‘Trust’ by Hernan Diaz: An unconventional and thought-provoking work

‘Trust’ is not a simple story for the passive pleasure of reading. It is a complex and unconventional novel that provokes the readers to think, detect, imagine and question. Within the book, there are four different books written by different fictional authors in disparate genres and styles. There are multiple characters at different time periods.

The author describes ‘Trust’ as a polyphonic novel. The first section is a novel written by a fictional writer Harold Vanner about New York financier Benjamin Rask and his wife Helen who patronizes arts and culture. Although Harold Vanner is one of the central characters in the book he never appears in it. Vanner opens the book and triggers everything that happens in it: several people in “the real world” react to Vanner’s book, setting the whole plot in motion.

The second part is a memoir of Andrew Bevel, a Wall Street tycoon who wants people to believe that his pursuit of profit was always aligned to the social good. His wife Mildred is a connoisseur of music and a lover of literature. They live together physically but live apart mentally.

They find that the living together improves by the vast distance between their minds of which one is obsessed with money and the other arts. At times, Mildred dabbles in stocks and gives valuable advice to her husband which he uses to make more money. 

The third part is about Ida Partenza a writer who becomes secretary to the tycoon and ghost-writes his autobiography. Her father is an anarchist and an immigrant from Italy. She is caught between the anti-capitalist rants of her father and working with the wealthy financier who wants her to help with his autobiography spinning a positive image of his business and the cultural activities of his wife who becomes mentally ill.

Diaz says in an interview, “ I enjoyed particularly writing the character of Ida. She is like my hero—she’s fearless, effective, crafty, and very bold. I made her all the things that I wish I were. She’s also a very different writer from me, so I had to learn to write like her”. 

The fourth part is the personal diary of Mildred, the tycoon’s wife “that is also a sort of a prose poem and a love letter to modernism”, in the words of the author. Midred writes about music, art, philosophy, her illness, the stock market and Swiss mountain slopes among which she convalesces in a clinic.

The connecting themes in all the four books are the Wall Street money-making and the world of art and literature. The author has juxtaposed the two themes with provocative pronouncements challenging the conventional American narratives and myths about money. He has chosen the boom years of the Wall Street in the twenties and the bust in 1929 followed by the years of depression for context. 

Diaz says he wanted to write about the labyrinth of capital, how it works and distorts the reality around itself in the American value system. He is fascinated by the ‘transcendental and mythical place of money in the American culture’. He explores how wealth creates isolation for the wealthy while giving the person extraordinary outreach to the world of art, culture and politics. According to Diaz “money is also a fiction. It is just that we have all agreed on the terms and conditions and agreed to play it as a game. There is nothing that ties money to real value other than a narrative. Or the trust that we invest in that narrative”. 

In another interview, Diaz says, “Reading is always an act of trust. Whenever we read anything, from a novel to the label on a prescription bottle, trust is involved. That trust is based on tacit contracts whose clauses I wanted to encourage the reader to reconsider. As you read Trust and move forward from one section to the next, it becomes clear that the book is asking you to question the assumptions with which you walk into a text. I would even say that Trust aims, to an enormous extent, to question the boundaries between history and fiction”.

Here are some vignettes from the novel:

  -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 isolated, self-sufficient nature of speculation spoke to his character and was a source of wonder and an end in itself, regardless of what his earnings. He viewed capital as an antiseptically living thing. It moves, eats, grows, breeds, falls ill, and may die. But it is clean. This became clearer to him in time. The larger the operation, the further removed he was from its concrete details. There was no need for him to touch a single banknote or engage with the things and people his transaction affected. All he had to do was think, speak, and, perhaps, write. And the living creature would be set in motion, drawing beautiful patterns on its way into realms of increasing abstraction, sometimes following appetites of its own that he never could have anticipated—and this gave him some additional pleasure, the creature trying to exercise its free will. He admired and understood it, even when it disappointed him.

-The root of all evil, the cause of every war—god and country.

– History itself is just a fiction—a fiction with an army.

-Every life is organized around a small number of events that either propel us or bring us to a grinding halt. We spend the years between these episodes benefiting or suffering from their consequences until the arrival of the next forceful moment. A man’s worth is established by the number of these defining circumstances he is able to create for himself. He need not always be successful, for there can be great honor in defeat. But he ought to be the main actor in the decisive scenes in his existence, Whatever the past may have handed on to us, it is up to each one of us to chisel our present out of the shapeless block of the future.

-Every single one of our acts is ruled by the laws of economy. When we first wake up in the morning we trade rest for profit. When we go to bed at night we give up potentially profitable hours to renew our strength. And throughout our day we engage in countless transactions. Each time we find a way to minimize our effort and increase our gain we are making a business deal, even if it is with ourselves. These negotiations are so ingrained in our routine that they are barely noticeable. But the truth is our existence revolves around profit.

Hernan Diaz’s cerebral perspectives, intriguing plots and unconventional literary tools reminds me of Jorge Borges the famous Argentine writer. Diaz says, “Borges has shaped me not only as a reader and as a writer but also as a person. His playfulness with genre, his joyful disregard for taxonomies of any kind and his obsession with framed narratives are some of the aspects of his work that have influenced me”. Diaz has written a book “Borges, between history and eternity”.

Diaz believes that “fiction has palpable effects on reality. A lot of the power constraints that we feel in our everyday lives are based on fiction. Think of something that is as inherent and powerful to you as your nationality. That is, at the end of the day, a collection of ideological fictions. There’s nothing in it. Nothing. Think about it for a second. There’s nothing that makes you American or Belgian or anything aside from what you ascribe to that identity, and that is a series of narratives”.

Diaz is a voracious reader. In interviews, he quotes so many writers and points out parts of his novel which have styles similar to some of the writers. After having read 29 books of P G Wodehouse he says, “ I love Wodehouse. Ever-surprising in his repetitiousness, never failing to delight, always making us safe in his breezy world. It is paradoxical that Wodehouse should give me so much comfort when he also makes me feel how mean and shabby my life is each time I emerge from one of his novels”.

Some authors write well but not impressive in speeches and conversations. Diaz is spectacular and mesmerizing both in writing and talking with his spontaneous thoughts and reflections. I have read some of his interviews which are as fascinating and inspiring as his book. He revels in abstract concepts and subversive thoughts. He calls writing as a monstrous act because it implies a metamorphosis. 

Diaz says, “I write with a fountain pen (received as gift twenty years back) in large format notebooks. I enjoy the feeling of flowing ink and the rumor of the pen on the paper. With a pen, you create your own geography, with its islets of thoughts and streams of associations”. 

‘Trust’ has won the 2023 Pulitzer prize for fiction. It is the second novel of Diaz. I cannot wait to read his first novel “In the Distance”. 

Hernan Diaz is a potential candidate for Nobel Prize.