Susan Choi Complicates the Plot

How rage and the Access Hollywood tape inspired this spring’s most inventive and polarizing novel.

Photo: Daniel Dorsa
Photo: Daniel Dorsa

When the novelist Susan Choi arrives at the launch party for the new Center for Fiction in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a woman bearing a clipboard is waiting to take her name. Choi pulls off her soft gray beanie as the woman scans the list with a furrowed brow and then scurries over to another staffer. “Hmmm,” says the gatekeeper. “Are you sure you’re on the list?” Choi explains that she’s a member of the workspace and was personally invited. “But did you buy a ticket?” the woman presses. Finally, she shrugs her shoulders, as if to concede that she’s just too polite to reject a partycrasher. “You can go in I guess.”

With a shining silver bob and a strong brow, Choi, who recently turned 50, looks like a cross between Stacy London and a younger Susan Sontag. She has just driven two and a half hours after teaching back-to-back writing seminars at Yale, then negotiated a series of contradictory parking signs out front. She’s usually so exhausted after six hours of teaching and four hours commuting that she heads home and immediately crashes. But she joined up to use the Center’s dedicated “writers’ room” and is curious to check out her new digs.

As we venture into the party in our February parkas — the coat-check attendants tell us there is no room — Choi can’t help but giggle at the indignity of nearly being bounced. She grabs a plastic cup of wine and eyes the new space, which resembles a Barnes & Noble designed by West Elm — thick blond wood and black walls with impractically tall bookshelves. In the vast, modish reading room upstairs, dozens of portraits of the greatest living writers — from Karl Ove Knausgaard to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — loom over partygoers. The real Salman Rushdie swoops past his portrait. Elizabeth Strout stands nearby in a black leather jacket, prompting me to look around for her photo, too. Choi bumps into the photographer, who insists he once took her picture at a festival. I can’t find it on the walls.

Choi has been writing novels for 20 years, but Trust Exercise, her mind-bending new book, is her best shot at joining the pantheon of authors whose faces are mounted on walls and recognized at the door. It is the sort of page-turning metafiction that readers love to argue about — a Gen-X bildungsroman that speaks to younger generations, a Russian nesting doll of unreliable narrators, and a slippery #MeToo puzzle-box about the fallibility of memory. It’s also a paean to anger, arguably the defining emotion of our time, and after decades of tamping it down, Choi came by it honestly around the time Donald Trump got elected and she separated from her husband. “I’m conscious of having been so mad during so much of the writing of this book,” she says. “Like really mad.”

Photo: Daniel Dorsa

I’m not entirely sure if I should believe everything Susan Choi says. Not because she’s a liar — nothing about her demeanor suggests she’d even make up an excuse for running five minutes late. In person, she is expressive and very friendly. But in conversation and in Trust Exercise, every fact comes couched in clear bubble wrap: refracted, cushioned, cramped. Choi always wants me — and perhaps you, too — to know that there is no such thing as a single truth.

In her first four novels, Choi asked broad, deep questions about what it meant to be an American. She personalized the real-life dramas behind the news — Patty Hearst’s lost year (in the Pulitzer-nominated American Woman), the Unabomber’s letter-writing campaign (in Person of Interest). She dug up the intellectual roots of unlikely love affairs (in The Foreign Student and My Education). Her sentences were like quilled paper, rolling up into curlicues, folded together so elaborately that their meanings couldn’t always be extracted.

Critics, especially those who are also novelists, have always liked her work: “If we’re lucky, [Person of Interest] may turn out to be a prototypical 21st-century novel,” Francine Prose wrote in the New York Times. Of her most recent novel, My Education, Meg Wolitzer wrote, “I felt like I was in an obsessive relationship with it. I wanted to read it all the time.” Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist, first came to Choi’s work while reviewing American Woman. The two are now friends and neighbors in Fort Greene. “She’s really an original,” Egan says. “She’s following an internal rudder to territory that’s always fascinating.”

Which is to say, Choi is a writer’s writer: “A lot of people that I have a high opinion of have a high opinion of her,” says another friend, the author Sigrid Nunez. But the public has never quite sunk its teeth into Choi’s work, and she knows this. “By the time American Woman was getting critical accolades,” she says “it was underperforming already.”

