Camp ToB 2019

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Week Seven: Trust Exercise

We head into the latter half of Camp ToB with the second book in our July matchup, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise.

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.

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Andrew Womack: With Lost Children Archive in our rearview, it’s time for us to move onto our second book in our July matchup, Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. So far, our two main characters are David and Sarah, two freshmen at a performing arts high school in the early 1980s, who are in love. Or maybe they aren’t. At least, they’re obsessed with one another. Between them and their larger circle of classmates—as well as their acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley—there’s a lot of infighting and competition and drama (in every sense, I suppose).

Joining us as our Activity Leader this week is Ellen Harrison—Ellen, please introduce yourself to the campers!

Ellen Harrison: Hello! My name is Ellen Harrison and I’ve lived in or near Princeton, NJ, since 1985 (not really any affiliation with the University). By day, I’m a librarian manqué, and in my spare time, I sing (specializing in folk and Broadway, although I’m also in a Great Works semi-professional choir), I contra dance, I do jigsaw puzzles, I weirdly spend an inordinate amount of time organizing social events and birthday parties for my circles of friends and acquaintances, and I’m sadly still an almost full-time parent to a 32-year-old Peter Pan. Of course, I also read voraciously—mostly literary fiction and mysteries, particularly British and Scandinavian ones, but really I’m kind of catholic in my tastes. I’ve been participating in the ToB since 2013, and have been more or less a completist since The Year of the Tomes, 2014—which was also the year I watched the Strangest Little Book That Could, The People in the Trees, climb up and up until it finally was vanquished. And just like that, I was totally hooked.

The other important point about me as a reader is that I have the habit of buttonholing my friends and even total strangers and forcing books upon them, and oddly this has not made me unpopular.

Andrew: Hahha. Well, let’s see if Trust Exercise becomes one of those books!

The place to start with this one, I think, is our cast of characters. We get quite the rapid-fire introduction to everyone, and then we slowly start to find out more about them. But then we don’t really find out all that much more. What’s your take on the novel’s population thus far?

Ellen: Well, I was once a theater—excuse me, theatre—kid myself, and at a time not all that removed from these ones (1973 to 1977), so I recognized and identified to some extent with their over-self-dramatization, intensity of relationships, the weirdly inappropriate connections with teachers, etc. Mr. Kingsley, though, seemed way over the top even for that type. I had a hard time believing that parents and administration would allow him to get away with some of that stuff, and also, there seemed to be no actual craft or acting or theatre learned. This was either a weird mistake on the author’s part, or a setup for something else, but I would have thought there’d be more discussion of plays they were reading and scenes they were doing in class. They never seemed to do anything like that. And I never got a real sense of any of the kids having any real talent, except in random moments, like when Manuel auditions for the play and it turns out he can sing—which makes no sense, frankly. In those environments, no one keeps a talent hidden for long. How could they get months into the program—or is it a year by then?—and not have known he was a trained operatic singer?

Andrew: I know what you mean. I felt like there was a stock predictability to these characters and their actions. Mr. Kingsley is the theatre teacher who breaks all the rules. Manuel is the ugly duckling who suddenly reveals himself to all. I certainly drifted in and out of believing the narrative. What about you?

Ellen: Definitely. I also found the way all the students—including Mr. Kingsley—suddenly turned against Sarah somewhat unlikely. It seemed cartoonish.

There was one moment that was so exactly right, though, as a reflection of this type of kid at that time. On page 35 all the boys are described as being totally taken with Monty Python and “embarrassing the girls with their flawlessly recalled and completely unfunny enactments of skits.” I was visitated, at various times in my life, by first a brother, then a husband (English), and finally a son, all of whom were obsessed with Monty Python, and caused me to realize that Monty Python, while funny in and of themselves, were totally not funny when recited by others. This passage made me begin to love this book. It was spot on.

In a way, I think I’d have a better handle on the characters if I knew where they were. I just know they’re in a fairly large city in the south that has the fourth largest gay neighborhood in the country. Did they ever actually name the city?

Andrew: It’s never specified outright, but it seems to be Houston—my hometown. I wasn’t quite sure whether I was picking up on certain cues in the text, but somewhat out of nowhere, in the section talking about the characters’ various futures, we learn that one of the students will one day be a manager at Whataburger, a burger chain primarily in Texas, which is what first tipped me off. So I looked and saw that Susan Choi attended Houston’s High School for the Performing Arts, which she says in the book’s acknowledgements—is that reading ahead?—is the basis for CAPA, the school in the book. When I lived in Houston I did know a couple of people who went there, and they were really very cool and smoked a lot of clove cigarettes.


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.


Ellen: Ah! That makes sense. Did you identify more with the book because of that?

