Susan Choi’s “Trust Exercise” and the Question of Appropriating Other People’s Lives as Fiction
One of literature’s most striking descriptions of the creative process can be found in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel “Pale Fire.” An academic, Professor Kinbote, recalls standing on a terrace with the poet John Shade. Shade, he says, is soaking in the view: “perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, re-combining its elements in the very process of storing them up so as to produce at some unspecified date an organic miracle, a fusion of image and music, a line of verse.” The moment reminds Kinbote of one from his childhood, when he watched “a conjurer . . . quietly consuming a vanilla ice.”
Nabokov disliked the idea that others would search his writing for glimpses of his personal life. In a 1944 biography of Nikolai Gogol, he stated his disdain for “the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the fact (generally false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to a ‘true story.’ ” Novels, Nabokov felt, were best regarded as the ex-nihilo dreams of their creators.
The passage from “Pale Fire,” though, complicates that picture. Here, art does not arise ex nihilo; rather, it is reconstituted from the view from the balcony. Reality and fantasy seem to commingle in Shade, who melts together, in Kinbote’s mind, with the conjurer, appearing hazily out of the past. The poet ingests life and produces a poem, a “sudden flourish of magic.”
What sticks with me about this description is not Shade’s—or Nabokov’s—impressive artistry but all of the slippage and combination, which provokes, in my head, a vague uneasiness. Shade is a writer, a surrogate for Nabokov, and he is also a ghost, a memory dining on shadows—the glitter and impermanence of ice. The reader cannot trust this man.
I started writing this essay in order to understand what fiction is made out of. The question is sort of like the one that always gets asked at the end of an author event, perhaps by a cute old lady whose sweater has a schnauzer on it: Where do your ideas come from? I was accustomed to thinking of most novels the way Nabokov wanted me to, or as Flaubert did—he once wrote that the most beautiful books depend “on nothing external . . . just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support.”
Then something happened to change my thinking. I realized that the real world is full of people who, presumably, have feelings about being appropriated for someone else’s run at the Times best-seller list. In drafts five through seventeen of this essay, I was mostly concerned with them: with the experience of opening a book and finding yourself in its pages, and with comprehending the precise nature of that violation. In drafts eighteen through eighty-four, I realized that the stakes of this piece are less aesthetic or ethical than metaphysical. When an author plants a made-up character in a novel, that character gains breath, agency, life. But when an author plants a real person in a novel, she metes out a kind of death. Reading lightly autobiographical fiction—which is to say, most début fiction—or its cousin, autofiction, or really any and all fiction, becomes a matter of parsing degrees of realness. It’s sticking your hands through ghosts. I suppose one could reintroduce both ethics and aesthetics here. Is moving someone down the existence scale from “human person” to “character” anything like murder? Is moving someone up the scale anything like art?
Susan Choi has a thrillingly interesting new novel out, “Trust Exercise,” that toys with themes of appropriation, and with the reader. (From here on out, spoilers abound.) The first part is a straightforward tale of two teen-agers, David and Sarah, whose time at a performing-arts high school in what seems to be Houston, in the nineteen-eighties, is shadowed by the attentions of a magnetic teacher, Mr. Kingsley. Because Choi herself attended a performing-arts high school in Houston in the early nineteen-eighties, the reader may assume that she is recombining personal experience as fiction. (There’s where your ideas come from!)
It is not until the second part of the book that we learn that the first part is an excerpt from a novel written by the adult Sarah, who has blurred and revised elements of her past. Choi gives the narration of the second section to “Karen” (we never learn her real name), a high-school friend of Sarah’s. Karen has an excellent memory and a chip on her shoulder. She is well versed in therapy jargon and beguiled by etymology—a study of particular relevance to anyone set down in an alien narrative and rummaging for her meaning within it.
“Trust Exercise” circles varieties of trust like a thief casing a jewelry store: the trust between teacher and student, performers and audience, a writer and her subject, a writer and her reader. At times, Karen “can see through” Sarah’s book as though it were a phantom: “as easily as drawing a line from a column of things on the left to a column of things on the right.” But Sarah does not always work so neatly. As Karen reflects:
Pammie, unlike Mr. Kingsley, is not a historical person but the way in
which Karen’s Christianity was found laughable. Julietta is the way in
which Karen’s Christianity was admired. Joelle is the intimacy between
Karen and Sarah, disavowed and relocated onto a historical person very
much like Joelle with whom Sarah did not have an actual friendship.
