Is He Doing Absolutely Nothing or Is He a Genius?

Julie Buntin recommends an excerpt from Susan Choi’s forthcoming novel TRUST EXERCISE

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Susan Choi’s newest novel, Trust Exercise, opens with two teenagers, David and Sarah, “neither within sight of sixteen or the keys to a car.” They are, despite their young age, in love. This love, the reader soon realizes, isn’t just high school stuff. Infused with the magic and awkwardness of adolescence, their love has a power that can wound and warp and feels grander than the stage of their competitive performing arts high school, where both students are first-year Theatre Arts students under the sway of a charismatic teacher named Mr. Kingsley who seems to see in their relationship an opportunity for both teaching and torment.

trust exercise_susan choi

Within the first few pages, Mr. Kingsley enters a windowless rehearsal room and switches off the lights, plunging his students into darkness, “stripping them of knowledge.” The boundaries between teenagers dissolve, and their carefully constructed identities are reduced to smells, sounds, sensations. In this darkness, David and Sarah find each other and share a jarringly erotic moment — jarring because they are so young, jarring because they can’t see each other and are surrounded by peers, jarring because it’s the first expression of a long simmering crush and not subtle at all — before Mr. Kingsley commands the students to find the wall and the lights slam on. Trust exercises like this one are an important component of their theatrical education, designed to teach them how to access “authentic emotion,” the highest calling for an actor, by Mr. Kingsley’s rules. The scene excerpted below, like the entire first part of the novel, is written in a careful third person — authoritative, detached, and literary. It takes place after the fracturing of Sarah and David’s relationship, when a troop of British actors (the “English People”) descend on the school to stage an experimental and shockingly bawdy rendition of Candide.

For fear of giving too much away, I won’t share many details about how the perspective explodes shortly after the arrival of the English People in part two, transforming not just the style of the prose, but our sense of every character and our faith in the construction of the novel itself. “Trust Exercise” becomes more than the story of David, Sarah, and Mr. Kingsley as it plunges into a complicated exploration of what it means to mix art and life. Who has the right to tell our stories? What, with its strange alchemy of memory and observation and imagination, is the craft of fiction? Is there any such thing as narrative truth?

The experience of reading Trust Exercise echoes the experience of being one of Mr. Kingsley’s students, crawling around in the sudden dark: it is a process of adjustment, reacclimation, and ultimately, trust. It’s a brilliant, destabilizing work, and with every unexpected shift and added layer, the novel expands the possibilities of what fiction can do. We end the book blinking, our eyes struggling against the light, certain that the people coming into focus are not at all who we thought they were.

– Julie Buntin
Author of Marlena

Is He Doing Absolutely Nothing or Is He a Genius?

An Excerpt from ‘Trust Exercise’

by Susan Choi

The English People were a performing troupe from a high school in Bournemouth, a city in England. They were only fifteen and sixteen themselves, which was why the Sophomores had been granted the particular honor of hosting them. The previous September, when Mr. Kingsley had gathered them in the rehearsal room, he’d reversed his chair and leaned at them confidingly. “They’re touring with what’s supposed to be an absolutely terrific adaptation of Voltaire’s Candide,” Mr. Kingsley had explained, “and as you’ll learn in European Theatre History, Voltaire was France’s most famous playwright. Now, who’s been to England?” Involuntarily Sarah looked at David, and as quickly looked away. For her, until now, England only existed in David’s postcards. Now those Big Bens and Piccadilly Circuses and Carnaby Streets with their punks seemed like jokes played upon her alone.

David’s hand, and only David’s, raised up. The elbow remained bent, denoting his reluctance to answer this question. Sarah remembered the first time she caught sight of his house, freshman year, from the kid-crammed back seat of Senior Jeff Tillson’s car. Jeff driving some five or six nondrivers home after one of the mainstage rehearsals, the lengthy and confused overlapping directions, debating who lived nearest to school and each other, David repeatedly telling Jeff Tillson to take the other kids home until it came out that David’s house was the closest to school, in its historic neighborhood of enormous old live oaks hiding tall stately homes behind veils of discreet Spanish moss. David wound up being dropped off first, and the car had erupted with cries of “That’s your house?” while David, his face crimson, uprooted himself from the overpacked car.

The chief feature of David’s house was that it was two houses: the gracious two-story in front and a luxurious garage apartment, just built, in back. Apart from the bathroom, the garage apartment was a single enormous rec room, with David’s bed at one end and his younger brother Chris’s at the other, and a pinball machine and sofa and stereo and TV in between. David’s mother, in preparation for the English People, added a set of bunk beds, a dorm-size mini-fridge, and a microwave oven, whether to encourage total exile from the house or apologize for it, no one bothered to wonder. Eight hosts had been originally asked for, but only six had been needed, because David’s family would house two of the boys, and Joelle’s family two of the girls. The other two boys would stay with William and Colin, and the other two girls with Karen Wurtzel and Pammie. Julietta had ardently wanted to host but for reasons that went unexplained Mr. Kingsley chose Karen Wurtzel instead and Julietta fervently smiled her approval. There were also two adults, both men, both of whom would be hosted by Mr. Kingsley and Tim in their beautiful home.

