One lurks in every high school: a charismatic teacher who cultivates a clique of acolytes. Miss Jean Brodie aside, this teacher is typically a man in his prime, parceling out the precious gift of his intimacy to a select group. No matter how many years have passed, you can probably still recall his name at your own school: the droll iconoclast who always seemed at odds with the administration, the cool teacher who made thrillingly inappropriate asides. Amid rumors of some past glory, he radiated an air of long-suffering superiority, as though his willingness to teach mere high school students were another example of his largesse.
In fact, as you realize later, he could thrive nowhere else but in that moist terrarium of adolescent desire. He was a vampire thirsty for the fervor of teenage boys and girls.
That immortal figure rises up at the center of Susan Choi’s “Trust Exercise,” the latest of her startling novels about academic life. Mr. Kingsley is a theater teacher at Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts, an elite institution “intended to cream off the most talented” students and prepare them for “their exceptional lives.” Mr. Kingsley is exotic by the standards of this unnamed Southern town in the early 1980s. He once lived in New York! He refers to Broadway star Joel Grey as Joel! He owns a “bizarre human-size doll that was supposed to be called a ‘soft sculpture.’ ” To the theater students desperate for his attention, “Mr. Kingsley was impossibly witty and sometimes impossibly cutting; the prospect of talking with him was terrifying and galvanizing; one longed to live up to his brilliance and equally feared that it couldn’t be done.”
This is the most precise skewering of a magnetic teacher since Muriel Spark’s 1961 classic. Choi’s voice blends an adolescent’s awe with an adult’s irony. It’s a letter-perfect satire of the special strain of egotism and obsession that can fester in academic settings. Choi is particularly attentive to Mr. Kingsley’s inane maxims, which his adoring students polish into sacred incantations. “The foundation we require for Ego Reconstruction is Ego Deconstruction,” he tells his disciples. “They fill their notebooks with such singular declarations, each of which, as they’re writing it down, seems to offer the key, or perhaps the keystone, that will make the whole structure cohere.” This reminds me so clearly of my own slavish scribblings during senior year that I can’t help but laugh and cringe, as though Choi were spying on me in high school.
As you’ll learn, she’s a master of emotional pacing: the sudden revelation, the unexpected attack. She’s equally astute at portraying the exaggerated passions of teenage life and the way that youthful energy warps the fabric of reality. “Remember the impossible eventfulness of time,” Choi tells us, “transformation and emotion packed like gunpowder into the barrel. Remember the dilation and diffusion, the years within days. Theirs were endless; lives flowered and died between waking and noon.” That’s exactly the explosive fecundity that “Trust Exercise” captures.
The student at the center of this story is 15-year-old Sarah, one of those sophisticated young women trapped in “the excruciating in-betweenness of no longer being children, yet lacking those powers enjoyed by adults.” She’s swept up in a steamy relationship with another sophomore, an insatiable young man named David whose sexual prowess sets the school ablaze with gossip. “They were as noticeable as lighthouses,” Choi writes. “Even when they both stared straight ahead, the wire ran between them, and their peers changed their paths to avoid tripping on it.”
How cunningly this novel considers the way teenage sexuality is experienced, manipulated and remembered. And no one writes about erotic misadventures with more vicious humor than Choi. She notes that one student’s crotch “trails an olfactory banner like some sort of sticky night flower to inflame jungle bats.” Inside an aggressor’s underpants “a single clammy mushroom thrived.” (In 2013, she was a finalist for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award, which wasn’t entirely fair: Bad writing about sex isn’t the same as good writing about bad sex.)
When Mr. Kingsley gets wind of Sarah and David’s tumultuous relationship, he sweeps in with a series of classroom activities — “trust exercises” — supposedly designed to elicit authentic emotions. But the enterprise feels both exploitative and humiliating, a kind of emotional pornography designed for his benefit. At the end of class when Mr. Kingsley says, “Sarah, come by and see me tomorrow at lunch,” her peers know she’s not in trouble. “Sarah has become the kind of Problem they would all like to be,” Choi writes. “How proud she feels, to command his attention.”
Don’t fancy you know where this is going; Choi will outsmart you at every step. Halfway through the novel, she suddenly recasts the entire story — several years in the future and from a different point of view. It’s a vertiginous maneuver that remains unsettling as Choi’s new narrator shifts erratically between first and third person, trying to unpack what’s “sealed in the amber of a childhood crush.” Who gave consent and who can give consent become questions complicated by a conspiracy of shame and shamelessness, the competing desires of young frenemies and unscrupulous adults. The result is a dramatic exploration of the distorting forces of memory, envy and art. Sex and adolescence are confusing enough, but especially so for a group of needy teens “taught that a moment of intimacy had no meaning unless it was part of a show.”
But perhaps these theater geeks aren’t so special — or unusual. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare observed, “and all the men and women merely players.” How those former theater students remember and misremember their school days might throw your own memories into doubt. And Choi’s brief final section, which “ends this strange eventful history,” will confound you yet again. Committing time and attention to a novel is always a trust exercise. This author never takes you where you thought you were going, but have faith: You won’t be disappointed.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
On May 4 at 3:30 p.m., Susan Choi will be in conversation with Nicole Chung at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
By Susan Choi
Henry Holt. 272 pp. $27