Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is formally fun in that it plays around with narration and point of view, with authorial perspective, with time in ways that are surprising, and so, sort-of engaging. The trouble is, the plot and character aren’t compelling enough to stand behind the formal play, and so this reader was left debating whether it was worth marching on through another teenage dramatic scene (literally – the protagonists are teenagers in a drama program at a fancy arts high school; and figuratively – they are also in love and thwarted by pride and ego) in order to get to the next quirky formal element.
I decided two thirds of the way in that, no, it was not. So I can’t tell you if it has a sudden turnaround where all the hours of hand wringing longing for the lost lover is satisfied. I can tell you that there are some strange sex scenes (if that’s your thing), and uncomfortable moments of power imbalance between adults and children, and a pretty good adult recollection of how painful feeling are when you’re a teenager (which, being an adult recalling this period, I must say I am poorly equipped to comment on whether this is an accurate picture of how proper teenagers feel). So I don’t know, if your thing is weird formal elements and a kind of engaging, but not really, romance/gender plot, then… have at it.
The whole point of this blog is to not forget what I’ve read. Listening to NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour on the way to Thanksgiving, one of the commentators described his memory of books – impressions, phrases, characters – and that he didn’t ever remember plots because plots didn’t matter to him. I’d like to believe that my own absent recollection of plot is due to a similar disinterest (or perhaps lack of active interest), but I do enjoy a good plot when I’m reading it, so it seems more likely the case the I just don’t have a memory that supports linear recollection (ask my friends and they’ll tell you the frequency with which I have to be reminded that we’ve done X or Y together – thank god (not really) for FB and its timeline to tell me where and what I’ve been doing). Do plots matter? Do our recollections (or lack of) impact our ability to retrospectively appreciate a book? If all I can tell you about *The Corrections* (pre-blog era read) is that I loved it and that there’s a scene with a frozen fish down someone’s pants, I’m not much of a reader, or am I? Maybe it’s my saturation with novels – that at some point I hit critical mass and my memory couldn’t be bothered accommodating another. Let’s go with that.
All this to say I neglected to write this review right away. I waited ten days and in so doing started another novel (and did the usual daily things of work and play) and in the in between have lost the thread of Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal. Let’s ascribe some of the blame to the book itself. Seems fair. From what I remember there are two interwoven plots both preoccupied with sex, moral maturation and above all what we act for others and what is true to ourselves. Or more, that it’s impossible to separate “who we really are” from the face we put on for others. That much as we’d like – now and in our formative years – to believe we have an inner self and the self we project to the world around us, we are all entirely artifice and surface. Peel away the layers of acting and acted-upon and you’ll just get to further obfuscation. So the one thread is a young boy, enrolled in an avant garde acting school where the teachers deliberately break down the accepted walls between theatre and life (staging all sorts of instructional interventions wherein the students themselves can’t be sure what is acted and what is real). The other thread has a young girl sorting out her personal and sexual identity amid a sex scandal (her sister has had an affair with the high school teacher) – her story becomes the plot for a play developed by the young boy’s acting class.
Catton achieves this well executed thematic punch (you’re only ever artifice!) through brilliant interplay of content and form. As the two disparate narratives pull together this reader found it increasingly impossible to determine what was “on stage” and acted from what was “real” (that is, the main thread of the plot). In fact, this novel – as I recall – has one of the best demonstrations of the power of the novel’s form to exaggerate or illuminate the novel’s thematic content. I harp on about form and content in historical fiction all the time, but in this instance it was the ability of narrative point of view, short sentences, absent chapter divisions, quirky tense shifts and misplaced modifiers to make this reader uncertain about the nature of the chapter: was this real? was it part of the play? did it matter?
So read this one if you like formal play and a single note theme (I admit to being sufficiently saturated with the all-is-artifice theme by the end). Or if you’re into avant garde theatre. Or if you want to help me remember what it was about – feel free to send me a plot summary. I promise to read it and then promptly forget.