Long ago in September, Sarah was still enough part of her class to laugh with everyone else when Mr. Kingsley said the English People were arriving over spring break to get accustomed to their hosts and temporary homes “before tackling CAPA, which — how shall I say? — can be intimidating to the uninitiated.” Sarah was still enough part of her class to relish the smugly held knowledge that for all its feuds and sectarian fissures, their school as a whole was a clique, unwelcoming to the outsider. Sarah was still enough part of her class to anticipate the pleasure of pitying these eager, inferior English, of surprising them with kindness, and receiving their gratitude. But now Sarah was so far outside of her class that she might have been English herself. She was so far outside of her class that when spring break ended, and school resumed, she was at first unaware that there had been a revolution, for she had missed all the contributing events: William’s guest, Simon, deserting the unpredictable austerity of William’s home for the dependable luxury of David’s garage apartment; Colin’s guest, Miles, in protest of the other three leaving him out following Simon, and being followed by Colin; David’s original guests, Julian and Rafe, mocking Colin’s Irish heritage in a manner that Colin mistook for a special distinction; David’s brother, Chris, deserting the apartment for points undisclosed, leaving Simon and Miles to nightly fight over who got Chris’s bed versus who got the sofa, while Colin uncomplainingly slept on the floor.

Meanwhile, among the girls, surprisingly it had not been Joelle’s house but Karen Wurtzel’s that became the headquarters. Karen’s English guest, Lara, had in no time at all learned and broadcast what facts about Karen nearly two years of Trust Exercising had not excavated: that Karen’s mother, Elli, unlike Karen, was pretty and fun and would stay up till all hours drinking Bartles & Jaymes and watching telly and talking and laughing while Karen stayed locked in her room and only came out to ask her own mother to please make less noise. Joelle and her two guests, Theodosia and Lilly, having hit it off like the proverbial house afire and spending the late hours after rehearsal driving Joelle’s Mazda everywhere but the forty-five minutes to Joelle’s inconveniently located home, started sleeping at Karen’s; after which, as had happened with the boys, the fourth English girl, Pammie’s guest, Cora, protested at being left out and migrated to Karen’s, Pammie trying to follow, but finding herself not invited.

After these domestic rearrangements, which took less than a week, the clique hardened its form.

Their first day at CAPA, the English People debuted as a leadership class. Though in many ways they looked physically younger than their American peers, the boys — Simon, Miles, Julian, and Rafe — being slender and smooth, their faces and chests still entirely hairless, and the girls — Lara and Cora, Theodosia and Lilly — being girlishly skinny, with no hips or breasts, the English People nevertheless separately, and even more so en masse, seemed older, their wits sharper, their knowledge more extensive and at the back of it somehow impenetrable. Perhaps cultural difference explained this. Perhaps it was all a mirage they induced with their accents, poor imitations of which became a widespread affliction of the sophomore class. The impression of power they gave seemed not wrought, but inevitable. That David or William or Joelle or Sarah or any of them had imagined impressing the English was now so unimaginable as to best be forgotten.

The two English grown-ups — Martin the teacher/director and Liam the star — first appeared after lunch, given that they were grown-ups, not visiting students, and so didn’t take classes. When everyone had assembled in the Black Box, Martin and Liam sat onstage with Mr. Kingsley, like Mr. Kingsley backward on their chairs, while Theodosia and Lilly and Lara and Cora, Rafe and Julian and Simon and Miles, sat anonymously in the risers with the rest of the students. Bantering back and forth with Mr. Kingsley about the Touring Life, One Hotel Seeming Just Like Another, and the Pleasures of Home, Martin and Liam seemed cut of that same kingly cloth as the aptly named teacher. Martin and Liam were capable of the same ostentatious air of relaxation: that manner of behaving as if unobserved, to broadcast the serene consciousness of being closely observed. Martin and Liam and Mr. Kingsley, entirely ignoring their students, trading theatrical badinage between their improperly utilized chairs, formed not a clique, grown-ups being understood not to form cliques, but another sort of unit, perhaps best called a club. To Sarah, the existence of the club registered just below thought, as a sensation of hopeless exclusion. To David the existence of the club registered as an angering challenge he wished to reject — but in such a way that Mr. Kingsley and Martin and Liam would be abashed, and desirous of winning his favor. To Joelle it was merely three men, two of whom she’d not before assessed. Joelle quickly found Martin too old and dismissed him to the same inert heap where lay gay Mr. Kingsley. Liam, by contrast, was in range. As if her eyes were a stethoscope, Joelle measured his blood: high temperature, swift tempo. Energy zigzagged unpredictably through him like the charge through a poorly wired lamp. He had arrestingly unique, ice-blue eyes such as you read about in fairy tales, but they transmitted to Joelle some sort of muffled desperation. This was a good-looking guy who would never be sexy, due to what sort of deficit or obstacle it didn’t interest Joelle to discover. Dismissing Liam as well, Joelle returned to passing notes with Theodosia and Lilly about the packet of cocaine in Joelle’s makeup bag, and with whom they should share it at lunch.

