How Can the Novel Represent Sexual Abuse Honestly?

How Can the Novel Represent Sexual Abuse Honestly?

Who Owns the Story?

Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise


There’s a scene in a sci-fi film in which an astronaut explains how wormholes work. He draws two X’s on a sheet of paper, connects them with a long vertical line, then folds the paper in half and punches his pen straight through, transfixing both marks. A seemingly interminable journey between two points in space-time, he explains, becomes no great distance if you can distort the plane on which they rest; he folds over the sheet and suddenly the points connect.

The wormhole metaphor is a useful tool for reading Trust Exercise, a luminous novel by Susan Choi told in three parts. It begins in the 1980s with a class of students and their teachers at a performing-arts high school in a sprawling, unnamed city in the South. The cast of characters includes sophomores Sarah and David, too proud to admit their longing for each other; a cadre of visiting British theater students barely chaperoned by their unscrupulous teacher, Martin; and Mr. Kingsley, the gay acting instructor who takes a keen interest in the private dramas of his students and may be sleeping with two of them. The failure of Sarah’s relationship with David sends her into a deep depression, and when Liam, a 24-year-old actor who is part of the visiting theater contingent, pursues her at an illicit house party, she’s too numb to resist. The partiers are eventually discovered and thrown out of the house; Sarah wanders across a highway and loiters in a nearby parking lot until she’s rescued by a classmate’s mother.

Then, abruptly, the story changes. The narrator is now a character identified as “Karen” in the first section—which, Karen reveals, is from a novel written by Sarah, one that borrows heavily from their experiences in high school, with recognizable fictional doppelgängers for several of their teachers and friends. Karen picks up the story 12 years later, surprising Sarah at a book reading in Los Angeles. She is privately furious with the novel’s omissions (primarily of the circumstances surrounding her sexual relationship with the 40-year-old Martin), but she hides her anger and subtly, successfully works to reconvene Sarah, David, and Martin in the city where they first met, chasing a hunch that their reunion will correct the discrepancies in each person’s account of the past. There, perhaps without fully planning it, Karen inflicts a stunning public act of revenge.

Trust Exercise ends with a brief coda: A young woman named Claire visits a performing-arts high school hoping to learn the identity of her birth mother and meets the founder of the theater program, an imposing man named Robert Lord. He calls Claire later, hinting that he knew her mother and inviting her to his apartment. There, he attempts to rape her. Three years later, Claire learns that Lord is dead and the school, which had adopted his name, has rescinded the honor following a “credible allegation of sexual abuse from a former student.” Three personal narratives, all with conflicting claims to the truth. But if read together, superimposed over one another, they tell a single story.

Bad things happen to characters in stories, but the form the trauma takes—whether it is graphic or abstract, humiliating or ennobling—is neither inevitable nor accidental. For decades, feminist critics have identified, in film, TV, comic books, and literature, the use of sexual assault and rape as a kind of narrative spackle, applied to cover up gaps in a writer’s ability to develop female characters without offering their debasement as a shortcut to empathy. Missing from these stories is an understanding of what sexual violence does: how it creates a black hole at the center of your idea of the world; how it undermines the fundamental, necessary assumption that other people do not want to harm you; how, as Jacqueline Rose writes in her essay on #MeToo in the London Review of Books, it “destroys the mind’s capacity for reverie.”

What would it mean to represent sexual violence honestly in fiction; what would it look like to allow its meaning-rending quality to swallow a narrative whole? Trust Exercise provides one answer. At first, the novel seems like a game of connect the dots, a challenge to piece together the definitive account of a string of abuses at a high school in the 1980s. But the stories don’t quite line up when read that way. The details drift; each narrator makes significant elisions to preserve her own self-image or to repress the past. Instead, the stories connect on another plane: Their truth is in their common structure, in which a man in a position of trust manipulates young people, particularly women, opening a rift in their understanding of the past. Read as variations on the same theme, the three sections become remarkably consistent despite the discrepancies in how they depict certain central figures.