Andrew: Less than identifying with the book or the characters, it just started to sound like the place I know. It’s funny, because looking back at the early parts of the book now—before I knew where it was—this description is so clearly Houston, yet when I first read it, it sounded entirely fictitious:

The city, like vines with no trellis, sprawled out thinly and nonsensically, its lack of organization its sole unifying aspect. Gracious neighborhoods of live oak and chunky brick mansions, such as the neighborhood where David lived, lay cheek by jowl with wastes of gravel, or US Postal Service facilities resembling US Army bases, or Coca-Cola bottling plants resembling wastewater treatment facilities.

What about where we’re at in the book? How are you feeling with where the plot’s headed? I’ve got a lot of assumptions that I’m hoping are dashed in the second half. Where do you think the book is headed next? Where do you want it to go?

Ellen: I think we’ve been set up to think that at around this point, we’ll switch to all of them grown up and we’ll see how the high school they went to affected them.

But, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that before I was assigned the book for Camp ToB, I read there is a huge shift in the book about halfway through—and I desperately hope I’m not spoiling you, since it’s also right there in the blurb—so frankly I’m expecting a huge and interesting and shocking change around now.

Andrew: Knowing this actually invigorates my interest in this book.

I usually try and keep my blinders on, but I’m glad I know something different awaits. We’re halfway through, and I haven’t felt any real connection with these characters or the action—I’m just not seeing a lot of depth happening on either front. As a result, I’m having a lot of trouble staying with this one.

Ellen: I’m sorry to hear that. I found it totally easy going, but now I’m worried that I might have gotten your expectations up for the second half—and also, that my expectations might be too high. Hmmm. What if it doesn’t really change at all?

Andrew: I’m going to err on the side of optimism here. Again, there’s a lot of love out there for this book, so I’m just going to trust—pun?—that something is going to turn this around for me.

And I really am hopeful here. At points in the first half I’ve wondered if this is all just some kind of send-up of the whole vein of elite academia lit, specifically The Rules of Attraction and The Secret History. And given the setting of Trust Exercise in the ’80s, I wondered if we’re reading a facsimile of an ’80s novel? (This idea actually gives me kind of a thrill, if this is what’s happening here.) With the sex and competitiveness and competitive sex? Any thoughts on the setting here and whether any of my sense of this as a throwback satire holds any water?

Ellen: Well, it definitely seems to reflect the early ’80s—but like I said, I was a theatre kid not that long before this time, and we were definitely not mired in the kind of sex and drugs that seem to be a hallmark of this crowd.

Andrew: OK, so let’s talk about those sex scenes. My first reaction was definitely: WHOA. My second was: NO THANK YOU.

Ellen: I’m finding the sex kind of cringeworthy, and when Sarah just had sex with Liam [a visiting student from the UK —ed], I found myself desperately worrying about whether they used any protection of any kind. I had convinced myself that when she was in a consistent relationship with David they were taking care of it, but this was so random—I sure hope she protected herself.

Andrew: That was perhaps the one detail left unmentioned. Here’s a sampling of Liam and Sarah’s encounter, for the Commentariat’s consideration:

And she was, in a strange way, excited. All the physical signs of Liam’s ardor abashed and shocked her. He flailed; his dead white hairy limbs appeared impaled on the stem of his unaccountably wrinkly erection which he took in his fist and seemed to squirt redly at her, for he’d yanked back the covering skin. Sarah had never seen or even imagined an uncircumcised penis; she must have gaped at it, delighting him further. But along with these dismaying physical extrusions came verbal ones which made her shudder with astonishment. He talked constantly, mostly incomprehensibly, but what of his babble she grasped was unstintingly filthy. His voice rose and fell as he jabbered at her, like the voice of a gleefully mischievous boy who’s found a pornographic novel and is reading it aloud. And the words he used! So much filthier for being nursery words a mincing mother might use as she wiped a fat baby. He called it his willy—“Oh my willy’s going in!—it’s going in!—so squashy wet my willy’s in your squashy wet tight squashy hot—” Nothing could have been less suave—he didn’t touch her so much as he yanked, poked, jabbed, squeezed as if her body were some sort of toy—and yet she heard herself, a rising note of protest or a siren of warning, “Noooo, noooo, noooo.” And the horrible pleasure, pushing outward from her like a flower of flesh with great muscular petals like tongues, in its enormous agonizing opening so overpowered her she could not even feel his “willy” or any other part of him anywhere in or near her, as if he’d shrunk to a speck and been swept out to sea on the flood of her unwanted pleasure.

Nevertheless, I am hopeful for the second half, since you say we’re in for something different.

Ellen: I’m hoping it meets our expectations!

Andrew: I agree. Thank you for joining us, Ellen, and now we hand the discussion over to the Commentariat. Tell us what you thought of the first half of Trust Exercise!


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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