Liam had been Martin’s star student some handful of years before this, and Martin had staged Candide specifically for him, which Martin’s current students seemed to accept with no trace of resentment. Liam was twenty-four, six years out of high school. Of Martin’s age no one was sure. Sarah would not learn Liam’s story, including his age, until Liam told her himself, later on in this Month of the English. Mrs. Laytner had been unusually visible since the English arrival, intersecting as it did with ambitions she had for the school. Their multimillion-dollar theatre, with its two hundred feet of flyspace, its four hundred red velvet seats, its twenty-four-thousand- dollar lightboard, would host touring dance companies, orchestras, and whatever else one found in such beacons as Los Angeles and New York. While the Bournemouth Candide marked the American debut of its director and precocious young actors, its greater importance was as CAPA’s debut as a venue on the stage of its city. A first performance of Candide during the regular school day was reserved for CAPA students and teachers, but this was only to keep them from taking up space at the two weekends of public performances, all of which had sold out in advance, after a photo-filled feature in the city newspaper, more evidence of Mrs. Laytner’s exertions.

By the day of the first performance, the CAPA “sneak preview,” the English People are almost halfway through their stay. They seem both familiar and foreign, as if they have always been here and as if they have just now arrived. Familiar are their faces and voices, their postures, their gaits — any one of the CAPA students can pick out any one of the English from the ocean of heads in the hall, across the width of the lot ducking into Joelle’s Mazda or vaulting into David’s convertible Mustang. Foreign is almost everything else. Well as the Sophomores know one another’s private lives, which Mr. Kingsley has made them yield up like paying dues into a fund, they’ve learned so little about their English peers they do not even notice how little they know. They don’t know if Rafe lives in a large house or in squalid government housing, if Cora is a knowing virgin or a discreet libertine. They can’t crack the code of their clothes, if there is such a code, or of their accents, which to them all sound the same. They don’t know what roles any of the English people, apart from Liam, are playing in Candide, nor what roles there are, nor even what the title role is, if “Candide” is a name or a thing. Busy as they are with this quarter’s Costume History and Shakespearean Monologue and American Songbook, not one of them has read Candide. They may imagine that its title has an exclamation point. They have never seen a rehearsal because it goes without saying that the English People have no need to rehearse. They have never seen sets, props, or costumes because these don’t exist. The English People travel light.

Sarah sits alone in the full house, hidden amid instrumental musicians. She is doubly exiled from Theatre now, persona non grata among the Juniors also. Somehow the year-old secret of her one night with Brett has become current news. They hadn’t even had sex; in her memory Sarah sees Brett’s narrow, hairless body and his abashed and drooping penis, pallid and cold to the touch. But these details do nothing to lessen her crime, just as her self-isolation, her cold-shouldering of loyal Julietta and Pammie, her funereal clothes, sullen curtain of hair, and dragon’s tail of cigarette smoke have done nothing to prepare her for being an actual outcast. She’s ablaze with fresh humiliation and can no more see beyond its nimbus of heat than could anyone being burnt at a stake.

The house lights go down. Greg Veltin has a list of lighting cues he’s been given by Martin. A lightboard operator being the only technician Candide requires, Greg Veltin is the only person at CAPA, indeed in the entire United States, who’s seen a rehearsal, as rehearsals in fact there have been. Greg Veltin is looking forward to the performance. Greg’s own paradoxes, of personality and persona, of social status and historical experience, perhaps uniquely equip him to look forward to it.

Greg Veltin brings up the first cue and out saunters Liam, in generically olden-times baggy white blouse and knee breeches. The stage is otherwise perfectly bare. At CAPA, elaborate sets, props, and costumes are always required to keep busy the students who will never be cast — or who once were but are not any longer. For example, Greg Veltin, once the next Fred Astaire, now anonymous lighting cues guy. Greg Veltin appreciates the blunt lack of bullshit in this English production. Apart from the lighting cues list that Greg holds, the production consists entirely of the actor who plays the hero, and eight other actors who play, variously, the other human roles, a couple of animals, and some items of furniture, roles that aren’t really performed but denoted, with a startling carelessness Greg Veltin knows is not actually careless. He has seen it repeated with flawless precision, the tossed-off gesture again tossed, with just the same strength to just the same distance, again and again, the definite vagueness maintained so you’re never quite sure if the gesture denotes an object or an action or even the set, as for example when actors get onto all fours, as they do frequently, to play at being tables, or sheep, or South American mountains, or something else altogether.