Why give the pain of broken friendship to Joelle, why take it away
from Karen? The reasons might be psychological. Why make Karen
non-Christian, while making her laughable Christianity Pammie, and her
admirable Christianity Julietta? The reasons might be artistic.
Even as she intellectually understands that Sarah writes fiction, Karen approaches her novel uncomprehendingly, with a kind of mental stutter-step. She can’t help but read the book as history. She finds herself adjudicating conversations that never occurred, lies that no one told. It’s as if, when invented details are juxtaposed with real details, something about the creative mind-set or process refuses to compute: Why take some but not all? Karen inspects the Sarah character’s made-up actions for evidence that Sarah is a good or bad person. She proceeds, dizzily, as though Sarah were a more reliable narrator than she herself is. “Sarah’s reconstruction in her book of the lighting and set and backdrop were so true to my memories,” Karen recounts. “I kept blaming myself that the action seemed unfamiliar.”
“Trust Exercise” thus riffs on the pins-and-needles feeling a reader of fiction sometimes develops: the sense that the created world is realer than you are. Karen considers that “the ways we liked and hated and envied and bullied and punished each other never seemed satisfyingly real unless Mr. Kingsley put them on stage.” This is a wry sort of victim-blaming, a nod to the self-bafflement of being a teen-ager. Was there something about Karen, about all of the students in her hothouse theatre class, that made their lives ripe for stealing? A wraithlike lack of realness?
The question also represents a metafictional clowning on the book’s part. If Choi does, at first, set us up to process “Trust Exercise” as scrambled autobiography, it’s explicitly to draw attention to our tendency as readers to approach characters in books as though they were living people. The act of consuming fiction is itself a trust exercise, and Choi highlights how outrageous the novel is as a proposition: a transient agreement that one enters into with an author to pretend that bald fantasy is reality. Her book underscores our trust by breaking it. “Trust Exercise” consists of three sections. The second section upends the premise of the first, and the third section upends the premise of the second. In both cases, what we thought was true turns out to be constructed, artificial. Parts one and two both end in phantasmagorical and unlikely ways—these dénouements almost dissolve on your eyelids. Their fractured logic conjures the moment when you realize, right before waking from an unravelling dream, that the reason nothing makes sense is because nothing is real.
Karen’s section of “Trust Exercise” edits and feeds on Sarah’s in the way that Sarah’s book edits and feeds on Karen. The novel’s competing sections also evoke how writers edit and feed on each other as they take their place in a lineage of words about their chosen theme. Inscribed into the form of Choi’s book is the impossibility of a particular fantasy of the artist: that you can say something so perfectly that it never needs another version, told from another point of view.
Who gets to narrate what becomes an urgent question in biofiction, or novels about historical figures. These works center on people whose lives can feel like public property, people with their own popular mythologies. “Trinity,” a recent book by Louisa Hall, takes up J. Robert Oppenheimer, the troubled genius who invented the atomic bomb, in 1945, and then lobbied against nuclear proliferation until his death, in 1967. Hall’s previous novel, “Speak,” arranged five voices around a cluster of philosophical questions related to language, memory, and the soul. “Trinity” consists of seven testimonials, presented in chronological order, from marginal figures in Oppenheimer’s life. (They are all fictional, although other names in the book are drawn from history.)
While Choi was interested in the possible unreality of her characters, Hall’s theme in “Trinity” turns out to be the cast’s irreducible mysteriousness. She suggests that we are unknowable to ourselves and to those around us. (“I looked at his body,” one woman says, describing a kind man who her ex-lover suspects of hitting her, “and it was so opaque, an impenetrable collection of physical features, a form full of inaccessible thoughts.”) At a loss, characters reach for stories, and Oppenheimer is his own greatest biographer. He sends an assistant running to his house to fetch his copy of the Bhagavad Gita so that he will have the perfect epigraph on hand for when reporters ask him how he felt after the Trinity test.
