Trust by Herman Diaz. New York: Riverhead Books, 2022, $28, pp. 416.
Which industry did the 20th century consecrate? According to the Pulitzer-winning novel Trust, by Hernan Diaz, the most hallowed work in that disenchanted century was financial capital.
Diaz has devised a quartet of narratives as a puzzle-box that contains the fictional financier Andrew Bevel, his wife, Mildred, and their miserably-historic marriage. They gather uncanny wealth and social influence in the boom years preceding the 1929 stock market crash, but because Andrew alone emerges prosperous in the outgoing tide of the Great Depression, the Bevels are distrusted, slandered, and reduced to penance-like philanthropy before Mildred falls ill and dies.
Throughout these travails, Trust places the Bevels’ allure in that Wall Street wealth that seals them high above the streets of New York City. The novel treasures their fortune from four vantage points: The first section is “Bonds,” a fictional roman á clef by the fictional Harold Vanner which imagines the Bevels as the doomed Rasks; the second section is “My Life,” the incomplete autobiography of Andrew Bevel; the third is “A Memoir Remembered,” in which a woman named Ida Partenza recalls her time spent ghostwriting Bevel’s autobiography; and the final section is “Futures,” which collects Mildred’s esoteric diaries as she slowly dies of cancer in a Swiss sanatorium. Across the sections, the prose morphs and thus varies in quality. Where the language in “Bonds” is lightly deft but deeply affecting, it becomes unsubtly pompous throughout “My Life.” In “A Memoir Remembered,” Diaz labors longest over Ida’s language, which details, summarizes, and explains most densely where it wishes to evoke instead. Only in “Futures” does the prose hit its best pitch, as Mildred’s voice experiments in her singular, erudite stew of impersonality and liminal near-death narration. “Futures” veers and curdles its language, unpredictably and in welcome contrast to the unremarkable realist style Diaz often writes elsewhere.
But more significantly, these sections generate meta-textual conflict between themselves as a joint form. Bevel curates his life and wife through “My Life” to refute their portrayal in “Bonds,” but Ida’s recollections from “A Memoir, Remembered” then unmake “My Life” by revealing that she distilled Bevel’s grand pronouncements from the memoirs of Jefferson and Roosevelt and lied at his direction to misrepresent Mildred. “Futures,” as the final words of the novel and the first unmediated look into Mildred Bevel, reveals at last the source and nature of the Bevel wealth that so intrigues Trust. Like the Holy Grail to the Arthurian imagination, capital captivates the narrators with sacred feeling.
Each section bears religious language to illuminate this idol Diaz means to disenchant. Because Trust places no other religious interest in the characters, these instances are noteworthy. Vanner, through “Bonds,” writes that Rask (Bevel’s stand-in) hired employees “who were extensions of Rask’s will,” a fitting and providential standing for the financier whom Wall Street views as “a sage with supernatural talents who simply could not lose” in his precise trades. Diaz through Vanner often elevates Rask to a deified place through the gossip of the characters around him. His own mother-in-law, when first testing the marital waters for her daughter, tries to verify the “omnipotently rich” and “mythical” Rask as a source of stability. He is treated as a mystic for wielding the supernatural force of capital before a public that doesn’t understand it, though “Bonds” also unsettles his altar with wry irony and even open contempt for Rask’s predatory lending, again rendered with a biblical touch: “his fascination with the incestuous genealogies of money—capital begetting capital begetting capital—remained intact.”
While Vanner treats faith in capital as a skeptical agnostic might, Bevel treats it as the elect do. His “My Life” (authored by Ida) mythologizes his own career, recounting his lineage of merchants, prescribing his legacy, and leaving plenty of lacunae in his trading and relationship to Mildred. Bevel’s vision of his wealth and work springs from pure belief: “Every financier ought to be a polymath, because finance is the thread that runs through every aspect of life,” Bevel states. “It is indeed the knot where all the disparate strands of human existence come together.” Accordingly, he argues, “there is no affair that does not pertain to the businessman.” But despite this metaphysical view of existence as commerce, Bevel also claims his work is quantitative, as befits a “polymath”: “I have a scientific approach to business.” His study of “binder upon binder of industrial records, detailed summaries of world affairs and reports on the latest technological developments” does not convince the reader of Bevel’s ingenuity, as Diaz does not intend that it should. Trust casts doubt on the financier through his own words: “The market is always right,” Bevel begins his description of the 1929 stock market crash. “Those who try to control it never are.” But, Diaz allows him to go on, he will try to control it for America’s own good as its “guardian of the public,” for Bevel claims he inherited a tradition of creating personal benefit and national relief simultaneously: “I proved that profit, when responsibly made, is one with the common good.” Trust distrusts this libertarian philosophy and so apes Bevel, its Wall Street avatar. But it also portrays him in the throes of religious belief in capital. Though Bevel sees finance as a scientific force channeled by personal diligence, his account of himself as the elect servant of capital sounds increasingly providential. “My actions safeguarded American industry and business,” Bevel claims.