Trust Exercise is preoccupied with many of Choi’s enduring themes — shifting power balances in relationships, the violence that undergirds American life, sex’s stranglehold on intimacy. But unlike the first four novels, Trust Exercise is self-aware. It’s a perfectly stitched together Frankenstein’s monster of narrative introspection and ambiguity. Before writing it, “I got sick of myself,” Choi explains. So in her latest novel, “I wasn’t laboring over making the sentences pretty.”

This time, Choi’s sentences don’t curlicue; they end in pointed spikes. Like Muriel Spark, whom Choi read while conceiving of Trust Exercise, it has a “lean self-effacing tartness.” Instead, it’s the plot that contorts. Some writers told me the novel is already hotly debated in literary circles for the tricks it plays with its narrators — or, rather, for the tricks its narrators play. One novelist told me that everyone she knows “either adores it or loathes it.”

The first 131 pages are the story of Sarah and David, two freshmen at CAPA, a performing-arts high school in an unnamed southern city that’s “rich in land, poor in everything else.” It’s the early 1980s, and as part of their induction to the cultish, elite theater program, the freshmen embark on a series of bonding drills — the trust exercises of the title. One day Mr. Kingsley, the intellectual high priest and kingmaker of CAPA, turns off all the lights, “plunging them all into a locked lightless vault.” Sarah, with her bedazzled jeans, is easily identified by touch, and David finds her body in the dark, takes her thumb in his mouth, and begins to kiss her. The exercise sets off a rapid fall of dominoes: David and Sarah’s torrid summer romance, their wordless breakup on the first day of sophomore year, one last screw on the cold, hard floor of CAPA’s hallway, and an escalating sequence of humiliations.

Over all these events, Mr. Kingsley presides as puppet master. His teaching methods are the sort that we might once have termed “unconventional” but now read like borderline abuse, perhaps even a kind of predation. In the spring of junior year, he invites a “performing troupe” of British students to campus, accompanied by 20-something Liam, and their middle-aged teacher, Martin. Martin pursues Sarah’s classmate Karen and Liam chats up Sarah. A party at Mr. Kingsley’s house becomes an Ice Storm for the children of Rick Moody’s generation. Sarah ends up in a bedroom with Liam, and what proceeds is a revoltingly astute rendering of her “unwanted pleasure” and emotional paralysis. He squashes her on the bed. Sarah is disgusted by his “dead white hairy limbs” and “unaccountably wrinkly erection.” She yells out “Noooo, noooo, noooo”—but then orgasms. It’s a sticky scene, heaving with sweat and indignity, landing perhaps at the edge of rape.

This isn’t the first time Choi has written about sexual-power dynamics between older men (often teachers) and younger women (including teenagers). Her first novel, The Foreign Student, involves a middle-aged professor who lures a 14-year-old girl into a relationship. My Education centers on a love triangle between a graduate student, her professor, and his wife. But all that came before Harvey Weinstein and Trump. “I wanted Trust Exercise to somehow be about how radically differently we’re seeing this stuff,” says Choi. “But then again, how many of us are seeing it differently, and is it making a difference?”

Choi spent her first nine years in South Bend, Indiana, where her father, Chang, who emigrated from Korea in the mid-1950s, taught mathematics at Indiana University. After her parents’ divorce, she moved to Houston with her mother, Vivian, an administrative secretary at Rice University. Her first published work was a contest winner for 5-to-8-year-old writers in the magazine Cricket, which was thought of as “The New Yorker for children.” She kept up what she calls a “literary persona” and attended a performing-arts school not very different from the CAPA of Trust Exercise. She confesses to a minor wild streak in those days: “We’re very close, but my mom did not have much of a handle on me.”

At Yale, Choi says (repeatedly) that she “floundered,” bouncing around in four or five different majors before landing on literature, “this realm of black turtleneck sweaters and chain-smoking. Sexy jargon that no one understood.” It was late in the era of Lacan and poststructuralism. By the time Choi graduated and headed to Cornell for a Ph.D. (which she didn’t complete), she’d come to believe that “I’ve really never been properly educated.”

In New York, she found a job at a literary agency, but a couple of days in, the agent “wrote me a check for the rest of the week and said, ‘You’re a literary snob, and I can’t have you working for me.’ ” She applied to work at The New Yorker as the assistant to the fiction editor but ended up in fact-checking. During her time there, she wrote The Foreign Student. A friend of a friend connected her with an agent; she sold the book, did a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and won the 1999 Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction.

