Trust Exercise
  • March 17, 2020

    Opening Round

  • Susan Choi

    1Trust Exercise

    Caleb Crain

  • Judged by

    Catie Disabato


Do you decide if you like a book while you’re reading it or after you finish? After you finish, that’s the mature choice, right? But I don’t think that’s what I actually do. Every time I pause while reading a novel, dog-earing the page (absolutely come for me on this practice if you want to get talked into the ground, I have a tight five on why a single copy of a book shouldn’t be treated as a ~precious object~ unless it’s, like, a prized first edition or a gift from a beloved grandparent), my brain spends a few seconds whirring its way to a judgment call: I like this book. I don’t like this book. Does everyone like this book except me? Do I truly like it or am I responding to a pervasive narrative (online) that this book is good?

Catie Disabato’s debut novel, The Ghost Network, was published by Melville House in 2015. She has written criticism and commentary for BuzzFeed, LAist, and Medium. She lives in Los Angeles. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

I could argue—and you’d believe me—that it’s the nature of the Tournament of Books that brought this out in me. The whole point is to make a judgment, make a choice, create a mini hierarchy. It’s not enough to say, “these books are good, these books are OK, these books are bad,” one must be more so than the other. Picking the best, even just of two, creates the conditions for constant reflection. But then, I’d be doing the reflecting anyway, privately, my own unspoken judgments and evaluations, disclosed only if a friend happened to ask me over drinks, Which was your favorite? Trust Exercise or Overthrow? It’s in my nature that I’d have an answer at the ready.

And I’ll tell you, this part of my brain was firing on all cylinders, especially while I read the first half of Trust Exercise, particularly because I started reading just a month after the book received the National Book Award for Fiction. Am I going to like this as much as everyone says I should? Who is “everyone?”

Trust Exercise is about the students at a “highly competitive” (from the jacket copy) performing arts high school, competing over attention from their acting teacher Mr. Kingsley, upholding the hierarchy that the best students are those who are cast in the spring musical, and often sleeping with each other. Depictions of teenage sexuality that capture the depth and viscerality of desire usually leave out the fear and vulnerability that teenage sex-havers experience (and vice versa), so I was taken in by the heady combination of all of these emotional experiences that accompanied every sexual encounter in the first half of the book. “[David] showered with a smooth brick of Ivory soap, passing it between his legs, firmly lathering every square inch, meticulous and patient because truly frightened; he’d never had sex with a girl he loved.”

On the other hand, as you might be able to glean from the above passage, some of the sentence-level language made my head spin in an uncomfortable way. “Meticulous and patient because truly frightened” is technically grammatically correct but also a bit exhausting to parse when you’re trying to absorb David’s emotional state. It frustrates me as a reader to have to reread a sentence in order to comprehend it, which happened with enough regularity in the first half of Trust Exercise that I wasn’t sure I was going to have the same love for this book that the entire internet seemed to have.

But halfway through the book the narrative shifts dramatically. The jacket copy also describes this major shift a “shocking spiral of events that catapults the action forward in time and flips the premise upside down.” The world that the characters had previously inhabited was destroyed and reshaped. Every sentence I’d read previously was, in a second, reframed, and the tension that shift created made for a suddenly electric reading experience.

At the halfway mark, when the narrative is turned “upside down,” it also switches perspectives. I mostly enjoyed the narrator during the first half, I respected her and got along with her, even when her longer thoughts got a little exhausting to parse. In the second section, I absolutely adored the narrator, from her personality to the way her sentences, while still as long as they were in the first section, obtain a new droll directness that’s both more pleasurable to read and a bit more humorous in general. “Anybody can look these things up. A given person’s facility with words is not in fact their knack, gift, or talent; it only means they own a thesaurus and a dictionary.” (I won’t name this second narrator, to save you from spoilers. You might be thinking, but Catie, you’ve already spoiled me! Not so. The jacket copy did that. But also, I went into the book knowing there was “a twist of some kind” and that’s what you know now, and because I’m in the privileged position of having been asked to write about this book, I get to say [definitively] that the best way to read Trust Exercise is to know there is a twist but not know what that twist is.)

