Hernan Diaz’s second novel, Trust, is a collection of four manuscripts at different stages of completion, and they tell different versions of the story of a Wall Street businessman and his wife in the years leading up to the Great Depression. In Bonds, ostensibly a bestselling novel authored by one Harold Vanner, a monkish mogul manages to make a massive windfall during the 1929 stock market crash while his wife tragically succumbs to mental illness far away in Switzerland. My Life is the partial autobiography of Andrew Bevel, clearly the model for the tycoon in Bonds, strewn with half-finished chapters and paragraph outlines. The first few pages of Futures, the scribbled diaries of Andrew’s wife, Mildred, have been randomly ripped out. The Bevels’ competing narratives are mediated by a long postmortem memoir, written by Ida Partenza, once the gullible ghostwriter of Andrew’s book.
The novel’s Rashomon-like structure is buttressed by Diaz’s astute grasp of the ways in which we reliably deceive ourselves, which in turn is compounded by the book’s central obsession: the creepy similarities between the worlds of fiction and finance. Even the manuscript titles feel like lexical interventions. Bonds could refer to either monetary instruments or familial attachments; a future is both a preemptive financial contract and something that “tries… to become the past”. When Ida was growing up in Brooklyn, her single father, a proud anarchist, would often point to the imposing Manhattan skyline across the river and insisted that it was all a dream. Money. What is money?” he would mutter to himself. “Commodities in a purely fantastic form.”
Andrew is a run-of-the-mill capitalist in many ways, morbidly focused on the pure fantasy of money. A contemporary reader wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he thinks making a quick buck over generations is his family’s manifest destiny. His autobiography is straight out of Ayn Rand, speckled with self-serving maxims (“personal gain ought to be a public asset”) and condescending remarks about his wife’s philanthropy (“Generosity is the mother of ingratitude”). He conceals Mildred’s superior intelligence, and the role she played in expanding his business, and would rather remember her as someone barely touched by life. He asks a twentysomething Ida to imagine a few tender moments between him and Mildred and include them in My Life. One evening, over dinner, he recounts those scenes back to Ida, as if they had actually happened.
But Trust isn’t just the tale of an obscenely rich man lying and gaslighting his way to power. Diaz’s genius lies in gradually revealing that just as concrete goods and human labor are transmuted into tradeable and commodities for profit, novelists like Vanner tweak a real-life cancer diagnosis into a psychiatric ailment because it makes for a more riveting story. Time itself has the effect of obscuring some inconvenient truths, and embellishing others. Decades after Andrew’s death, Ida returns to his mansion, now a museum, not so much to ascertain how he manipulated the stock market during the crash, but because she still hasn’t figured out who Mildred really was. She discovers that Vanner was a regular guest at Mildred’s dinner parties, and that they even corresponded when Mildred was getting treated for cancer at a Swiss sanatorium: “Should tell him about crackpots here!” Is Mildred the secret author of Bonds? We can only speculate.
Vanner and Andrew frequently make sweeping assessments. They might attribute someone’s financial success to the “roaring optimism of the times” or triumphantly claim that “the future belonged to America”. The women, on the other hand, seem more concerned with getting the details right. On her first visit to the Bevel Investments headquarters, Ida notices that the massive building blocks out the sun in the adjoining streets. Mildred pulses with a “terrifying freedom” once she realises her sickness is terminal. Trust is the rare novel that incorporates both its source material and afterlife. The contours of the plot might feel familiar at times, but you’re propelled forward by the twists and turns of the novel’s form, the conviction that Diaz has another trick up his sleeve. Years after her ghostwriting days, Ida reports that her only copy of Bonds is in tatters, that the novel is now a loosely bound collection of three or four booklets: “I find this frailty becomes the book.”