Midway through Hernan Diaz’s wondrous new novel, Trust, a wealthy financier sits at a desk, looking out of a high-rise window at a welder, suspended on a beam, who seems to be returning his gaze:
Each man appeared to be hypnotized by the other. But when the welder adjusted his cap and his coat, always staring at the man in the chair, I realized that, to him, the window was an impenetrable mirror.
Diaz recently told Vanity Fair that the idea for the novel began to form in his mind with this image of two men, each his own island—the rich man who cannot be seen; the worker whose view is obstructed. The “I” belongs to a woman who observes the scene while in the rich man’s office to interview for a secretarial position. She recounts it decades later in her memoir, from which this passage is drawn. And we—the readers of her nonfiction book within Diaz’s fictional one—take her at her word that the scene occurred just so.
Is there reason to doubt? Plenty. Trust incites mistrust from the very start. Its tantalizing table of contents promises four books, not one, each of which circles the lives of an early-twentieth-century financier named Andrew Bevel and his wife, Mildred, and calls into question the book that precedes it—a kind of Wall Street Rashomon. The first is a novel called “Bonds,” supposedly published in 1937 by Harold Vanner, who, like the other authors in the book, is invented by Diaz. Vanner’s main characters are a preternaturally gifted and morally deficient financier named Benjamin Rask and his brilliant, psychologically unsound wife, Helen, who we learn later in Trust are modeled on the Bevels. The second is “My Life,” a self-aggrandizing autobiography by Bevel, written the following year and left unfinished at his death. The third is “A Memoir, Remembered,” the book written in the 1990s by Ida Partenza, Bevel’s former secretary, in which she recounts her dealings with him during the writing of his autobiography as well as her strained relationship with her irascible anarchist father. Last is “Futures,” which consists of a handful of entries from the diary of Mildred Bevel, about which I will say little, to avoid spoiling Trust’s ending.
Diaz is brilliant at dissecting literary conventions and transforming them into something new. Born in Buenos Aires in 1973, he spent most of his early childhood in Stockholm, where his family moved when he was two to escape the political situation in Argentina. During these years he spoke Spanish at home, with Swedish being his first “social tongue.” The family later returned to Argentina, but eventually, Diaz explained to Vanity Fair, he felt that he “wanted to live in English.” He moved first to London, then to Brooklyn. He took graduate seminars with Jacques Derrida at NYU, became an academic at Columbia, and wrote a book on Borges.
His first novel, In the Distance (2017), reinvigorated the western by placing at its center a young Swedish immigrant, Håkan Söderström, who lands in San Francisco during the gold rush and tries to make his way east, against the flow of westward expansion, to find his brother in New York. After escaping imprisonment in a mining town, he is rescued by a roving naturalist, Lorimer, who teaches him to appreciate the landscape and the species that inhabit it, as well as the interconnectedness of life.
But the more Håkan learns, the more he comes to feel that all travelers in the West, “himself included, were, in fact, intruders.” He encounters a band of settlers, with whom he travels for a while. When they are attacked by a religious militia, Håkan kills numerous men in self-defense, and the terrible awe he feels is the underside of the “ecstasy of existence” Lorimer inspires in him. Rather than finding himself an agent of conquest, as he might in a traditional western, he is crushed by guilt and the West’s totalizing violence. He recedes from his search for his brother and, largely, from the process of living.
In making Håkan the opposite of the archetypal cowboy hero, Diaz underscores the idea that we enter a story with expectations determined in part by each genre’s set of “rules.” “Vigilantism, greed, racism, and plunder are all romanticized in the Western,” he told The Paris Review Daily in 2017.
Because it whitewashes American history and offers a very attractive myth of the birth of this country, it should have become the national genre, [and yet] it has a marginal place in the literary canon…. It seemed like hijacking the Western was a perfect way to say something new about the United States and its history.
Diaz saw a similar opening for Trust, in which he addresses what he calls a “blind spot” in American literature: the upper-class social novel’s failure to critique the source of its characters’ wealth. Trust depicts not simply the lives of the moneyed elite but the process of enrichment—“the American money-maker in action,” as he puts it, in a phrase borrowed from Edith Wharton. Whereas the novels of Wharton, James, and Fitzgerald anatomize the agony and ecstasy of privilege and affluence but not the details of their accretion, the accumulation of money and its role as a driver of social forces occupy the minds of Diaz’s characters and advance much of the plot.