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $5 and Field Notes will donate 100% of the proceeds to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

As with many readers (friends of mine who’d read that book that I chatted with about it on Instagram DMs), I had a hard time parsing the slender third section that closed the novel. What does this mean? Do I like this? I came up with answers for these questions but I won’t tell you them, to build up a bit of suspense about which book I’m going to pick as winner.

I waited a few days after I finished Trust Exercise to start reading Overthrow, to clear my head a little bit. I had the idea that I could “come in fresh,” ignoring the reality that we never “come in fresh” on anything we ever read, because all day long for our entire lives we are accumulating experiences that affect the ways we consume and interpret art.

Overthrow begins when grad student Matthew notices or picks up a handsome skateboarder named Leif. The jacket copy says Leif “catches his eye.” If this book was set in the ’80s, it would’ve been called “cruising,” but instead it’s set in late 2011, during the waning days of Occupy Wall Street. Leif semi-ironically, semi-earnestly claims telepathic powers, which he ultimately attempts to use against the government agencies who are working to shut down Occupy. The back half of the novel tracks the ensuing legal battle against Leif’s working group and his crumbling sense of self.

Like Trust Exercise, Overthrow shifts narrative perspectives, and one of the best things about the novel is that each narrator complements the others, fills in gaps in the story, without creating any tedious overlap of timelines. The queer characters live authentically queer lives without making their queerness the only important or relevant aspect of their personality—a balance that should be commonplace but sadly is rare. And yet, despite every emotional note in each character’s arc feeling earned and the way that the novel’s structure and pace were always tight, Overthrow left me cold. The problem was in the language.

A major portion of the book is from the perspective of a grad student named Matthew who is studying kingship in classic poetry, and sometimes his language sounds like sentences from his notes on his dissertation:

Magic was a thing that one had to reckon with when trying to understand kingship. It existed in Spenser’s fairy world; it existed in Shakespeare in even his earliest plays, the ones not really much by Shakespeare. In the course of his reading and note-taking, Matthew had been learning the scholarly way of discussing it, which neither reified or underestimated.

I’m exhausted by this.

When he’s reveling in his wide knowledge of esoteric references, Overthrow feels like your older sibling’s cool friend who comes home for the summer after one year at “university,” full of allusions to various pieces of high culture (NOT pop culture) but what they’re saying under every reference is Can you keep up? And because your teen body pulses with unbridled desire, you stammer insights plucked from AP English, and what you’re actually saying is I will keep up with you even if it kills both my body and my soul. But what happens when you’re not a teenager anymore and are instead a 33-year-old woman reading a novel for pleasure? When you can be intimidated out of your own taste? When you’ve decided that it’s not a mark of stupidity or moral weakness to think Drop Dead Gorgeous is more engaging and relevant to your life than any Bergman movie? When you know that Henry James basically plagiarized The Portrait of a Lady from a now-little-known but bestselling-in-her-time author named Anne Moncure Crane? Once you’ve gathered your own knowledge, once you’ve developed your own taste, you might still pulse with desire for that cooler big sibling’s body, but you’re rolling your eyes at his attempt to impress you.

Though Matthew is the worst offender, conversations between characters in each chapter are infused with a “can you keep up with this rhythm?” attitude that, like the hard-to-parse sentences in Trust Exercise, left me cold. I’m not saying that Overthrow is bad, and not just because none of the books that make it into the bracket are bad. In fact, I would’ve finished this book no matter what, even if I had picked it up independent of the Tournament, even though I rarely crack a novel that’s over 350 pages these days. Maybe the last part of the sentence belays my point: Overthrow is a good book but it’s not the kind of good that I’m interested in anymore.