That people in Hall’s novel understand their lives through storytelling is reflected in the book’s construction. Fictional witnesses are the mechanism by which readers gain insight into Oppenheimer, the historical subject. To complement his subatomic study, the book lays out a narrative physics, one that includes black holes and an uncertainty principle (“any given entity can only be defined as a function of its observer”). These laws feel like a way of embracing the malleability and ethereality of fiction, even as the natural-science framing evokes the world of fact.
I was assigned to review “Trinity” when it came out, in October of 2018. I had written about Hall’s second novel, “Speak,” for the Times, in 2015; it was a positive review, which used the words “freshness” and “delicacy” and “brilliance, even.” “Trinity” immediately struck me as a more assured novel. I liked how blind characters were to their own motivations. I liked the bleakness of the implication that the creation of the deadliest weapon in known history had no animating reason. In the review that I eventually filed, I wrote that Oppenheimer’s actions were “just violence, impulse, a firing of circuits, as mindless as a star collapsing in on itself.”
That review, in retrospect, was one of the strangest things I’ve ever written. It contained these lines of unnecessary plot summary:
Oppenheimer is aided in his tale-telling by his secretary, Sally, who
dreamed, as a college student with a binge-eating disorder, of writing
the Great American Novel. When her twin sister, who “pursued the
precise art of her thinness with the cool, detached serenity of the
most gifted artists,” died of anorexia, Sally attempted to cultivate
the “willpower” she had long both admired and lacked, and stopped
eating. “We were stuck … in the hands of a myth,” she says, of herself
and Oppenheimer. “We were fighting archetypical battles. We were
heading for the underworld, looking for 129,000 lost people, or a
single lost girl, hoping either to bring her back up or to stay down
in the underworld with her.”
These sentences were a sort of trial balloon for my editor. In 2015, several months after the Times ran my review of “Speak,” Slate published a personal essay that I had written, and that she had edited, about me and my twin sister. In the essay, I describe myself as a narrative addict who developed anorexia three years after my sister, Emmy, did. I describe my envy of my twin’s graceful, spare aesthetic, and how I often wrote while binge-eating, and how I came to see Persephone as a model for the pair of us, the rarefied artist and the sister who wanted to compete with her, or join her, or save her. Encountering Sally’s tale in “Trinity” was dislocating. I thought that I recognized my past in a stranger’s words—specifically, in the fictional backdrop that Hall had built to spotlight her real-life subject. Yet perhaps I was exaggerating the similarities, getting paranoid, self-absorbed. Wasn’t Hall’s whole book about the randomness of the universe, the solipsism of black holes?
My editor Slacked me when she read my review. We each spent several hours going through the Sally chapter and my essay, which struck both of us as sororally connected in content, imagery, and tone. My story seemed to form part of the world that Hall took in and recombined, John Shade style. When I asked Hall, on the phone, what role, if any, the essay played in her creative process, she told me that she had read and “enjoyed” it, in 2015, but that her novel is her own. (Ultimately, my editor and I decided not to publish my review.)
Who owns a story? In writing my original piece, I lifted the lives of my parents and sister. I decided which memories to include and how to shape my descriptions. I wanted to be honest, but I was far from objective: my family, reading the essay, understood where I was coming from, but they didn’t agree with all of my interpretations. If Hall did use my text in some way, perhaps she only turned me from a superpowered narrator back into a character, like a blue fairy downgrading the real, live boy. “My” counterpart in “Trinity,” Sally, ends up a desiccated, unlovable, insect-like creature; her twin sister dies young. This is what mental illness does: it refuses to grant you the status of author—it insists on enshrouding you in its own damaging narrative. Maybe my initial anger at the “Trinity” situation borrowed from that hotter, deeper anger.
Interrogating this anger now, I find it fascinating. It scans as an authorial fury. My essay was not just a personal history; it was an attempt to reckon with literary and societal representations of anorexia, to name and rebut the tropes (spells, winter) and devices (irony, the unreliable narrator). What I wrote almost mattered less than how I wrote it. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that I feel that I own my voice and thoughts more than I own the events that transpire in my life. Throw a paper airplane on the street and you will hit someone whose sibling has suffered from an eating disorder. That person may have suffered from an eating disorder herself. That person may come from a high-pressure household with athletic parents. She may be fluent in the tradition of lyrical and classical imagery associated with anorexia. What she is less likely to do is make certain specific narrative choices, like teasing out differences between the twins by contrasting two arts-and-crafts objects that emblematize their styles, or close-reading a childhood photograph of the pair, or adopting fairy-tale language (“once upon a time”) for a contemporary situation.