But the moneymaker in action is only part of Diaz’s overarching examination. In his interview with The Paris Review, he called attention to “another American genre, detective fiction,” noting that “it taught us…that reality is not given but needs to be deciphered.” The reader of Trust becomes a detective, not only comparing the four different accounts within the book but considering, too, how the forms—novel, autobiography, memoir, and diary—render these perspectives as distinct expressions of “truth.” For Diaz’s characters, their choice of form is as revealing of motive and persona as the words on the page.
Harold Vanner’s “Bonds” is not a rags-to-riches story, as its opening line makes clear: “Because he had enjoyed almost every advantage since birth, one of the few privileges denied to Benjamin Rask was that of a heroic rise.” A lonely child born into great wealth in the 1870s and orphaned just before he reaches adulthood, Rask excels in school but has few recognizable personal qualities beyond a dispassionate “reluctance to associate” with others. At his father’s funeral, Vanner writes, “relatives and acquaintances alike were impressed by Benjamin’s composure, but the truth was that mourning simply had given the natural dispositions of his character a socially recognizable form.”
Rask has no interest in his family’s tobacco business and he soon sells it off. He is drawn instead to the world of finance, or, as Vanner later describes it, “the incestuous genealogies of money—capital begetting capital begetting capital.” Finding that he has an innate talent for discerning patterns in the abstraction of financial speculation, Rask sets out to invest on his own, and his work, if it can be called that, consumes him. He thinks about wealth the way a pyromaniac thinks about fire: “He became fascinated by the contortions of money—how it could be made to bend back upon itself to be force-fed its own body.” The methods by which it can be accrued define his vision of the world: countries around the globe, equally ripe for plunder and manipulation, become a “unified territory” and “things and people [merge] into one single machine.”
Vanner portrays Rask as a callous figure, an embodiment of the soullessness of Gilded Age capitalism. He is like J.P. Morgan, who said, “I owe the public nothing,” and John D. Rockefeller, who lived the principle “Silence is golden.” Unsociable and secretive, Rask offers no persona to society or the general populace, and in that void, rumors breed. He is “mortified at the mere thought of being considered an eccentric” and decides to create a superficial identity. He builds a Beaux-Arts mansion on Fifth Avenue, joins an assortment of clubs and boards he doesn’t engage with, and has his assistant throw parties he himself does not attend. “In the end,” Vanner writes, “he became a wealthy man playing the part of a wealthy man.”
Diaz’s descriptions of Wall Street wheeling and dealing in the first part of “Bonds” are nimble. “New York swelled with the loud optimism of those who believe they have outpaced the future,” he writes of the buoyancy that preceded the Panic of 1907. But “Bonds” isn’t Diaz’s novel exactly; it’s Vanner’s—and the reader can’t help but be aware of a certain artifice. Who is Vanner and why has his book been included here?
In the second part of “Bonds”—which, like Trust, is divided into four sections—Vanner tells the story of Helen Brevoort, who comes from a well-regarded Albany family of diminished means, kept afloat by Mrs. Brevoort’s social dexterity. Mr. Brevoort takes his young daughter’s education in hand, feeding her impressive intellect with an eccentric curriculum, including biblical hermeneutics, occultism, American Transcendentalism, German aphorisms, and the teachings of the theologian Emanuel Swedenborg.
When Helen is still a child, the family embarks for Europe. As Mr. Brevoort falls deeper into theosophy and arcana, Mrs. Brevoort uses Helen’s polymath talents as an entertaining lure to gain access to the circles of well-to-do expats. Helen discovers an escape in solitude. “She knew, then,” Vanner writes, “that this solemn form of joy, so pure because it had no content, so reliable because it relied on nobody else, was the state for which she would henceforth strive.”
The sundering of Europe by World War I coincides with Mr. Brevoort’s psychic break—his thoughts “curved and curled on themselves,” Vanner writes, echoing his description of Rask’s obsession with the contortions of money—and he is deposited at the Medico-Mechanic Institute at Bad Pfäfers in Switzerland. Rask’s unctuous assistant, also stranded by the war, attempts to court Helen, now a teenager, and through him Mrs. Brevoort finagles transport for herself and Helen back to New York and an invitation to a soiree at Rask’s mansion.
