You can't 'Trust' this novel. And that's a very good thing
Trust by Hernan Diaz is one of those novels that's always pulling a fast one on a reader. Take the opening section: You settle in, become absorbed in the story and, then, 100 pages or so later — Boom! — the novel lurches into another narrative that upends the truth of everything that came before.
When a work of fiction reminds me that it is a work of fiction simply to show me how gullible I am, well, thanks, I knew that already. But sometimes these metadramatic maneuvers serve a novel's larger themes. Susan Choi's 2019 novel, Trust Exercise, about the misleading powers of art and memory, is one recent instance; now, Diaz's Trust is another. That word "trust" in both their titles is a tip-off that that's exactly what we readers shouldn't do upon entering these slippery fictional worlds.
Trust is all about money, particularly, the flimflam force of money in the stock market, and its potential, as a character says, "to bend and align reality" to its own purposes. The opening section is imagined as a novel-within-a novel, entitled Bonds, a 1937 best-seller about the rise of a Wall Street tycoon named Benjamin Rask. Think of figures like J.P. Morgan and Charles Schwab, men whose DNA was made of strands of ticker tape. We learn that Rask is that rarest of creatures, a wealthy man without appetites. Our narrator tells us Rask is fascinated by only one thing:
If asked, Benjamin would probably have found it hard to explain what drew him to the world of finance. It was the complexity of it, yes, but also the fact that he viewed capital as an antiseptically living thing. ... There was no need for him to touch a single banknote or engage with the things and people his transactions affected. All he had to do was think, speak, and, perhaps, write. And the living creature would be set in motion ...
For the sake of posterity, Rask does eventually marry — an equally self-contained woman named Helen. Throughout the Roaring '20s, Rask accrues wealth and Helen finds her place as a patron of the arts. Then, comes the Crash of 1929.
Because Rask profits from other speculators' losses, rumors circulate that he rigged the Crash and he and Helen are ostracized. The final chapters of this saga detail Helen's ordeal as a patient at a psychiatric institute in Switzerland; her mania and her eczema, described as a "merciless red flat monster gnawing on her skin," are reminiscent of the real life torments of Zelda Fitzgerald.
The opening section of Trust, as I've said, is so sharply realized, it's disorienting to begin the novel's next section, composed of notes on a story that sounds like the one we've just read. But, then, Diaz lures us readers into once again suspending our disbelief when we reach the captivating third section of his novel, which mostly takes place during the Great Depression. There, a young woman from Brooklyn named Ida Partenza becomes the secretary — and ghostwriter — for a financial mogul named Andrew Bevel.
Bevel's life is the source for that best-selling novel, Bonds, and he's so infuriated by that novel, he's had all copies removed from the New York public library system. Bevel hires Ida to help him write a memoir that will set the record straight. Sure. The fourth and final section of Trust is wired with booby traps, blowing the whole artifice up before our wide-open eyes.
Trust is an ingeniously constructed historical novel with a postmodern point. Throughout, Diaz makes a connection between the realms of fiction and finance. As Ida's father, an Italian anarchist, says:
Money is a fantastic commodity. You can't eat or wear money, but it represents all the food and clothes in the world. This is why it's a fiction. ... Stocks, shares, bonds. Do you think any of these things those bandits across the river buy and sell represent any real, concrete value? No. ... That's what all these criminals trade in: fictions.
Literary fiction, too, is a fantastic commodity in which our best writers become criminals of the imagination, stealing our attention and our very desires. Diaz, whose last novel, In the Distance, reworked the myths of masculine individualism in the American West, makes an artistic fortune in Trust. And we readers make out like bandits, too.