After Slate published my essay, in 2015, I received an e-mail from an author named Kelsey Osgood. I’d read her memoir, “How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia,” while researching my piece, which benefitted from her perceptive analysis of a lineage of anorexic writing. Osgood’s examples were different, and the nature of the disorder’s pull on her was different. Our families were different. But our sense of anorexia as a narrative malady was the same. In her e-mail, Osgood claimed that I had annexed the themes of “How to Disappear Completely” and that I owed her a more significant citation than the one that appeared in my essay.
At the time, I dismissed Osgood’s claim and moved on; my editor reassured me that my story was mine alone. But I have been thinking about Osgood’s e-mail again, and the reading experience that could have prompted it. For all its severity, eating-disorder literature is not conservative in its allusiveness. It refers hungrily back, restless for archetypes that can make sickness seem meaningful. I had chalked up any echoes in Osgood’s and my own work to echoes in what happened to us: having drunk from the same tributary of icy, alluring tropes, we’d both struggled to square them with our embarrassing needs. Untangling art from life was the whole point of our projects, which were then doomed to failure by their inescapable story-ness. What I mean is that you can’t tell a story, even a true one, without artifice. Maybe Hall’s novel—a fiction about real people—is just the latest piece of writing to drive home that point.
After the poet Robert Lowell left his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, he wove heartbroken letters that Hardwick sent him into a verse collection, “The Dolphin.” Lowell’s friend Elizabeth Bishop wrote to him in horror upon seeing his drafts. “One can use one’s life as material—one does, anyway—but these letters—aren’t you violating a trust?” she asked. “IF you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them … etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.”
Those “if”s, those two counterfactuals, help illumine the precise borders of the crime. A lack of consent implies theft. The “changed” words imply fraud. In fact, many words exist for the harm that (re)writing the past can inflict: “supplant,” “objectify,” “sanitize,” “obscure.” (Some of these distinctions are crucial: for instance, I put my essay up for public consumption; Hardwick presumably wrote to Lowell in confidence.) One could call what Sarah does in “Trust Exercise” a “robbery,” as it steals something that belonged to real people (or those whom Choi’s book asks us to imagine are real) and gives it to apparitions. If the language of criminality seems too hard-edged, there is “dispossession,” or “erasure.” Katy “instrumentalizes” others. Sarah “falsifies” them. The effect of this breach of trust on Karen is obsession—or, as she puts it, “a haunting.”
But was Bishop right, that art isn’t worth that much? It was worth that much to Philip Roth, who excavated his ruined marriage to Claire Bloom in his novel “I Married a Communist,” and his friendship with Melvin Tumin, a Princeton sociologist, for “The Human Stain.” Art was worth that much to Siri Hustvedt, who spun out anxious “fantasies” about her stepson, Daniel, in her 2003 novel, “What I Loved,” and to Chris Kraus, who strip-mined her relationship with the British critic Richard Hebdige for “I Love Dick,” and to Edward St. Aubyn, who transcribed his own experiences as an abused child and a drug-addicted adult into the vein of his Patrick Melrose series. The autobiographical first novel is and always has been a genre unto itself, with recent buzzy examples including “Such Good Work,” by Johannes Lichtman, “Early Work,” by Andrew Martin, “Freshwater,” by Akwaeke Emezi, and Lisa Halliday’s “Asymmetry,” which drew, in part, from a May-December romance that Halliday pursued with Philip Roth in her twenties. (Halliday appropriated the appropriater, seemingly with his blessing.)
It is worth that much in autofiction, a mode of almost-memoir practiced by Sheila Heti, Teju Cole, Rachel Cusk, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, among others. The genre—diaristic, as if the novels are writing themselves in real time—can be rough on friends and family; later volumes of “My Struggle” relate Knausgaard’s efforts to negotiate the fallout from the earlier volumes. When a journalist for the Guardian brought up Knausgaard’s children, not yet old enough to read him, the author said, “I have given away my soul.” The line is revealing: Isn’t it their souls he has given away?