The moment Helen and Rask meet is marvelously underwhelming—it’s an aptly awkward encounter involving two people who are barely there: he, “a slender man standing on the shore of invisibility”; she, sheltered in “the shadowy fringes of the room.” As a married couple, their companionship is predicated on a mutual desire for reclusion, which money can readily supply, and their most intimate moments are those in which they can be together but alone, at private recitals in the mansion, for instance, “sharing emotions for which they were not responsible and which did not refer directly to the two of them.” Their bond, to use Vanner’s title, is more an alliance than a marriage, a version of Rask’s social strategy of being seen without actually being present.
Rask’s wealth soars throughout the Roaring Twenties. The optimism that precedes the Great Depression is a “wonderful collective dream” with opportunities “for anyone who saw and took them,” according to Vanner. When the crash occurs, Rask’s financial machinations bring about the ruination of countless working people. “Most of us prefer to believe we are the active subjects of our victories but only the passive objects of our defeats,” Vanner interjects, pulling the reader to his side with the first-person plural. “We triumph, but it is not really we who fail—we are ruined by forces beyond our control.” Rask is pilloried in the press for reputedly orchestrating the crash, but his astonishing acumen is irresistible to his fellow financiers, who revere him even as they despise him.
At the same time, Helen becomes collateral damage in Rask’s financial predations. She has a crisis of conscience, initiated by a moment of public humiliation (though it’s unclear whether the scene takes place primarily in her mind). Vanner writes that she is ready to “atone” for the causes of the crash and adds, “She would pay for the suffering that had helped make her husband rich beyond measure.” The promise of punishment strikes an oddly personal note, muddling the distinction between character and author. Does the impulse originate with Helen or with Vanner, who seems to want to castigate her? She crumbles from guilt and paranoia, rambling through the mansion, mumbling incoherently, and writing obsessively in her diaries, as Rask observes her cautiously. “Lost in the new tyrannical architecture of her brain,” Vanner writes, and afflicted by severe eczema, she asks to be deposited at the same Swiss hospital as her father, who disappeared from its grounds years before.
In the final part of “Bonds,” the stifling ostentation of the Fifth Avenue mansion is supplanted by the panorama of the Swiss mountain landscape as the Rasks travel to Bad Pfäfers. Helen receives two brutal electroshock treatments, appears to improve, and then dies suddenly. By the time of her death, she has become “a thing broken and abandoned, exhausted of being.” She’s been ground in the mill, to borrow from James, but to what end? It’s puzzling that Vanner spent so many pages developing Helen, only to dispatch her in a way that seems mechanistic, a tool for doling out punishment to Rask without having to deal with him directly.
A review later in Trust argues that “Bonds” is an epigone of Wharton and James, but even in imitation, Vanner’s treatment of Helen comes up short—she doesn’t get to be an Isabel Archer, much less a Countess Olenska. Rask, too, fizzles out. He returns to New York but cannot reproduce his earlier financial success. His ending, and the last line of “Bonds,” is surprisingly prosaic, as he briefly looks back on his life: “While that young person had believed he would renounce everything in favor of his calling, this aging man was sure he had given life a fair try.”
Vanner’s novel is an enjoyable yet minor work of American literary realism, but it’s a masterpiece in comparison with the book that follows it. Andrew Bevel’s autobiography, purportedly written in 1938 in response to Vanner’s novel and left incomplete when Bevel dies of a heart attack that same year, is the kind of humblebrag a man would write if he credited himself with a “pioneering spirit,” unique business acumen, and exceptional foresight. A modern comparison might be the billionaire Charles Koch’s Good Profit (2015), which uses his riches-to-riches autobiography to frame a disingenuous theory of corporate management and social responsibility. The writer Lydia Kiesling’s description of Koch’s book as one that “elides the thrill of acquisition for the appearance of rectitude” could also serve as a summary of Bevel’s effort, as could her assessment that such a trade produces dull results.
Although more loquacious than Rask, Bevel is undeniably the model for Vanner’s antihero, and Bevel has a bone to pick with the author, without naming Vanner or his novel directly. “What matters is the tally of our accomplishments, not the tales about us,” he declares in his preface. His efforts to refute the rumors about him include, above all, mending the reputation of his late wife, Mildred, who, Bevel insists, is grossly misrepresented by her fictional counterpart, Helen. But first, he drags his reader through accounts of his storied male ancestors, his education and early years, and his business dealings. On his grandfather:
He possessed all the qualities commonly attached to men of intellectual genius. He was absentminded, withdrawn and focused on his work to the detriment of the most basic everyday tasks, at which he was charmingly inept.
