Review: Trust by Hernan Diaz
Revisiting a novel that might have missed winning the 2022 Booker Prize but is sure to continue to say more each time you read it
Hernan Diaz’s second novel Trust not only made it to the 2022-Booker Longlist but also featured as one of Barack Obama’s best books of the year. Diaz’s careful exploration of 20th century American history through fiction shows us the power that stories have to tell facts.
With a page of contents that lists four titles with four different authors, the reader’s curiosity is what first draws her to the book. The initial 127 pages of the “novel” presents the story of business tycoon, Benjamin Rask, whose family migrated to the USA, but who becomes one of the richest Americans in the early 20th century. Benjamin marries the young and reclusive Helen and they seem to have a quiet married life until Helen falls ill and has to be taken to Switzerland for treatment.
Following the “novel”, the reader encounters an account of the man on whom the fictional character Benjamin Rask is based, Andrew Bevel. When this section too keeps the reader confused about what exactly is going on, Diaz brings in the third and longest section. It is in the memoir of Ida Partenza, Andrew Bevel’s private secretary, that Diaz’s Trust comes together. Andrew is disappointed at how he and his wife Mildred are portrayed in the “novel” and he wants Ida’s help to correct it.
The plot itself shows the great lengths that fiction can take to tell the story of one man and a country ravaged by war, capitalism and the “bonds” of kinship. What occurs most strongly in Diaz’s story is the idea that an individual has of a nation, of belonging, and the wish to transform oneself with it. This focus on the American nation and its transformation brings to mind Julian Barnes’ England, England (1998). Martha’s thirst to pursue the goal of creating a theme park of everything English after her father’s sudden disappearance is echoed in the character of Andrew Bevel. With his mother’s passing, and then his wife’s illness, Andrew may come across as a lonely character. But is he? Can loneliness truly be a drug toward seeking revenge? Can his personal grief be tied to the “health of our nation’s economy”?
These are some of the questions readers find themselves asking as they make their way through Diaz’s short, crisp sentences. The book’s four titles may be written under different names but a single firm hold over sentence construction and chapters captures the reader’s attention until the end. At many points, the author seems aware of the confusion brewing in readers’ minds. The line, “My trash can was full. I could smell my own panic” succinctly describes the mental and moral state of both, his characters and readers, over the turns the story takes.
While the lives of Benjamin-Andrew and Helen-Mildred can easily be referenced to the razzmatazz of Edith Wharton’s New York, Diaz has more to add. From “New York swelled with the loud optimism of those who believe they have outpaced the future” to “I am a financier in a city ruled by financier”, the author tilts towards a socio-anthropological analysis of the city. His meditations on a changing New York and its bourgeoisie parallels the analyses of American scholars like Saskia Sassen or C Wright Mills.
The insights into the financial world and into the complex power distribution of 20th century New York can be interesting for a reader in search of fiction that engages with topics beyond the human emotions. But these very insights can also become an impediment in the narration. Pages and pages of information on the “hard facts and figures” leading up to the 1929 Crash and its aftermath, can read as data that, if edited, wouldn’t have changed the basic storyline.
But a few pages later, the reader once again becomes aware of Diaz’s prescience as he dissolves the financial mess into, “money is fiction, finance capital is the fiction of a fiction.” In that one sentence, he manages to drive several points home. The reader sees the New York obsession with finance, its vacuous imaginations, Andrew Bevel’s desperation to hatch another fiction to outdo the fictional Rask and how all of life boils down to a “trade in: fictions.” This gradual realisation emerging from the character of an ageing, immigrant anarchist approximates the layers through which the novel rises toward the impending climax.
By the end of Ida Partenza’s memoir, the author has prepared the reader for a big reveal. Something as ominous as the 1929 Crash is awaiting Diaz’s readers and the Bevels. The build-up is fascinating. By now, readers are inextricably attached to the characters whose stories have been repeated over and over through different people. At the end, the author will again have two sets of readers who are wholly divided. For one, no other end could have been more fitting; for the other, the build-up would have fizzled out as “pleasant then clammy.”
Trust deserves all the love it has garnered. A novel that will say more each time it is read, it seems certain to leave an indelible mark on storytelling and the art of recording histories. As Ida writes, “I closed with a reflection on time and how it was up to each one of us to carve our present out of the shapeless block of the future — or something to that effect.”
Rahul Singh is a PhD scholar. He lives in Kolkata
The views expressed are personal