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Money, legacy, family, and lies all matters of ‘Trust’

It takes about 200 pages before readers meet Ida Partenza in Hernan Diaz’s “Trust,” a fragmentary novel told across four interlocking fictional books: “Bonds” by Harold Vanner; “My Life” by Andrew Bevel; “A Memoir, Remembered” by Ida; and “Futures” by Mildred Bevel. Ida, the Brooklyn-born daughter of an Italian activist, is 70 years old when she begins telling her story; it is nearing the end of the 20th century, and she is a writer, successful enough to turn down an assignment from The New Yorker. The assignment in question was offered in 1981, on the occasion of the opening of the Bevel House, a new addition to Manhattan’s Museum Mile that celebrates the business acumen of Andrew Bevel and the philanthropic legacy of Andrew and his wife, Mildred.

Like the New Yorker editor, very few people know, due to her having signed a confidentiality agreement, that Ida’s career path was inextricably linked to the fact that decades earlier, Andrew had hired her as his secretary, with a very specific project in mind: “I shall speak; you will take dictation . . . You also have a penchant for storytelling that may come in handy.”


The task at hand for Ida? Ghostwrite Andrew’s memoir to mend the public’s perception of both him and his wife. While Andrew’s involvement with “the most phenomenal bull market in history” had attracted governmental and journalistic scrutiny, his chief concern is countering what he sees as libelous attacks in the popular novel “Bonds.” In that book, a couple mirroring the Bevels emerge from the 1929 stock market crash with more wealth than ever, as indeed the Bevels did. “My actions safeguarded American industry and business,” Andrew recounts. “Did I turn a profit from these actions? No doubt. But so will, in the long run, our nation, freed from both market piracy and state intervention.”

The impression “Bonds” makes on Ida is about more than truth versus fiction, however: “It was my first time reading something that existed in a vague space between the intellectual and the emotional. Since that moment I have identified that ambiguous territory as the exclusive domain of literature.”


Of course, this is all fiction, and Diaz has given us a thoroughly literary novel. Through a familiar cast of characters — unapologetic financiers bending markets and people to their wills; a justifiably disillusioned immigrant; marginalized women — Diaz’s plot is revealed by four stories that continually raise questions about what can and cannot be believed.

What bothers Andrew Bevel most about “Bonds” is how its author portrays the wife, who dies, as Mildred Bevel did, in a Swiss sanatorium (even though Andrew had always insisted her illness was cancer, not madness). As she begins casting Andrew’s memoir in the image of his creation, Ida wonders why the author of “Bonds” would subject her to this fate: “I always came back to the same conclusion: he broke her mind and body simply because it made for a better story . . . He forced her into the stereotype of fated heroines throughout history, made to offer the spectacle of their own ruin. Put her in her place.”

Everything in “Trust” is in its place. Like four exquisite dioramas, Diaz has set up all of these stories with great precision to present two fundamental questions: Why do we tell stories? And at what cost are those stories told? The stories in question revolve around finance, power, and identity, are all self-serving, and are about much more than what one person does to another. The economy is a story. The creation of art is a story. The building of a reputation is a story. Responding to her father’s claim that “money is a fiction” a young Ida counters that fictions are harmless. “Fiction harmless?” he fires back. “Look at religion. Fiction harmless? Look at the oppressed masses content with their lot because they have embraced the lies imposed on them. History itself is just a fiction — a fiction with an army.”


Trust takes aim at the roles of fiction in our lives, and in doing so deftly disguises essential elements of literary criticism in these tales of individuals being manipulated by the stories they tell and the stories told about them. Diaz’s most interesting character is Mildred Bevel, a crucial but peripheral figure yet a character worthy of being a protagonist in her own right. Perhaps some author will one day do for her what Jean Rhys in “Wide Sargasso Sea” did for the “madwoman in the attic” in Charlotte Brontë's “Jane Eyre.”

We are never given any meaningful insight into Harold Vanner’s motivations for writing “Bonds.” This is how it should be. Novelists are under no obligation to explain why they choose to tell their stories. The job of novelists is to tell their stories. But Andrew’s repeatedly stated desire to have Ida “make both his financial operations and the portrait of his wife as accessible to the ‘common reader’ as possible” might provide us with a glimpse of one reason Hernan Diaz wrote “Trust”: to offer a remarkably accessible treatise on the power of fiction. This unquestionably smart and sophisticated novel not only mirrors truth, but helps us to better understand it.



By Hernan Diaz

Riverhead, 416 pages, $28

Buzz Poole is the cofounder and publisher of Sandorf Passage, based in South Portland, Maine.