Ultimately, Trust Exercise’s complications are among its virtues. It’s a book that leaves space for an overactive brain to chew through and doesn’t force the difficult questions it asks into a neat box at the end. I wasn’t put off by the final section’s lack of answers about who the novel’s third narrator actually was, because I had a good enough guess and the emotional story of that last segment was strong enough that the guess felt ambiguous in the way real life can be ambiguous. The confusion wasn’t artificially inserted, but earned via the character story that took me all the way through the novel. While I wasn’t immune to Overthrow’s charms, I didn’t feel as excited and engrossed as I did with Trust Exercise, especially once the novel kicked into high gear. I’m agreeing with the jury for the National Book Awards, and throwing my vote at Trust Exercise.

TODAY’S WINNER: Trust Exercise

The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Joe Ferrentino & Rosecrans Baldwin

Rosecrans Baldwin: Joining us in the booth today is another ToB Reader Judge finalist, Joe Ferrentino. Joe, how long have you been following the Rooster?

Joe Ferrentino: This took some searching, but I believe the first time I participated in the Tournament was in 2012. I’m looking at the brackets for that year—I loved so many of the books and still intend to read The Sisters Brothers. The brackets feel very familiar, as I would have been cheering for The Art of Fielding to take home the prize. I now look forward to the ToB every year, spread the word fervently, and suck up tons of recommendations from the long list.

Rosecrans: Am I correct that you’re a full-time judge professionally?

Joe: Yes, I am an administrative law judge. That can be a difficult job to explain, but what it basically means is that I hear cases related to licensing: driver’s licenses, professional licenses, hunting licenses, all the licenses! If you were denied a license, or a license of yours was revoked, you come before me to get it back. (Which reminds me, Rosecrans, what exactly are the ordinances in your locality concerning keeping live Roosters?)

Rosecrans: I live at the foot of a canyon in Los Angeles, and a neighbor up the street has a rooster, so I don’t know? I’m mainly surprised a coyote hasn’t gotten it yet.

Joe: I will say, it’s a nice break from judging to be a commentator on someone else’s judging. Outside of work, I spend my time reading, exercising, coaching a youth basketball team on which I have no children and fielding bemused questions related thereto, and baking.

Rosecrans: Mmmm, baking. So, let’s talk about the judgment here. What do you think?

Joe: I think we need to establish whether Judge Disabato is herself a telepath who has read my mind, because I am heartily in accord with her judgment. (Could her assessment of Overthrow be an attempt to throw us off her trail?) It’s hard to escape the buzz around Trust Exercise, and some of that buzz even suggests—in kind of the cool older sibling style she ascribes to characters in Overthrow—that you are a lowly simpleton if you enjoy the first part of Trust Exercise. Well, I’m here to confess, I did enjoy the first part of the book, odd sentences and all, and I came to love it more after the “twist.” And the book compels exactly the questions Judge Disabato raises about its third section, questions I still wrestle with every time I think of the book. Which is often, because it’s an extraordinary book.

On Overthrow, too, I think she nails it. It’s not bad, it’s just not what I, a 36-year-old man, want to read right now. Legal battles? No thank you.

Rosecrans: What’s your personal response to the judge’s question—do you decide your impression of a book after you finish or while you’re in the middle of reading it?

Joe: I decide maybe even before the middle. But! Books have surprised me in the past. Trust Exercise went from good to great for me, for example. Isn’t that the meta-question implicit in naming a book “Trust Exercise?” “Dear Reader, you may have a judgment formed early in this book. Please trust me, Susan Choi, that your judgment may later change.”

Rosecrans: The judge finished Overthrow and says she would’ve finished it even if she hadn’t been assigned it during a tournament that threatens authors with live roosters, but it also sounds like she was tempted to put it down. Are you finish-at-all-costs, or are you willing to stop after a certain point?

Joe: My girlfriend and I gorged ourselves on reading last year—we read a combined 362 books. So, last year, I was a finish-at-all-costs reader, in part because I was determined to keep my numbers up. Liking or disliking a book was almost inconsequential; even if I disliked something, another opportunity to fall in love with a book was only two or three days away. This year, as I come down off my bender and give myself a more reasonable reading goal, I’m giving up on books willy-nilly. So, I can be both, and obviously, reading goals play a factor. But that’s external to the book. Internally, the first factors in my decision are language and style. Some writers are just a pleasure to visit. I could read George Saunders describing supply-chain management and be content. After that, I want lovable characters. How about you?

