The truth is slippery in Hernan Diaz’s complex novel: NPR

Trust, by Hernan Diaz

Trust by Hernan Diaz is one of those novels that always attracts a quick reader. Take the opening section: you settle in, get absorbed in the story, then, about 100 pages later – Boom! – the novel launches into another narrative that overturns the truth of everything that has come before.

When a work of fiction reminds me that it’s 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 the main themes of a novel. Susan Choi’s 2019 novel, Confidence exercise, on the deceptive powers of art and memory, is a recent example; now, Diaz Trust is another. That word “trust” in both of their titles is a hint that this is exactly what we readers shouldn’t be doing when entering these slippery fictional worlds.

Trust is all about money, specifically, the flimflam force of money in the stock market, and its potential, as one character puts it, “to bend and align reality” to its own ends. The opening section is imagined as a novel within a novel, titled Obligations, 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 up of strands of duct tape. We learn that Rask is the rarest creature, a rich man with no appetite. Our narrator tells us that Rask is only fascinated by one thing:

If asked, Benjamin probably would have struggled to explain what drew him to the world of finance. It was his complexity, yes, but also the fact that he viewed capital as an antiseptic living thing. … It was not necessary for him to touch a single banknote or attend to the things and people his dealings affected. He had only to think, speak and perhaps write. And the living creature would be set in motion…

For posterity, Rask ends up getting married – an equally empowered woman named Helen. Throughout the Roaring Twenties, Rask grew wealthier and Helen found her place as a patron of the arts. Then came the crash of 1929.

Because Rask profits from the losses of other speculators, rumors circulate that he rigged the Crash and he and Helen are ostracized. The final chapters of this saga detail Helen’s ordeal as a patient in a psychiatric institute in Switzerland; her mania and eczema, described as a “ruthless red flat monster that gnaws at her skin”, is reminiscent of the real-life torments of Zelda Fitzgerald.

The opening section of Trust, as I said, is so neatly realized that it is disorienting to begin the next section of the novel, consisting of notes on a story resembling the one we have just read. But, then, Diaz again urges us readers to suspend our disbelief when we reach the captivating third section of his novel, which is set mostly during the Great Depression. There, a young woman from Brooklyn named Ida Partenza becomes the secretary – and ghostwriter – of a finance tycoon named Andrew Bevel.

Bevel’s life is the source of this bestselling novel, Obligations, and he is so exasperated by this novel that he has had all copies removed from the New York public library system. Bevel enlists Ida to help him write a memoir that will set the record straight. Sure. The fourth and final section of Trust is wired with traps, exploding the whole artifice before our wide-open eyes.

Trust is an ingeniously constructed historical novel with a postmodern edge. Throughout, Diaz bridges the realms of fiction and finance. As Ida’s father, an Italian anarchist, puts it:

Money is a fantastic commodity. You can’t eat or wear money, but it represents all the food and clothing in the world. That’s why it’s fiction. … Stocks, stocks, bonds. Do you think any of those things that those bandits across the river are buying and selling have real, concrete value? No. … That’s what all these criminals are selling: fiction.

Literary fiction, too, is a fantastic commodity in which our best writers become criminals of the imagination, stealing our very attention and desires. Diaz, whose last novel, in the distancereworked the myths of male individualism in the American West, made a fortune artistically in Trust. And we readers also behave like bandits.

Irene B. Bowles