The truth is smooth in Hernan Diaz’s complex novel: NPR
Trust by Hernan Diaz is one of those novels that always draws a reader quickly. Take the opening part: You sit down, get engrossed in the story, and then 100 pages or so later – Boom! – the novel sneaks into another narrative that nullifies the truth about everything that came before.
When a work of fiction reminds me that it is a work of fiction just to show me how gullible I am, well, thank you, I already knew that. But sometimes these metadramatic maneuvers serve a novel’s larger themes. Susan Choi’s novel from 2019, Trust training, on the deceptive forces of art and memory, is a recent case; now, Diaz’s Trust is another. The word “trust” in both of their titles is a hint that this is exactly what we readers should not do when entering these slick fictional worlds.
Trust is about money, especially the flickering power of money in the stock market, and its potential, as one character says, “to bend and adapt reality” to its own purposes. The opening part is intended as a novel-in-a-novel, with the title Bonds, a 1937 bestseller about the rise of a Wall Street magnate named Benjamin Rask. Think of characters like JP Morgan and Charles Schwab, men whose DNA was made of strands of ticker tape. We learn that Rask is the rarest of creatures, a wealthy man with no appetite. Our narrator tells us that Fast is fascinated by only one thing:
If asked, Benjamin would probably have found it difficult to explain what drew him to the financial world. It was the complexity of it, yes, but also the fact that he saw capital as an antiseptic living thing. … It was not necessary for him to touch a single note or to engage in the things and people his transactions affected. All he had to do was think, talk and maybe write. And the living creature would be set in motion …
For the sake of posterity, Rask eventually marries – an equally independent woman named Helen. During the roaring 20s, Rask accumulates wealth and Helen finds her place as a protector of art. Then comes the crash in 1929.
Because Rask profits from losses from other speculators, rumors circulate that he rigged to crash and that he and Helen are ostracized. The last chapters of this saga describe Helen’s ordeal as a patient at a psychiatric institute in Switzerland; her mania and her eczema, described as a “merciless red flat monster gnawing on her skin,” are reminiscent of the real torments of Zelda Fitzgerald.
The opening part of Trust, as I have said, is so sharply realized that it is disorienting to begin the next section of the novel, composed of notes about a story that sounds like the one we have just read. But then Diaz entices us readers to once again suspend our unbelief when we reach the captivating third part of his novel, which mostly takes place during the Great Depression. There, a young woman from Brooklyn named Ida Partenza becomes the secretary – and ghostwriter – of a finance mogul named Andrew Bevel.
Bevel’s life is the source of the best-selling novel, Bonds, and he’s so furious about that novel that he’s had all copies removed from New York’s public library system. Bevel hires Ida to help him write a memoir that will set the record straight. Secure. The fourth and final part of Trust is connected with booby traps, the whole trick blows up in front of our wide open eyes.
Trust is an ingeniously constructed historical novel with a postmodern point. Throughout, Diaz creates a connection between fiction and finance. As Ida’s father, an Italian anarchist, says:
Money is a wonderful commodity. You can not eat or spend money, but it represents all the food and clothing in the world. That’s why it’s a fiction. … Stocks, stocks, bonds. Do you think any of these things the bandits across the river buy and sell represent any real, concrete value? No. … That’s what all these criminals are dealing with: fiction.
Literary fiction is also a fantastic commodity where our best writers become fantasy criminals, stealing our attention and our desires. Diaz, whose latest novel, In the distancereworked the myths of masculine individualism in the American West, earning an artistic fortune in Trust. And we readers pretend to be bandits too.