“What’s so embarrassing to admit but what is probably pretty true,” says Choi, “is when I was a young writer trying to finish my first novel, I really thought if I could just finish this book and sell it, everything else will be okay. I’ll be a real writer.” She waits a beat. “It’s totally untrue.”

She told me this over lunch the day before the party, at a hushed restaurant in Tribeca, where I also gained a small insight into the relationship between Choi’s shifting perspectives and those that animate Trust Exercise’s shattering first twist. We were tucked inside a bentwood booth of pale oak, scanning our menus, when Choi tucked her glossy, photogenic silver hair behind her right ear. Every time she glanced back down at the menu, the hair slid back out, and she tucked it away — over and over.

I might not have noticed this if it weren’t the same tic that so agitates the surprising new narrator of the second section of Trust Exercise. We had just been reading a third-person omniscient narrative, but suddenly here is Karen, standing outside a bookstore in L.A., ten years after high-school graduation, watching through the window as Sarah begins to read from her new novel — which is the 131 pages we just read. “It couldn’t be an accident,” Karen narrates, “that [Sarah’s] side-parted hair was just slightly too short to remain anchored out of her face every time her right hand, in a demure little movement, tucked it behind her right ear. She tucked; and it fell out … She tucked; it fell out.”

Karen is watching and constructing Sarah as a performer. At the same time, Karen’s story — the next 102 pages of Trust Exercise — is also a performance. “‘Karen’ is not ‘Karen’s’ name,” she explains of herself in the third person, “but ‘Karen’ knew, when she read the name ‘Karen’ [in the novel], that it was she who was meant … ‘Karen’ is a yearbook name, filler, a girl with a hairstyle like everyone else’s and a face you’ve forgotten.” Sarah (or is it “Sarah”?) has stolen away “Karen’s” life, or a version of it, and gotten it wrong, or so “Karen” says. She remembers that Sarah turned to writing as consolation for being ostracized in high school. But then Sarah actually succeeded, “having aimed lower,” according to Karen, “and chosen a talent anybody could fake with the right kind of tools.” That is, fiction.

This outrage sets Karen off on what will become Choi’s suspenseful second act — a mission to reunite Sarah, David, and Martin for a final reckoning. It could all be so hokey in the wrong hands, like a high-school creative-writing assignment. In the hands of the kind of faker Karen believes Sarah to be, a narrative this self-referential and overt could explode into a fireworks display of narcissism or collapse under its own scaffolding. Instead, it flexes its own meta-existence — as a novel about the manipulation inherent in any kind of narrative — brilliantly. “It cheapens it to imply it’s a game,” says Nunez. “This is a very serious book about a human experience and what goes on inside people’s heads and hearts.”

Trust Exercise’s first section is compelling enough as a straightforward tale about teenage romance and the distortions adults impose on it. But Karen’s section, with its pulsing oscillation between the first and third person, its whiplash-inducing self-questioning, its spectacularly assembled voice, is itself an exercise in how to compose a text about artifice that never feels artificial. The third section — a coda that I dare not spoil with even a single detail more — swathes the story in a final narrative layer that doesn’t so much tie up loose ends as explode the whole contraption.

Trust Exercise’s most obvious ancestor is Ian McEwan’s Atonement, another novel in which characters emerge from the future to contradict a story about sexual power and abuse. But unlike McEwan’s metanarrative, Trust Exercise isn’t concerned with a definitive and “correct” conclusion. Atonement ends with a revelation and perhaps redemption. Trust Exercise never really guarantees that it has given you an ending at all.

Karen accuses Sarah of taking liberties — creating composites, sidelining people, and perhaps dangerously romanticizing Mr. Kingsley. Sarah, we learn from Karen, “had spent the summer [after junior year] in England with her much older lover,” which surely complicates that bedroom scene. But Karen, too, is manipulating her own story. She’s self-reflective beyond believability, and she often punctures her own authority. Her interiority is a hall of mirrors; each reflection is the product of so many others that it stops mattering where they originate.

What seems to anger Karen most of all is Sarah’s neat, linear gloss on a horrific story — a #MeToo story, though Karen would never say that. Mr. Kingsley, she implies, hypnotized his students in far more nefarious ways than Sarah lets on. And Sarah may have been coerced, but Karen was a victim, too, one whose story has gone untold.

