Trust by Hernan Diaz - review by Michael Delgado

Michael Delgado

Wall Street Journals

Trust

By

Picador 402pp £16.99
 

Towards the end of Trust, Mildred Bevel, dying of cancer in a Swiss sanatorium, peers at ‘the glass on the table’ in front of her and notices ‘something miraculous + sad’ about it. ‘Water disciplined into a vertical cylinder,’ she notes in her diary. ‘The depressing spectacle of our triumph over the elements.’ It’s a rare moment of philosophical clarity in a novel whose reigning mood is dissemblance. But it’s also a rumination that crystallises a central theme of Hernan Diaz’s second novel: the ways in which humans try to tame forces beyond their control.

Mildred’s husband, the New York financier Andrew Bevel, provides the most striking example of this. We first meet him through his unfinished memoir, written in 1938, which forms the second section of Trust. A stern, retiring businessman whose shrewd dealings during the 1920s have catapulted him to such gargantuan wealth that questions have started to be asked about his methods, Andrew uses his memoir to rebut mutterings about foul play and preserve the ‘memory’ of his late wife. It’s all very portentous, characterised by stolid pronouncements: ‘My actions during the 1920s … helped to safeguard the health of our nation’s economy’; ‘Self-interest, if properly directed, need not be divorced from the common good.’ In the third section of the novel, a memoir by Ida Partenza, the young secretary whom Andrew chose to take down his own memoir, we learn more about why Andrew has chosen to put his side of the story on record. He tells Ida that having a public life ‘is an unwelcome offshoot of my work. I’ve tried to nip it, stamp it out. It grows back. Always. With renewed strength. So I’ve decided to take control over it. If I’m to have a public life, I’d rather have my version of it out there.’

The main reason for Andrew’s irritation is Bonds, a bestselling roman à clef written by a mysterious figure named Harold Vanner (who, we learn, knew Mildred personally, though to what extent remains unclear), which has taken 1930s New York by storm and forms the first section of Trust. Ida recalls how, the first time she and Andrew met, he showed her a copy, telling her that the book is ‘patently about my wife and me’ and that ‘it makes us look bad’. In Bonds, Andrew is fictionalised as Benjamin Rask, who makes and consolidates his fortune by short-selling stocks during the various Wall Street crashes of the early 20th century, leaving him ‘the only man standing’ amid the ‘rubble’. The public begins to believe that ‘everything – the breaks in the market, the uncertainty, the bearishness leading to panic selling, and eventually the crash that would ruin multitudes – had been orchestrated by Rask’. Yet what rankles with Andrew even more is Vanner’s depiction of Andrew’s wife, whose stand-in in Bonds, Helen, does not die of cancer but descends into an unspecified madness, demands to be sent to a Swiss sanatorium and while there undergoes an experimental treatment, sanctioned by her husband, that induces seizures and ends up killing her. ‘I’m used to being smeared,’ Andrew tells Ida, but ‘I won’t allow … for this vile fantasy to soil the memory of my wife.’ It’s easy to see why Andrew would want to correct this ‘opprobrious fabrication’, but as the novel goes on it becomes clear that his version of events is not necessarily any more truthful than that in Vanner’s bestseller.

It’s probably obvious by now that Trust is a twisty, postmodern venture, much more formally innovative than Diaz’s acclaimed first novel, In the Distance. Diaz uses multiple perspectives to dissect the life of one man through four very different documents – an effective approach, both edifying and destabilising, in which contradictions between the various versions of events are gradually exposed. The veracity of Andrew’s testimony is, for instance, called into question when we learn that at one point he asked Ida to think up some little ‘homey’ details to include about Mildred, telling her that ‘as a woman, you’ll do a far better job painting that picture’. While the first two sections are integral to the novel’s workings and constitute accomplished acts of ventriloquism, they are also stodgy reads. The last two sections, Ida’s memoir and Mildred’s deathbed diary, are much more frank and compelling. Here, both women begin to reveal Andrew’s status as stock market soothsayer to be something of a mirage. (In a novel light on humour, it is a nice touch to see Ida coming across copies of The Great Gatsby being sold in the gift shop of Bevel House after Andrew’s death.)

Trust has an anti-capitalist bent, but it is less about money than truth and narrative (note the double meanings of the title and the word ‘bonds’), and especially the ways in which truth, like money, can be bent to the wills of those who wield power. As Ida’s father, an obdurate old anarchist who disapproves of his daughter’s foray into Wall Street, puts it, ‘reality is a fiction with an unlimited budget’. It takes a writer of considerable skill to pull off a novel as structurally ambitious as this, and one can see why Diaz has been rewarded with a place on this year’s Booker Prize longlist. Yet despite all its ingenuity – or perhaps because of it – reading Trust is a somewhat emotionless experience, more like watching someone solve a Rubik’s cube than play a piano sonata. Most readers, I’d wager, will find it a novel to admire rather than love.

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