Rosecrans: Fifty pages in, if it’s not working for me, I chuck it. There’s just too many books. So, as a professional, you’re required to weigh matters cooly, impersonally, I assume.

Joe: You assume correctly.

Rosecrans: We ask the opposite of our judges in the ToB, we leave the criteria up to them, but we want that criteria divulged and pored over. To your mind, which task is more difficult, going by the book, or going by your gut?

Joe: I have to believe the latter is more difficult. When I decide a case, I know the criteria I have to consider, and I write my opinion with those criteria, and only those criteria, in mind. It may well be that there are heart-wrenching or disgusting details about the case, but if those aren’t relevant to my decision, out they go. Of course, of course, of course, that part is the hardest part of my job. I don’t want to diminish that. I don’t want to pretend I’m an unfeeling robot either, because obviously that’s not true. But it is possible to ache for people and still rule against them when the law demands that result. Then you go home, [insert healthy coping mechanism here], and do it again the next day. It’s hard, but at least there are rules.

Rosecrans: Right, and with the rules, “the system,” shouldering some of that ache.

Joe: Here, all bets are off. Judge Disabato could have decided she wanted to select the shorter book, in keeping with her preference for sub-350 pages. She could have decided to privilege “weightiness” or Big Ideas. She could have decided to judge a book by its cover. She could have balanced a combination of virtuosic writing, complex structure, character development, and pacing in a multi-factor subjective test. There’s no regulation for how to read a book. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. And then some jerk like me, with my own personal reading checklist, comes along to second-guess her decision. That’s a tough gig.

But I see nothing to jerkily second guess. Judge Disabato sets forth the issues—do I like this book more than the other; and, in the case of Trust Exercise, do I like this as much as everyone else—sets up some criteria, expounds on why these books do or do not meet her criteria, and enters a judgment. (Law students: IRAC. Always IRAC.)

Rosecrans: For non-law students: issue, rule, application, conclusion.

Joe: I contend that those who have read both these books may disagree with the result—perhaps you prefer the references of Overthrow, perhaps you are not a lawyer and can therefore enjoy reading about the law for fun—but cannot disagree with Judge Disabato’s analysis of her chosen criteria.

Rosecrans: Got it. So let me ask: Case affirmed?

Joe: Affirmed.

Rosecrans: Great. Thanks Joe. All y’all, we’ll see you in the comments and then back here tomorrow for the opening round’s final match with All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg and We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin, judged by Barry Harbaugh. See you then!


2020 Tournament of Books Merch

New 2020 Tournament of Books merch is now available at the TMN Store. As a reminder, Sustaining Members receive 50 percent off everything in our store. To find out why we’re asking for your support and how you can become a Sustaining Member, please visit our Membership page. Thank you.


Welcome to the Commentariat

Population: You

To keep our comments section as inclusive as possible for the book-loving public, please follow the guidelines below. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate or abusive comments, such as ad hominem attacks. We ban users who repeatedly post inappropriate comments.

  • Criticize ideas, not people. Divisiveness can be a result of debates over things we truly care about; err on the side of being generous. Let’s talk and debate and gnash our book-chewing teeth with love and respect for the Rooster community, judges, authors, commentators, and commenters alike.
  • If you’re uninterested in a line of discussion from an individual user, you can privately block them within Disqus to hide their comments (though they’ll still see your posts).
  • While it’s not required, you can use the Disqus tag to hide book details that may spoil the reading experience for others, e.g., “Dumbledore dies.”
  • We all feel passionately about fiction, but “you’re an idiot if you loved/hated this book that I hated/loved” isn't an argument—it’s just rude. Take a breath.
blog comments powered by Disqus