Choi is admittedly biased toward Karen, whom she sees as a valiant underdog: “I so enjoy her intelligence. I so enjoy the fact that she knows that everyone underestimates her … and Karen just quietly says, “‘Your loss.’ I really … I had a great time with that.”

Time and again, Choi tells me that Trust Exercise owes its final form to an upswell of rage, public and private. It began as a side project while she worked on what she thought would be her fifth novel — a story loosely based on her grandfather, a renowned scholar and critic in Korea, “a figure of both prominence and scandal.” She would head to Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library in between writing seminars to research Korean history, but find herself scribbling Sarah and David’s story. As the fall of 2016 and the election crept closer, “I was really irate and unruly with myself. I was feeling very much as if I’d wound up traveling down this road I hadn’t meant to travel.”

At the same time, Choi’s marriage of 13 years, to Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, came undone. The two have continued to share a house, though they live on separate floors, and co-parent their two sons, who are 11 and 14. They’d been together for six years prior to their marriage, encompassing Choi’s entire writing career. The Foreign Student and American Woman are both dedicated to Wells.

The couple had recently separated when the Access Hollywood tape leaked. Trust Exercise was initially inspired by abuse scandals like the one at the Bronx prep school Horace Mann. As the election grew closer, however, Choi realized that the conversations around sexual assault were becoming more urgent, as if Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” comments had uncorked a geyser of women’s anger.

Along came “Karen,” in a moment Choi remembers vividly. Choi was about to eat lunch with a friend who’d brought Russ & Daughters to her workspace. “I remember sort of dealing with the elevator to let him in so that we could eat together in the kitchen,” when a sudden idea popped into her head like a cartoon bubble. “She’s mad,” Choi thought, “and I heard her voice … I just thought, Karen’s pissed off. She probably didn’t experience those years, and those events, the way Sarah did, and that’s going to make her really mad.”

Choi also reexamined her own memories. “I remember beginning to feel the interest of grotesquely, inappropriately older men,” she says. She offers an anecdote, “like something out of Joyce Carol Oates”: When she was in middle school, Choi began calling a local radio station for song requests. The DJ flirted with her over the phone. “He would play my song, and I don’t know how it happened, but we developed this sort of telephone banter. I felt sophisticated and recognized as a smart, interesting girl, and somehow I gave him my address. I never met him. I don’t think. But he left me a package” — a T-shirt, a card, maybe a photo; she doesn’t really remember.

She had an older boyfriend in high school, too. (“Don’t tell my mother,” she says, laughing.) In grad school, “it was barely surprising that there were affairs being conducted between professors and graduate students.” It was gossip, not scandal.

But as Trust Exercise came together, Choi began to reevaluate her earlier use of sexual trauma as fictional backstory. In the late ’90s, when she came to the conclusion that The Foreign Student’s Katherine had been abused by that older professor; it “felt so deeply familiar and inevitable.” But with Trust Exercise, she began asking herself, “Why does it feel so inevitable?” Katherine, like Sarah, is “smart, she’s discerning, she’s attractive, she has agency, she has the power to choose things. Why does it seem so inevitable that she ends up tangled up with a much older man, who uses her and discards her? Why is that such a familiar story?”

Although sexual abuse is the through-line of Trust Exercise, the novel doesn’t hand down a verdict. That’s what makes it so riveting. “It’s not this simple scenario of the vampire men and victim girls,” Choi says on our long drive, growing animated. “I finished the book in draft form before the #MeToo autumn of 2017, but I wasn’t happy with it. I didn’t think it was done.” She had to write three more endings until she found the right one. But the Weinstein revelations didn’t encourage her to reconstruct it as a social-justice fantasy. “I completely disagree with this idea that we can just identify all of the bad men, and haul them into a pen, and lock the gate, and everything will be fine.” Choi expresses no sympathy for sexual abusers, but she does see something to be gained from breaking free of the tyranny of one single truth to examine how individuals distort and magnify their own memories.

The Kavanaugh hearings crystallized “everything that I’d ever thought about regarding Trust Exercise, in a nutshell,” she says. “I started to suspect that it wasn’t even about someone telling the truth, and someone telling lies, as much as it might have been about how differently two people can see the world.” If you grew up white and very privileged, like Kavanaugh, “you may not even remember the sorts of damage you might’ve inflicted on someone, because they didn’t even register to you at the time.” In this light, the title of her novel has a double meaning. It’s an acrobatic working out of the ultimate #MeToo question: Whom can we trust? Can we even trust ourselves?

