TW: child sexual abuse; rape.
For something like half a millennium – ever since the rise of Protestantism and with it the doctrine that the way to God is through private study of the Bible – the English-speaking world has been obsessed with the idea that in the written word lies ultimate truth. As readers and as participants in any sort of public discourse, we’re conditioned to seek out an objective, overriding Truth, even when we’re reading novels with self-evidently unreliable narrators. Texts like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, or Hanya Yanigihara’s The People in the Trees, whose narrators all conceal key facts from the reader in one way or another, nevertheless ask the reader to reconstruct an objective truth from these unreliable accounts; in fact their effectiveness depends on it. Susan Choi’s National Book Award-winning novel Trust Exercise completely confounds such reconstruction, and with it the comforting notion that there is such a thing as perfect, objective truth.
It begins conventionally enough, at a prestigious performing arts school in a generic American city, where two fourteen-year-olds, Sarah and David, have the hots for each other. Intense as their mutual crush is, it quickly turns sour, partly because they’re both at the age when any slight feels like a mjaor betrayal, and partly because of the emotional manipulation of their acting teacher, the charismatic, creepy and almost certainly paedophilic Mr Kingsley.
Enter the second section, however, and everything we understand about how Choi’s narrative is unfolding comes undone. The second section is narrated by Karen, a peripheral character from the first section, who reveals that the first section is a fiction, a novelisation of what really happened written by Sarah herself. Karen goes on to relate her version of events, which involves another unhappy teenage infatuation featuring another abusive teacher, Martin. The third and final section, which is very brief indeed, is set some decades after the first two sections, and involves a young woman, again subject to unwanted sexual advances, trying to piece together something of her history, which is seemingly linked to the experiences of Sarah and Karen. This third section fails intentionally to provide any form of resolution or closure, either for its young narrator (whose identity remains obscure) or for the reader.
The result is an enormously shifty text, one in which solid facts are all but impossible to pin down. Both Sarah and Karen, we sense, have altered their stories in the face of adolescent trauma, so they can better process what has happened to them; but by the same token neither of them are exactly lying. Their stories are true to them; and since there’s no way for us as observers to access the truth of “what really happened”, that truth effectively does not exist. All we have is a core emotional truth, about power, vulnerability and the shame that survivors of sexual abuse experience – a shame that’s transmitted down through generations and ultimately prevents the abuse from being named for what it is.
Trust Exercise‘s shiftiness made me think of rape trials and their abysmally low conviction rates. The entire apparatus of Western justice is set up to ascertain a single objective truth; to reconcile conflicting accounts and pieces of information in an attempt to find out “what really happened”. But – outside particularly extreme cases – what “objective” evidence is there for rape, beyond the survivor’s account? Everyone knows what rape is, but actually ascertaining, from the outside, whether it happened is a shifty and slippery business. For me, Trust Exercise demonstrates that we as a society need different ways to talk about, and deal with, rape and sexual abuse; ways that acknowledge the emotional trauma these crimes inflict on survivors, and how the demand for objective truth can itself be damaging. Postmodern theatrics such as those Choi deploys in this novel can feel empty and gimmicky, challenging traditional structures of meaning to no apparent purpose; here, Choi puts them to work to examine how conventional modes of reading and truthseeking reinforce abusive and uneven power structures.