On women investors:
Women represented only 1.5 per cent of the dilettantish speculators at the beginning of the decade. At the end they neared 40 per cent. Could there have been a clearer indicator of the disaster to come?
What motivates a person to write an autobiography? The form is usually self-serving in some sense—not only in what the author remembers but why. Bevel writes that “no enterprise can fully succeed without a true understanding of human behavior,” but his book fails utterly on this score. He credits Mildred with being a clear-eyed helpmeet but patronizes her almost instantly, repeatedly citing her “innocent wisdom” and noting that his “methodical approach reined in her understandable passion.”
Throughout, Bevel shifts blame with one hand and takes credit with the other. “It is impossible for one single person or group to control the market,” he writes, and then claims, “My actions safeguarded American industry and business.” The parallel with Trump’s “I alone can fix it” isn’t coincidental; Diaz wrote Trust during his presidency, and Bevel is as baldly transactional.
The fragmentary state of Bevel’s autobiography is a clever way for Diaz to reveal the character’s preoccupations. “Every single one of our acts is ruled by the laws of economy,” Bevel writes. In the currency of words, he’s a big spender when defending his profiteering, and parsimonious in a chapter he calls “Restoring Our Values,” which consists of only a few notes: “Recent achievements, since Mildred’s passing. Prospering despite grief and hostile political conditions. List.”
Vanner may have adapted and embellished elements of the Bevels’ lives for his novel, but Bevel also picks and chooses what to mention. It is telling that the chapter on his college years consists of some half-dozen unelaborated notes on formative relationships (“making lasting friends and testing character”) and that the chapter titled “Apprenticeship” is completely blank. Another chapter, called “Benefactress,” ends in a sentence fragment that highlights Bevel’s egotism:
Proof of the Mildred Bevel Charitable Fund’s success is that it thrives to this day, improving the lives of both budding and established artists all over the country. And I
Diaz’s choice of the dubious names Vanner and Bevel—suggestive of “conceit” and “slanted”—makes twins of the characters, as though they are two sides of the same coin. His placement of their books right next to each other in Trust makes it seem as though Vanner and Bevel are wielding their separate versions of reality like weapons, each believing his to be closer to the truth—Vanner’s in spirit, Bevel’s in factual detail—though Vanner’s motives remain unknown. In any case, the argument between them is moot. Autobiography, like fiction, doesn’t imitate life—it is a construction of life, a representation of it, and one in which imagination can be mistaken for memory.
In these pages, Dwight Macdonald described “parajournalism” as “a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.”* This form is at work in Ida Partenza’s memoir, which follows Bevel’s autobiography in Trust. Because of its supposed grounding in fact, her account feels authoritative, but with Trust’s succession of unreliable perspectives, the reader is alert to signs that she might be availing herself of creative freedom.
“So much of what I have written over the past decades is a ciphered version of the story of that relationship,” she says of her time with Bevel. Now seventy, with a writing career behind her, she claims to have undertaken the memoir in order “to look for the answers to the enigmas I thought had to be left unresolved so they could feed my work.” Her glimpses into the past are framed by her present-day excursion to the Bevel mansion, recently opened as a museum housing the Andrew and Mildred Bevel papers.
In her twenties, Partenza explains, she became Bevel’s amanuensis in the writing of his book. When she applied to work for him she created her own identity, inventing a fake name and backstory, and lived a kind of double life, keeping the details of her job secret and separate from her home life in Brooklyn. Her father lectures her on Marx and thinks secretarial work is demeaning, “another knot in the millenary subjection of women to the rule of men,” yet he freely ignores the housework, leaving dirty dishes in the sink for her to clean. After she secures the job—following a demeaning interview process in which the final applicants are all of a similar physical type—Bevel explains that she will take dictation as he narrates his life story, to counter the “libelous trash” of Vanner’s novel.