Although Karen sees that some characters in Sarah’s novel have real-life analogues in their high-school classmates—she can recognize them “as easily as drawing a line from a column of things on the left to a column of things on the right”—her own personality and her close friendship with Sarah have been broken up and parceled out. An earnest character named Pammie, for example, “is not a historical person but the way in which Karen’s Christianity was found laughable,” and another student is “the way in which Karen’s Christianity was admired.” Joelle Cruz, a friend whom Sarah abandons, is “the intimacy between Karen and Sarah, disavowed and relocated onto a historical person very much like Joelle with whom Sarah did not have an actual friendship.”

Reading Karen’s blueprint, one wonders which other characters have been split up and recombined. Although Liam, Martin, Mr. Kingsley, and Robert Lord are different men, their actions all produce the same reaction in their young targets. First there is the desire to accommodate them, which tips from unease into a frightening clarity and then a slow, patient rage. Liam, Martin, and Lord’s genitals seem similar, too. After he corners Sarah at the party and pressures her into sex too aggressively for it to be considered consensual, Liam’s “spent penis flopped between his legs like a stricken worm”; teenage Karen’s hand is urged “inside [Martin’s] underpants,” where “a single clammy mushroom thrived…unwholesomely pale and wet”; Lord “scrubbed [Claire’s] hand roughly against the damp noodle of flesh which secreted warm goo but did not come to life.” There could be four distinct predatory men in the novel, or two “historical” people split into four, or just one, refracted like a kaleidoscopic pattern in each scene. What matters is that, across almost three decades, the men’s strategy stays the same.

When Claire, the narrator of the final section, meets Robert Lord, she’s surprised that he is imposing, massive: “She would never have admitted it aloud, but she’d expected a fey man in a bow tie with a Hello, Dolly! poster framed on his wall. Not this granite-hewn, glowering man with dramatic black streaks in his white, lupine beard.” One might imagine Mr. Kingsley, the most obvious candidate for Lord’s fictional doppelgänger, in a bow tie; in Sarah’s novel, he wears “expensive wool V-necks over brightly hued shirts…knife-pleated trousers and glittering shoes.” Posters for Godspell and Follies hang in the hallway of Kingsley’s home, which is situated in a neighborhood of plush lawns and towering live oaks.

Lord and Kingsley don’t seem like the same man, in part because of the differences in their appearance and demeanor, in part because you never see Kingsley do anything wrong. But rereading Sarah’s story, you notice his “noiseless and ambushing style of movement,” his hallway “lined in beige carpet that swallows all sound.” You note the gratification he seems to take from the personal traumas his students put on display in an acting course called “Ego Construction/Deconstruction.” He takes his favorite pupils—chosen for their troubled home life, seen as glamorous by their peers—off-campus at lunchtime in his green Mercedes-Benz. These students, Sarah writes, have “all been robbed of heedless childhood and that’s why they’ve been chosen, their precocious adulthood acknowledged.”

The students are told, again and again, that acting is “fidelity to authentic emotion, under imagined circumstances.” The corollary is that the imaginary is still a site of control: Kingsley, Lord, Martin, and Liam can imagine circumstances to justify their actions. In Karen’s narrative, Martin—recently fired after allegations of a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student—travels to the Southern city to stage his new play at the avant-garde theater that David now runs. The play centers on a dour bar owner, Doc, and a waifish, destitute young woman with whom he shares an unexplained intimacy.

When Karen reads Martin’s play, she finds it strangely familiar: “a sort of dream-version” of their brief, fateful relationship, “all jumbled but retaining some reminder, like a smell or a stain.” The script is punctuated with allusions, gaps, and periods of silence, licensing its actors and director to determine the precise nature of the protagonists’ relationship, and Karen feels “a strong challenge to enter the play’s silences and to utter their meaning.”

The reward of Trust Exercise is the way in which this novel asks to be read: not necessarily with suspicion, but with attention to the process of sorting significant from insignificant details; attention to what information you need in order to consider a certain version of the truth authoritative. As it tells the same story again and again, you watch the characters enter its silences and utter their own particular meanings. Then you, the reader, intuit not only what happened but whether, in this case, playing connect-the-dots might bring you further from the truth. Choi’s novel measures the distance that must be traveled to see its stories as connected: an interminable journey, or no journey at all.

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