by Hernan Diaz
reviewed by Hardeep Sidhu
Hernan Diaz’s Trust, like his Pulitzer-finalist debut In the Distance (2017), is historical fiction that thrums with the energy of today’s crises. Diaz trains his eye on the wealthy New Yorkers of the Great Depression to tell a story of our time: capital’s inexorable march in the face of economic crisis. But Diaz avoids allegory in favor of enduring questions. Who holds wealth, and why? And how does capital—like a “living creature [ … ] following appetites of its own [ … ] trying to exercise its free will”—shape the stories we tell?
Trust revolves around a secretive wealthy couple, the Rasks. Benjamin has new money, Helen an old name. Their fortune grows in spite of—or perhaps because of—the 1929 stock market crash. An enraged public views Benjamin as “the hand behind the invisible hand.” The press depicts him as “a vampire, a vulture, or a pig.” Helen, insulated until now by her philanthropy, sees that “she would pay for the suffering that had helped make her husband rich beyond measure.” As the Rasks amass greater wealth, their private lives fall apart.
Stories about the Rasks proliferate, each of which Diaz captures through a kaleidoscopic structure. Trust consists of four sections: a novel, an autobiography, a memoir, and a private diary, each with its own author, audience, and agenda. The story unfolds in the interplay between these texts as much as within them.
I confess that the novel-within-a-novel conceit is a pet peeve of mine. All too often the embedded stories aren’t as good as their frames require them to be. But Bonds, the opening political novel-within-a-novel by the fictitious Harold Vanner, succeeds on its own terms before Diaz puts it to other uses. Matching the era’s writing, Vanner’s immersive novel evokes Edith Wharton’s perceptive eye and the muckrakers’ moral intensity. Finely sketched details accrete into compelling portraits. And the plot—a political fable about a capitalist’s hubris—builds steadily to a dramatic conclusion. And then Diaz starts the story over.
Like any good experimental novel, Trust—a clean, linear narrative until this point—shatters to fragments. And, as with any good detective novel, the reader must parse contradictory accounts, dodge red herrings, and hunt for clues to find the answers. For all his deep fascination with political economy, Diaz has written a well-paced, suspenseful novel. As readers, we end up trying to pin down the well-guarded secrets of society’s elite.
Subsequent sections reveal Benjamin and Helen Rask to be Andrew and Mildred Bevel, who write their own separate accounts to set the record straight. The novel’s longest section, and its heart, is a memoir by one Ida Partenza, a self-taught typist and daughter of an Italian anarchist, who comes to work for Andrew Bevel. Ida’s proletarian presence bursts the elite bubble we’ve only peered into until now. Soon, questions of complicity arise. Is there dignity in her work on behalf of capital? Or is her labor a betrayal in itself? The vivid meetings of Ida and Andrew remind me of Roberto Bolaño’s Father Urrutia, tasked with teaching Marxism to Pinochet. The power imbalances of a fractured society are embodied and dramatized in tense scenes. “‘Have your chowder,’” Andrew commands her during a fraught dinner conversation. “I had my chowder,” Ida recalls, without comment.
One of the novel’s preoccupations is misogyny, which cuts across political lines. Women hide their opinions from self-absorbed men. Such men, writes Ida, “all believed, without any sort of doubt, that they deserved to be heard, that their words ought to be heard, that the narratives of their faultless lives must be heard.” The novel’s conservative men, of course, uphold the gender status quo. But the anti-capitalist and anarchist men of Trust, for all their critiques of self-interest and hierarchy, are complicit. Ida’s self-assured writing throws the gender politics of the novel into stark relief. And, in a bravura final section, Mildred Bevel—a fleeting, feminine presence in the men’s stories—finally has her say.
This intricate novel possesses a rare, fractal beauty: patterns first noticeable in the tiny twigs of its sentences recur in the branches of its sections and yet again in the shape of the whole. One character in Trust calls money a fiction. Finance capital, then, is “the fiction of a fiction.” And Trust, you might say, is the fiction of the fiction of a fiction, whose patterns extend well beyond its pages. Human lives rise and fall, but the greed of corporations and family fortunes persists. “Self-made” men trade on the stolen labor of women and the underclass. And the wealthy will stop at nothing—they will even “bend and align reality” itself—to tell their story in their own way. But, as Trust shows, theirs must not be the last word.
Published on August 9, 2022