Susan Choi’s new novel, "Trust Exercise," is a story about trust, betrayal and the blurry lines between fiction and real life. It focuses on a group of teenagers at a performing arts high school in the 1980s and their fraught relationships with the eccentric teachers whom they idolize.
The book takes a metafictional twist about halfway through, but Choi, in conversation with Kurt Andersen, says she is loathe to describe it as such: “Don't use the M-word. Don't!”
As part of their theatrical curriculum, the teens in Choi’s novel study trust exercises: crawling around in the dark, falling backwards into classmates’ arms, and something called “Ego Deconstruction.” Choi herself attended a performing arts high school in Houston, where she learned a lot of the same theatrical techniques that are in the novel. “These are acting exercises that I didn't make up by any stretch, but these were codified exercises,” Choi says. “I've been interested in this kind of enforced group activity for the sake of a social engineering outcome. In 'Trust Exercise,' they have a teacher who is remaking them in accordance with what they don't really recognize at the time is an ideology.”
Choi describes the novel as an unexpectedly successful side project that benefited from neglect: “'Trust Exercise' started out being just sort of a fun file on my hard drive that I would, you know, play around with when my real and important project wasn’t going well,” she says. “And then as soon as it stopped being fun, I'd put it down again and go back to the other thing. The benefit is that when I went back to it, surprising ideas would occur to me that I don't think necessarily would have if this had been my focus.”