In her play “[50/50] Old School Animation,” the writer and actor Julia Mounsey delivers a monologue in which she asks whether the audience has ever experienced something “so well made it’s almost like no one made it . . . like the world made it.” The line is searching for a way to talk about art that feels born of a totalizing intelligence, that transcends the personal—the opposite of autofiction. I find this idea so eerie: the idea of an unauthored book. The idea of an unauthored book about you. Or perhaps the eeriness derives simply from the notion that someone or something else would be telling your story, reducing you in ways you’d like to believe were impossible.
Becoming a character also has perks; it enables a languid and irresponsible narcissism. When I opened “Trinity” and saw myself in its pages, pleasure swirled through my anger: at the possibility that Hall had remembered, commemorated—which, as Karen tells us, in “Trust Exercise,” means to “remember something ceremonially”—my essay. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted everybody to read the novel or nobody to read the novel. I couldn’t figure out what kind of recognition I yearned for, or what kind of closure. There is a power to being written about. In “Pale Fire,” Kinbote recalls regaling Shade with stories of his past, hoping that they will make their way into a poem: “I mesmerized him with it, I saturated him with my vision, I pressed upon him, with a drunkard’s wild generosity, all that I was helpless myself to put into verse.”
But there is also a power in escape. Literature is full of girls who, like Kelsey Osgood, long to disappear completely, and with other girls who won’t let them. In Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, one character, Elena, describes her friend Lila: “She wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found.” But Elena will not allow Lila to get away with it; she sets her friend down on paper, in a complicated act of love and hate. One thinks of Nabokov, a lover of butterflies, netting the creatures and sticking them with pins. “I turned on the computer and began to write,” Elena continues. She whispers to herself, “We’ll see who wins this time.”
Would casting my brilliant twin as Lila, and myself as Elena, competitive and concerned and ambivalent, be too much like “drawing a line from a column of things on the left to a column of things on the right”? In a way, this kind of identification—truth interweaving with fiction—beats at the heart of the experience of literature. But forget literature. Being appropriated by a person, like being appropriated by a mental illness, feels flattering and violating and queasy and riveting and boring. I did not know this until it (maybe) happened to me, but my family has known it for at least four years, because I (definitely) did it to them.
Emmy, my sister, doesn’t care about Louisa Hall. Emmy, who is finishing up a graduate program in English literature, is too busy writing to parse the writing that she may have generated, at one and then another degree of remove—the larger fraction of her always escaping. But if a life is a narrative construction, the converse is also true: our stories are alive. Some vitality that isn’t really us ends up on the page, weird and shimmery and itchy as pollen, drifting out of the void.
I sent a draft of this piece to my sister.
Emmy: I don’t like “metafictional clowning.”
Emmy: metaliterary high jinx?
Katy: (clown emoji)
Katy: thanks dude
Emmy: I like the argument and the way you weave the trust issues throughout. I was thinking about the other meaning of trust, like a trust fund. To be held in trust is to be held externally.
Katy: OK, so to hold someone in trust is still to hold her at arm’s length?
Emmy: well, there’s a dispossession inherent in it. The theater creates a sort of trust fund, putting reality “in trust.”
Katy: Wait what does that mean?
Emmy: The nesting structure of the book involves a continual nomination of trust holders. One narrator then the next inherits the trust.
Katy: I’m lost!
Emmy: The person with the trust controls reality!
Katy: Hey so you are tangential to this essay because it alludes to the h-bomb lady. It might be cool to include some of these texts if you are OK with that? (I can also cut the mentions of you if you want! I just liked the part in the other essay where we talk on the phone.)
Emmy: YES PUT ME IN ANOTHER ESSAY WHAT COULD GO WRONG
Emmy: The ending doesn’t work. At all. What’s with the pollen?
Katy: Ugh yeah the ending sucks.
Emmy: It’s abrupt. And repetitive because you already said you appropriated us.
Katy: Maybe I can connect the pollen back to Nabokov’s butterflies… But it’s also the life, or potential life, that these characters take on, separate from their antecedents. Like how Lila is sort of realer to us than the anonymous woman known as Elena Ferrante.
Emmy: yeah, no
Katy: I think I will make up some text exchanges for the piece based on our actual text exchanges.
Emmy: that’s weird but ok