Camp ToB 2019

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Week Eight: Trust Exercise

This week, we take a very unexpected turn as we enter the second half of Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise. And it’s time for you to tell us which of our two July books you want to see in our end-of-summer finale.

Welcome to Camp ToB 2019, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books! All summer long, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2019—two books per month, two weeks per book—that you chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel, then meet here on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress through each book. At the end of each month you decide which of the two books we just read advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you make the ultimate call on which of our three finalists wins an automatic berth in the 2020 Tournament of Books.

Thank you to our Sustaining Members for making Camp ToB possible. Please take a moment to find out why The Morning News and the Tournament of Books depend on your support, and consider becoming a Sustaining Member or making a one-time donation. (Plus, Members get 50 percent off all Camp ToB gear and everything else at our store.) Thank you!

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Andrew Womack: This is going to be an interesting week at Camp ToB, and not just because Bullseye Doug’s 24-Hour Archorium opened up adjacent to our cabins. (And by the looks of those compound bows with laser sights, you can draw your own conclusions about the size of his settlement check.)

No, what’s unique about this week at Camp ToB is that, after covering the first half of Trust Exercise last week, this week it’s as if we’re discussing an entirely new book—because in a way, we are. That’s because right at the beginning of the second half of Trust Exercise, we find out that what we’ve been reading up to this point is in fact Sarah’s novel, published years after she and her classmates left CAPA, their performing-arts high school.

We learn this all from the perspective of Karen, who is now 30 and on her way to Sarah’s book signing at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, and who informs us that the versions of everyone we know from Sarah’s novel are highly inaccurate—including their names, though she continues to use them through the second half, which is helpful. She also tells us that in the years between high school and the present day, she has moved away from and returned to Houston (which remains unnamed), which is also where David now directs plays, one of which was written by and will be starring Martin, who has been fired from his teaching job in the UK for sexual improprieties.

We also find out that Karen left high school after Martin got her pregnant, and that—unbeknownst to him, until he reaches the States—she will be acting opposite him in the play. Karen ends her narrative on the play’s opening night, when her character is supposed to shoot Martin’s character with a gun. Which is exactly what she does, only she uses a real bullet that she fires into his groin.

Joining us as Activity Leader this week is Amanda McClendon. Amanda, please introduce yourself to the campers!

Amanda McClendon: Hi! I live in Houston, and I’m an electronic resources acquisition librarian, which is a fancy way of saying that I buy the database subscriptions for an academic library.

Andrew: Welcome to Camp ToB, Amanda. Thanks for being here. And your name may sound familiar to ToB fans—can you tell us why?

Amanda: That’s because I was lucky enough to be the Reader Judge in 2015. (I judged Station Eleven versus All the Light We Cannot See. I got to watch everyone’s heads explode in the comments after both books won the Zombie Round and was secretly cackling with glee behind the scenes.)

Andrew: It’s a remarkable coincidence, really, because our selection process for ToB Reader Judge is based entirely on what people say in their applications, whereas we randomly select our Camp ToB Activity Leaders—so I believe it’s accurate to say we’re lucky to have you back!

Last week we discussed the first half of Trust Exercise. I didn’t love it. Now I realize what I didn’t love wasn’t Susan Choi’s novel, but Sarah’s novel. The second half is an entirely different book, with fully drawn characters and plot—even Karen points out how unbelievable and ludicrous some of that novel is. Frankly, I am blown away at the sheer act of going so far to write a half a book that isn’t great—it’s quite a risk to take, with a huge potential to lose a reader. What did you think of the first half, and about where we’re at now?

Amanda: I love that kind of a twist, where the author reveals, ha, you fell for my trap. While I read the first half, I remember thinking that Sarah was kind of a terrible person but really not aware of it, and then once Karen takes over the story, I realized how true it was—the actual person, “Sarah,” is really an awful person and not aware of it, and her novel unintentionally exposed it. Her book reminded me a lot of things my peers and I wrote in high school, which is to say overwrought and self-focused (so say we all), but I’m really impressed by how intentionally Choi wrote it that way. (There’s part of me that wonders that if you asked “Sarah” about it, she’d also say she wrote it that way intentionally, trying to voice a teenage girl, but I’d still say she’s not a great writer.)

Andrew: Not to mention the overwrought sex scenes in the first half. With the revelation that Sarah wrote those, it all makes sense. Because they were terrible.

Amanda: Oh, I know. And again, it feels like they’re from the perspective of a person who is trying to imbue her teenage years with a weightiness they don’t deserve.

Andrew: I felt like I could really relate to Karen at the beginning of the second half. She didn’t like Sarah’s book, either. Something I noticed, too, was that she’d left her bookmark in Sarah’s book at page 131, which was also where Sarah’s book ends in Trust Exercise, as well as our stopping place in our Camp ToB reading schedule.

And speaking of Karen, how believable was her story to you? She tells us Sarah’s story was, at best, inaccurate, but did you believe Karen? Where is the truth here?

Amanda: Karen keeps disassociating from her own story. She tells you at the beginning that Karen is a fictional name, and then goes on to narrate her own story in the third person, in order to distance herself from it.

Andrew: Very interesting point.

Amanda: She only drops into first person occasionally, when she’s trying to sort out her feelings about something. She’s undergone trauma, whether inflicted upon her or whether she’s the one doing the inflicting. (I mean, I don’t know from experience, but shooting a guy in the junk in public is probably traumatic for everyone involved.) She’s trying to defend what probably looks to everyone around her as a pretty grievous act, and also trying to explain how Sarah’s story gets things wrong. It’s just as caught up in pain and defense and the effort of sorting out her life as Sarah’s novel, and both are fairly public acts, just in different ways. You know that phrase “your feelings are valid but they’re not necessarily true?” It’s the same here with both characters—Sarah and Karen’s stories are valid, they’re just not necessarily true.


Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

In an American suburb in the early 1980s, students at a highly competitive performing arts high school struggle and thrive in a rarified bubble. When two freshmen, David and Sarah, fall headlong into love, their passion does not go unnoticed—or untoyed with—by anyone, especially not by their charismatic acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley. The outside world of family life and economic status, of academic pressure and of their future adult lives, fails to penetrate this school’s walls—until it does, in a shocking spiral of events that catapults the action forward in time and flips the premise upside-down. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)

Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.


Andrew: As a side note, as a Houstonian, did you recognize Houston in the book?

Amanda: There were a lot of small details that I don’t think that anyone who’s not a Houstonian would recognize—the gay neighborhood where Mr. Kingsley lived is definitely Montrose/River Oaks, for example. CAPA is definitely an HSPVA analog. (I had friends who went there. ne’s an occupational therapist and the other’s in real estate now). And then in Claire’s section (the book’s epilogue, where we meet the daughter of a former CAPA student. —ed.) she name-drops Memorial Park, our big famous green space.

More than the geographical details, though, I think the book got a mood detail really right: Almost every kid I knew growing up wanted to get the heck out of Houston after graduation, and almost all of us have come back, like Karen and David. This city has a lot of gravitational pull for those who try to leave its orbit and I think it takes a lot of intention and work to get out entirely.

Andrew: I know what you mean. There was some discussion last week in the comments among members of our Houston Chapter about the book’s accuracy regarding that mood. I did love hearing details here and there in the book, such as that casual mention of Butera’s in the final section.

There’s a lot to talk about, I think, with the book’s title, beyond the context of theatre classes. And how each section of the book is titled “Trust Exercise.” Something that came to my mind was really about the relationship between the reader and the text, and how this act of reading is, in itself, a trust exercise. What do you think about this idea, as well as why each section is titled “Trust Exercise?”

Amanda: The book is built around a particular trust exercise, the one where people sit knee to knee and repeat the same phrase in multiple different ways to come to some sort of emotional or relational truth. And that’s what she’s doing with us, the reader. I don’t know if she’s so concerned about capital-F Facts as she is about trying to get us to look at the different facets of a story and have a visceral reaction to them. In repeating the story from the perspectives of these three different women, she’s entrusting us to come to some reckoning about sexual abuse, power, and emotional manipulation.

Andrew: I can’t say it’s the book’s intended consequence, but the reveal that the first half was really just a character’s bad novel really did shake my trust in the rest of the book. I loved this, I am really amazed at the twist, but I do feel it’s a risky move for a book, because halfway in, I wasn’t emotionally invested in any way. This could have been a DNF if it wasn’t for, you know, (gestures around Camp ToB Great Hall). Did you feel that way at all?

Amanda: Definitely, especially toward the end of the first section—all the characters are just so insufferable that I just didn’t care anymore. But I’m glad I pushed through, because it turned out to be a more complex and disturbing book than I had originally thought. I can’t really say that I like it, per se, but I’m still thinking about it.

Andrew: And what about that final section, where Claire—the third woman you mention, who I presume to be Karen’s daughter—visits the school to learn about her birth mother. Is this the truth we’ve been looking for in these stories? Or what?

Amanda: Is Claire Karen’s daughter? Or is she the daughter of any number of girls who had been preyed upon by the man we now know is named Robert Lord?

Andrew: Oh wow. Right.

Amanda: If she’s Karen’s daughter, that implies that Sarah wasn’t the only one trying to protect him; Karen was as well, by making the father of her baby Martin, which, going back to the trustworthiness question, adds an extra layer of doubt. Did she actually shoot Martin, or is that a revenge fantasy? Claire’s story exposes him as a sexual predator and finally tells the truth about him, or so we’re meant to conclude; she doesn’t have any incentive to protect a man that knew she might be his daughter and yet decided to try to seduce her. And yet she does—she’s not the one who brings the allegation to the school, someone else is. She’s just as much at a loss.

I’m also coming at this from a different standpoint than a lot of readers, in that I’m also adopted and recognize a lot of myself in Claire. (Like, down to our birth dates: I am also a January 1985 baby and had a bit of an uncanny moment when I came to that part.) I can’t speak for other adoptees, but I don’t know the circumstances of my conception other than a few details, and most of the stories I’ve told myself about my biological parents romanticize them. It’s only recently, with the rise of #metoo, that I’ve asked myself the questions: What if the story in my paperwork is covering up something? What if the act that led to my conception was sexual assault, and everyone involved chose to leave it out? Where is the truth? Who am I trying to protect in the narratives I construct—the idealized version of my biological parents, or am I trying to protect myself from the possibility of a less-than-great history? More relevant to our discussion, who are the women in Trust Exercise trying to protect—Robert Lord, or themselves?

Andrew: I think this is, ultimately, what I really enjoyed about this book. Like few other novels, it really makes you question what’s real, and even your preferred reality. Quite the experience.

Thank you, Amanda, for sharing your thoughts with us this week! It’s great to have you back.

And now it’s time for you, the Commentariat, to tell us which of our July books—Lost Children Archive or Trust Exercise—you want to send to our end-of-summer championship. Cast your vote in the poll below by Friday, Aug. 2 at midnight ET, and make sure to stop by the comments and tell us what you thought of the conclusion of Trust Exercise.

UPDATE: We've tallied your votes, and now have our July finalist: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli!


The Camp ToB 2019 Calendar


The Tournament of Books’ organizers Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin are TMN’s co-founders. Baldwin’s most recent book is Everything Now, winner of the 2022 California Book Award. For his other books, try More by The Tournament of Books Staff

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