Photo: Daniel Dorsa

The more time I spent with Susan Choi, the more I wondered who exactly she was. She tends to deflect questions about her hobbies, how she spends her time, even what we should do together. When I ask her whether some readers might look for remnants of biography in her fiction, she is highly resistant. Ultimately, Choi says, she is simply “not an interesting person.” (She uses a Flaubert quote as a sort of mantra: “Be steady and well ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”) While Karen does her best to glamorize her life as a professional organizer, Choi does the opposite. She is “not one of these people who worked on a lobster boat for a summer, or went hiking in Kathmandu, or volunteered with Doctors Without Borders, or lived in Guatemala.”

She seems wistful, though not disappointed by any of this. But on the subject of career expectations, she suddenly opens up. “To be really blunt, I think I had really youthful and naïve expectations of what a career as a novelist would be.” When I ask her about the writers whose stature she hopes to emulate, she offers “somebody like Alice Munro, who achieved recognition relatively late.”

Recognition is relative, after all. “Your book can make the cover of the Times Book Review, as my second book did, and not necessarily sell very many copies,” she says. “People still find that really shocking. I know people who are aware of books of mine because they got really great reviews, who assume that I must be sitting on this mountain of wealth as a result.”

The Pulitzer nomination did nothing to alter that self-perception. And yet, Choi has just written an astonishing whirling dervish of a story about a novelist from a big southern city who has hit it big writing a bildungsroman about the wide-ranging implications of her years at a theater-arts high school. If she can imagine that kind of success for Sarah, why not for herself?

When I ask Nunez, who won a National Book Award last year after decades in relative obscurity, if Choi has gotten the recognition she deserves, she doesn’t hesitate: “Certainly not. Certainly not. I think that she’s enormously respected, she’s won important awards, she’s gotten stellar reviews. But it isn’t just a question of sales. She deserves a much larger readership.” Trust Exercise is picking up steam. It’s on virtually every major media outlet’s “most anticipated books” list—which seems minor but could boost preorder sales, which can launch a novel in its first, crucial weeks out in the world. At the Center for Fiction party, another novelist who had read an advance copy of Trust Exercise eagerly approached me and asked for an introduction to Choi. Nunez, who knows about the power of awards, offers some unsolicited prophecy: “This book could be a big prize-winner.”

If that happened, the world would validate not just the writer Choi has been but the one she’s become. You could argue — though she would certainly shudder to hear it — that for the first 20 years of her career, Choi was the Sarah of her own story. She wrote neat, lyrical novels that purported to tell a Truth. The sexual lives of her earlier protagonists unfolded like a passed note. It’s no surprise that she found solace in the words of Flaubert, the man who radicalized and then popularized realism hatched out of misery.

But Choi is now Karen, born of her own fury. She is willing to set fire to traditional narrative, to undermine her own characters, to stomp all over her own beautiful sentences. A couple of hours into our drive from New Haven, she spoke of Monica Lewinsky, whose treatment in the early ’90s “just made me sick.” Stories like Lewinsky’s are what made the sexual-power dynamics in Trust Exercise so interesting to her. “That’s why I related to Karen,” she says. “I think Karen was like, No, I don’t want to be someone who comes forward with the label of victim.” It should be said that Karen, the underdog Choi so relished writing, does eventually surprise everyone.

I worry that Choi will read this and scoff at my armchair analysis, or grow angry that I’ve left important bits out of a period of her life that’s extremely important to her. Choi would argue that she is neither of her protagonists. But perhaps she’d appreciate that she’s also no longer just herself. She’s now a subject, a character, an idea of a novelist.

The party at the Center for Fiction is winding down, and we’re milling around the emptying space when Choi and I notice that everyone else is departing with a tote bag. The coat checkers who declined to take our parkas earlier in the evening are handing out the party favors, so we pick up bags of our own. It isn’t until we’re back among a group of Choi’s friends that she reaches into her tote and pulls out a familiar book. It’s a bright-pink galley of Trust Exercise.

“Wait,” she says with a half-stunned grin, “did everyone get this?” She looks at me with disbelief. “They’re giving everyone my book?”

Trust Exercise will be published on April 9.

*A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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