Trust has joined my ever lengthening list of contemporary novels that promise more than they deliver.
Hernan Diaz had accolade upon accolade thrust upon him when Trust — his second novel — was published in 2022. It brought him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a longlisting for the Booker Prize. Barack Obama named it as one of his favourite books of 2022 and it was listed as one of the “10 Best Books of the Year” by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, and Time magazine.
With such an impressive pedigree, my expectations were high. But it didn’t take long before I began having doubts that this would be an enjoyable read. I did get to the end but only because the novel was this month’s book club choice.
Trust tells the story of Wall Street supremo Andrew Bevel and his wife Mildred in the years leading up to the Great Depression.
Already wealthy in the early 1920s, he makes a killing by speculating on the stock market crash in 1929. Accusations follow that he triggered the crash, thus destroying businesses and ruining the lives of millions. Bevel maintains he did nothing wrong, arguing he was just smarter than other people in predicting how the market was going, but his reputation is in tatters. He simultaneously has to contend with a personal tragedy when his wife dies in a Swiss sanatorium.
A question of truth
The underlying theme of Trust is truth. Diaz asks whose account of a life can be relied upon as accurate and honest — the one we tell ourselves or the versions related by relatives, associates and the media? It’s an interesting question at a time when we are surrounded by personalities and “celebs” insisting on their right to tell “my truth”.
Diaz seeks to provide an answer by giving us four versions of Bevel’s life and his relationship with his wife Mildred. These take the form of a novella, a partial autobiography, a memoir by his ghostwriter and extracts from Mildred’s journal.
Part 1 is “Bonds” by Harold Vanner, a novel about a Wall Street financier Benjamin Rask and his wife Helen (these characters are loosely based on the real life Bevels). In this version, supposedly published in the 1930s, Helen undergoes treatment for mental illness in Switzerland but dies as a result of experimental treatments endorsed by her husband. For the most part it’s a dull piece of fiction (too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’), only gathering any momentum in the final pages as Helen’s health deteriorates.
Next comes “My Life”, an autobiography in which Bevel seeks to counter what he considers to be the lies in Vanner’s portrayal. He wants to set the record straight about his part in the financial crisis and to position himself as a social benefactor rather than a hard-hearted capitalist. He’s also determined to correct Vanner’s portrayal of his wife as a woman who suffered from acute mental health problems. It’s very dry, full of self justifications and pompous pronouncements such as “personal gain ought to be a public asset” and “it is through the sum of daring individual actions that this nation has risen above all others and that our greatness comes only from the free interplay of singular wills.”
The autobiography is a work in progress with half-finished chapters, paragraph outlines and notes for additional content. So we get
His unique, discreetly creative approach. Free Banking Era. Opportunities in currency fluctuation, etc. 2–3 examples.
Expanding some mathematical models developed under Prof Keene. Adapting formulas for business. Make accessible for average reader.”New ventures” section?
Trust really only comes alive in the third section “A Memoir Remembered ” which is the memoir of Ida Partenza. She reminisces on the time when she was employed by Andrew Bevel to complete his book, expected to listen to his pearls of wisdom and translate them into readable prose. Along the way he makes her more and more complicit in his efforts to construct an image of his wife that bears little resemblance to reality.
Faking a life
He’s dismissive of his wife’s active support of new musical talent and her philanthropic efforts. Actually he makes it sound like he was the one who made her charitable fund a success, reining in her enthusiastic but unsound choices of which causes to support. “I ensured her noble efforts ad the widest reach and greatest impact possible,” he claims.
Bevel clearly doesn’t want readers to think Mildred was intellectually capable of independent thought. Instead he pushes an agenda where his wife is a simple soul, at one point telling the 20-year old Ida to remove any references to his wife’s interest in “experimental, untraditional music” . Music is out, in come homely, domestic examples showing her as a kindly, frail creature. Accuracy doesn’t matter to Bevel, it’s the image that counts.
The reason he wants the real Mildred airbrushed out becomes clear in the fourth part. In “Futures” Mildred Bevel finally gets to tell her own story. Or rather she gets. to tell part of it because this section contains only fragments of her journal, written as she floats in and out of a morphine-induced condition. There’s a revelation but it doesn’t come as much of a surprise since it’s been signposted and hinted at throughout the preceding sections.
The multi-genre structure is disorientating. We read one narrative, then only 100 pages later everything we thought we knew is turned upside down and we start afresh. By the end I was questioning everyone’s version of the story.
I wish I could say this made the novel completely absorbing. But that’s far from being the case. I actually found so much of Trust to be mind-numbingly dull. Bevel is a man we are evidently meant to dislike for his propensity. to manipulate the truth to serve his own ends. If only he’d been made more detestable or outrageous (maybe more like Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street.) I would have been more invested in the novel. But I got to the end and felt I’d just wasted my time.