Once Liam sauntered onstage Greg’s concentration on his cues became complete; regretfully he couldn’t spare attention to the audience reaction for fear he’d mess up. Pools of light bloomed and faded to indicate scene changes that otherwise might go unnoticed — despite, or perhaps because of, the incessant and bellowed narration. “ONCE UPON A TIME THERE LIVED A BARON IN A GREAT FANCY HOUSE,” bellowed Cora, as the rest of them, the girls dressed like Cora in knee-length ruffled skirts and snug blouses, the boys dressed like Liam in loose blouses and snug breeches, charged onstage like attacking commandos, enacting a house, a baron, fine furnishings, servants, and many abuses of servants, while Liam, as Candide, wandered this frenetic landscape of events in such a haze of charismatic idiocy Greg couldn’t decide whether Liam was doing absolutely nothing onstage or whether he was a genius. Sarah, alone in her row of musicians, saw expressionless Miles standing arms akimbo, to indicate being a wall, over which Theodosia, on tiptoes, mimed peeking. Behind the “wall” were Lilly and Rafe, Lilly flat on her back with her legs scissored open, Rafe on all fours energetically thrusting. “OH!” shrieked Lilly with gusto. “OH! OH! OH!”

“ONE DAY,” competingly bellowed Simon, taking over for Cora as narrator, “WHILST SHE WALKED IN THE GARDEN, SHE SPIED MASTER PANGLOSS INSTRUCTING THE MAID IN SCIENCE. SHE THOUGHT SHE AND CANDIDE SHOULD LEARN SCIENCE TOO!” Theodosia determinedly yanked her skirts up to her waist and leaped onto Liam, whose expression of idiocy grew so much more idiotic that Greg Veltin concluded he must actually be performing, although with unique subtlety as compared with the rest of the cast. Sarah saw, without seeing, the thrusting of groins, heard without hearing the squeals and moans. No part of this pantomime struck her as sexual; she stared as if at animals or children, organisms beneath her interest. An indeterminate sound that was equally titter and murmur had spread through the house, like an erratic wind on water. Mrs. Laytner, who had been sitting in the front row with Mr. Kingsley, rose abruptly and stalked up the aisle. The doors at the rear of the theatre swung in her wake.

Was the performance cut short, or was it simply short at its full length? Even with such headlong swiftness — the English People raced through Candide as if in reasonable expectation that large hooks would yank them offstage — it was possible for audience members to grow more discerning. This was their first real experience of double entendre, and they were starting to get it, the joke of the mismatch between words and acts; they could catch it before it flashed past. There was another mismatch, between the actors’ acts and their blithe, even dopey expressions. Stupidly grinning, the English People — Rafe and Julian and Simon and Miles, Lara and Cora and Theodosia and Lilly, and, of course, Liam — energetically pantomimed killing each other and being killed by each other, by means of guillotine, gun, bonfire, dagger, and noose; they pantomimed natural deaths via drowning and sexually transmitted dis- ease; they pantomimed raping and being raped and consensual fucking; and above all, it seemed, instances of both forced and consensual ass-fucking. In the audience the uncertain titters and murmurs and utter confusion gave way to real, emboldened laughter flaring up here and there threatening to ignite the whole house, then turning inside out and resurfacing weirdly as shame. Things were very funny and without warning weren’t funny at all, they were deeply embarrassing, and just as quickly that was funny, that ridiculous seriousness — or was it? Were you an asshole for thinking it was? And why had you thought the word “asshole”? How incredibly funny! — or not.

Greg Veltin performed his last cue and turned his attention to Mr. Kingsley, still in the front row showing the rest of the house the expressionless back of his head. To his disappointment, Greg couldn’t derive any clues about the state of Jim’s, or rather, Mr. Kingsley’s, face, from the back of his head. Greg was no longer sure what he’d expected, or what he had hoped for. The show was over — had they taken their bows? Not having started with raising a curtain, they couldn’t end with lowering one, so just walked off the stage. As throughout, the audience, once released from the spectacle, could not reach consensus on how to react. Some stampeded for the doors. Some remained as if roped to their seats. Even these motionless ones, like Pammie, appeared torn between opposing impulses, in Pammie’s case the passive immobility of shock, and the active immobility of rage. Pammie’s seatmate, Julietta, didn’t stay to find out. For Julietta, the only thing worse than watching the show would be talking about it.

Copyright © 2019 by Susan Choi. All rights reserved.

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