in an unintended sense of the term. Either way, two things are clear: Do not trust the establishment, and do not trust Susan Choi.