As Bevel’s secretary, Partenza not only types his notes but ends up creating much of the material about Mildred from whole cloth. She writes a scene for Mildred that is straight out of her own past—retelling detective stories to her father over dinner—and later, Bevel recounts the story back to a shocked Partenza as if drawing from his store of memories. As Bevel edits Partenza’s manuscript of his autobiography, he reshapes it, “bending and aligning reality,” he tells her, for “reality needs to be consistent.”
But the reality of all of Trust, up to this point, has been realigned. Bevel’s autobiography is the product of Partenza’s employment, and his book, “My Life,” is thrown into a freshly uncertain light. So, too, is our understanding of its relationship with Vanner’s novel. The scenes that the reader understood to be Bevel’s refutation of the details in “Bonds” may not even have come from Bevel. The slipperiness between Trust’s different forms and their truthfulness is expounded by Partenza’s father in an angry speech that has a clear contemporary resonance:
Fiction harmless? Look at religion. Fiction harmless? Look at the oppressed masses content with their lot because they have embraced the lies imposed on them. History itself is just a fiction—a fiction with an army. And reality? Reality is a fiction with an unlimited budget. That’s what it is. And how is reality funded? With yet another fiction: money. Money is at the core of it all. An illusion we’ve all agreed to support. Unanimously.
If reality can be so manipulated, what part of any of these “books” can be trusted? Both Vanner and Bevel do a kind of violence to their female characters with an assuredness Partenza recognizes in her reading of biographies of “Great Men”: “They 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.” She knows from her research that Mildred isn’t the “haunted woman” of Vanner’s novel, nor is she “the insubstantial shadow” Bevel insisted upon for his account.
But Partenza herself isn’t immune to the lure of the writer’s authority. When she discovers one of Mildred’s diaries among the museum’s holdings, a volume called “Futures” that becomes the fourth book of Trust, she steals it. So cozy has she become with her subject that she, too, begins to merge her story with Mildred’s and take license with the latter:
I am bothered by how easy it is to convince myself that I have a right to this notebook. (Who knows Mildred better than I? Didn’t I even forge her a past out of my own? Are we not then, in some oblique way, connected?)
In “Bonds,” as Helen Rask’s mental illness intensifies, Vanner has her record her decline in her diaries:
She hoped her future self, the one reading her diaries, would be able to use those writings as a measure of how far into her delirium she had gone. Would she see herself on the page?
Yet Mildred Bevel, the model for Helen, goes largely unknown in the first three books that make up Diaz’s novel; she likely wouldn’t recognize herself in any of them. Point of view, Diaz told The Paris Review, is related to power, and we all want the power to tell our own stories. In Mildred’s diary, as she details her daily activities and impressions, she muses on the nature of kitsch, and her summary reads as a quietly thrilling rebuke to the rest of the novel:
A copy that’s so proud of how close it comes to the original that it believes there’s more worth in this closeness than in originality itself…. Because artifice is now the ultimate standard, the original…has to be turned into a fake…so that the latter may provide the measure of the former’s beauty.
At the beginning of her diary, Mildred is reading Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark. But her contribution to Trust made me think of Rhys’s later novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which responds to and amends Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, reconstructing Brontë’s madwoman in the attic as a full-fledged character. As the last book and the shortest, Mildred’s diary has the quality of an emendation. She gets the last word, and I read her book as being the true one—she wrote it herself, for herself—but is it? Why should her account be any more trustworthy than the others? Even diaries can be written with an eye to posterity.
Nested realities and questions around authenticity are Borgesian hallmarks, and in an interview with LitHub Diaz said, “I wouldn’t be the person I am without Borges.” But Diaz reminds me more of Vladimir Nabokov. Their works share, among other things, the unreliability of dueling narrators, a dexterous self-consciousness, a knowing artifice, and the primacy of “reality.” Nabokov said that the heroine of his novel The Gift (1938) is not a person but Russian literature itself. Diaz’s subject is American literature—not its genres, though he does work within those, but the principles that animate the American imagination. In his novels, Diaz has punctured two of the defining characteristics of American history: rugged individualism and the exceptionalism of capitalist enterprise.
The play of forms and factuality in Trust—the very question of trustworthiness in varieties of literary representation—conjures another American theme: reinvention. For her job application, Partenza composes what she calls a “prospective autobiography,” “since most of my life lay in the future,” writing her life as she might like to see it unfold. Mildred puts it another way in her diary: “The ticker fell behind me, and for a few minutes I owned the future.”