Critics receiving the prepublication galleys of Hernan Diaz’s new novel, Trust (Riverhead, May), may be forgiven for being confused. The book comes in a box bearing the cover image of another novel—Bonds by Harold Vanner—and inside are flaps announcing the titles of still other books. By the time one unpacks Diaz’s actual novel, its title comes to seem like a winking challenge. After such dissimulation, the trustworthiness of the book, and perhaps of fiction in general, has been called into question. And that is very much Diaz’s purpose.
Trust, which follows Diaz’s 2017 Pulitzer-finalist debut, In the Distance, presents four takes on the story of Andrew Bevel, a fictional early-20th-century financial titan, and his wife, Mildred. The first is a novelization of the couple’s life by Vanner; the second is a memoir by Bevel himself; the third is a first-person narrative by Bevel’s young secretary, Ida Partenza; and the fourth is a diary by a character whom it would spoil the ending to identify. Set in the years leading up to and following the 1929 stock market crash, the novel is in large part an investigation of capitalism’s intoxicating pull on the American consciousness. Diaz, speaking via Zoom from his home in Brooklyn Heights, says he wanted to explore “the force—the sheer magnetic, mystical, transcendental force—of money.”
In its focus on the financial barons of the Roaring ’20s, Trust seems at first seems like a far cry from In the Distance. That novel told the story of a Swedish immigrant making a bloody and surrealistic trek across the American West in the mid-19th century. But for Diaz, the two novels are part of a broader intellectual and artistic preoccupation. “In both these cases, I saw what, to me, were two essential myths,” he says. “In the case of In the Distance, it’s the western.” In the case of Trust, it’s the “myth of capital.”
This latter myth strikes Diaz as one ripe for further study. “You have a ton of books—Henry James, Edith Wharton—that deal with the symptoms of wealth,” he says. “But there are very, very few novels that deal with the process of accumulation of capital. This, to me, was baffling. Here we have this essential component of the American dream, which is wealth, and the American literary tradition has somehow skirted this issue.”
Diaz observes American mythologies with the clarity of an outsider. He was born in 1973 in Buenos Aires and spent his childhood in Sweden before returning to his native country. By the time he was in his teens, he knew he wanted to be a writer, and he opted to follow that path by way of academia. “There weren’t any creative writing programs, or workshops, or anything like that [in Argentina],” he says. Studying literature was “the only thing you could do, if you wanted to pursue anything seriously.”
After moving to New York City in his 20s, Diaz received a PhD in philosophy from New York University. “I was very absorbed by academic writing,” he says. “It took over from fiction for a good while.” When he finally did return to fiction writing, he faced the usual tidal wave of discouragement. “I wrote a lot, and got rejected a lot. There was a whole novel written before In the Distance, and a good pile of stories.”
In the Distance made its way into the world humbly, as an unagented submission to Coffee House Press, but it became a hit with critics and a regular on the awards circuit. The book won the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and was nominated for both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Now, Diaz says, “I feel like I get the luxury of calling myself a writer.”
Diaz’s scholarly background served him well in the writing of Trust. To flesh out the life and mind of Bevel, who in the novel is accused of profiting off the 1929 crash by manipulating the market and shorting distressed assets, Diaz conducted intensive research on high finance and monetary policy. To understand Bevel’s wife, Mildred, he read the papers of Adelaide Frick at New York’s Frick Collection.
“Going through these papers,” Diaz says, “what struck me first was the loneliness—the profound, profound boredom and suffocation—that comes across.” Women in New York’s high society at the time, he adds, “although having all the material means in the world—almost literally—were confined to reduced roles.”
Trust also gave Diaz an opportunity to experiment with genre conventions. Vanner’s novel about the Bevels, in its psychological subtlety and mannered delicacy, calls to mind the classical literary realism of Henry James. The autobiography by Ida Partenza, Bevel’s secretary, takes cues from the style of New Journalism. And the concluding diary Diaz intended as a “modernist cabinet of curiosities,” as if “Virginia Woolf had written Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.”
Importantly, no single one of the four stories that make up Trust lays claim to any authoritative truth. For much of the novel, the question of how Bevel so consistently outsmarted the market, and of what his and Mildred’s interior lives consisted of, remains largely a mystery, not only to the readers of Trust but to the novel’s characters themselves. This ambiguity—the failure of any narrative to deliver a conclusive account of the world—is critical to Diaz’s project.
In March 2021, Diaz delivered a lecture at the Yale Macmillan Center titled “The Heart of Fiction.” (The title is a reference to James’s famous essay “The Art of Fiction.” Like many writers, Diaz suffers from Henry James obsessive disorder.) The lecture was in part a response to the recent flourishing of autofiction and that genre’s arguably dubious claims to veracity. “Fiction,” Diaz said in the lecture, “rather than presenting us with truthful content, shows us how we experience truth.”
If autofiction offers the illusion of unmediated authenticity, Diaz says, “I think Trust and my view of literature in general double down on the notion of mediation and removal.” For him, the trust we place in narrative is as precarious as the trust we place in money. Both are mere representations of reality that we agree to take at face value.
But what gives us confidence that a dollar bill has the purchasing power it signifies? What gives us confidence that any writer—whether Vanner, Bevel, Partenza, or Diaz himself—is portraying the world accurately? And what effect might these distancing representations, both narrative and financial, have on the soul and its ability to connect to others? In Diaz’s view, these questions are central to the literary enterprise. Fiction’s relationship to truth, he says, “lies precisely in those mediations and removals, and in describing the ultimate inability to reach out and touch the world.”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York City.