Even when Trust disputes the divinity of capital, it still accepts its premise of singularity. Ida is the daughter of an Italian anarchist printer, which enables the shell-game of hiding her employment under Bevel but also her father’s pronouncements on Wall Street as a phenomenon: “money is a fiction; commodities in a purely fantastical form, yes?” His outright rejection and need for agreement suggest a true believer. “So if money is fiction,” the anarchist continues, “finance capital is the fiction of a fiction.” But, of course, this grand pronouncement still accepts that capital is a grand subject in need of absolute refutation. As the atheist elevates God by channeling all his energies to combat Him, so Ida’s father elevates Bevel’s capital by denouncing all reverence for it.
His rejection of wealth, together with Ida’s mounting dissent from its mythology by through her place as Bevel’s ghostwriter, precedes the novel’s pinnacle of consecration in “Futures”—the revelation of Mildred’s financial genius. In the clipped entries that obliquely narrate her treatment with philosophical, allusive, and musical asides, Mildred gives up the secret Ida had sensed in the little she knew of Bevel’s late wife. Mildred, not Bevel, was the financial genius who composed their fortune.
In a confession to her diary near the novel’s end, Mildred writes that “[Bevel]’d never be able to uphold the myth forming around him without my help.” Her help, as she tells it, remakes command of capital into an artistic vocation. It was Mildred who shorted the 1929 market, thinking in music theory as she does. “My 1929 plan was much like the bell motif,” Mildred begins. “Short selling is folding back time,” as well as “D F# E A / A E F# D,” as well as a “song played in reverse.” Her musical genius entwines naturally with her mathematical sense: “My wager against the mkt. was a fugue that would read backwards and upside down,” a “radical version of Musik. Opfer. Or, perhaps better, Schön.’s Suite for Piano.” Though Diaz positions this last reveal to unclothe Bevel the financial emperor, he has redirected the divinity of capital, not unmade it. Mildred is the genius artist of wealth who transcended earth with her stock ticker manipulations. And she admits her exalted place: “for a few minutes I owned the future.” While Mildred dismisses God as “the most uninteresting answer to the most interesting questions,” her author worships His facsimile in man-made wealth throughout Trust. Wall Street remains a miracle, for the “splendor and pomp of idols” that Calvin mentioned in Jeremiah and Lamentations still captivate Diaz even as his novel purports to know that wealth is false and exploitative.
All the while, the meta-textual commentary of Trust only deepens Mildred’s sainthood. That she is unappreciated by Bevel and hidden from history by his wishes sanctifies her as a historic woman of genius “put in her place” by the men in her life, as Ida terms it. First, Vanner writes her as an intelligent prodigy turned madwoman in her illness in his novel; then Bevel portrays her as only a sweet woman of gentle culture in his autobiography, with Ida as his coerced accomplice. Ida increasingly laments the narrative choices made against Mildred: “more than vindicating Mildred [Bevel] wanted to turn her into a completely unremarkable, safe character,” while Vanner “forced [Mildred] into the stereotype of fated heroines throughout history, made to offer the spectacle of their own ruin.”
As comments from Ida’s memoir, added to the novel-within-the-novel, unfinished autobiography, and diary entries, these lines smear Diaz’s point over Trust—male histories conceal and erase female realities, here far too literal. His polemic punctures the larger novel, since it eliminates implication from the prose and intrigue from the narrative. There is the reversal but little else: what if the immoral Bevel fortune was her genius, instead of his genius? What remains is airless. Bevel, though much discussed and observed by Vanner and Ida, proves the predictable villain that Diaz inevitably signals, even down to pulping books to censor them. Mildred laments numbly that she and her husband never truly knew one another, but by its end Trust allows for no such aperture of mystery in him nor anyone else. Its suspicion against the secure American narrative lacks the demented fun of other postmodern novels, whether by Vonnegut, Pynchon, or Nabokov. Their novels play with their falsities and ironies as though juggling balls, spinning plates, or plucking rabbits. Diaz writes only a sermon against the sin of removing female genius from historical accounts.
Given its puzzle-box exterior, bulging subplots, and disparate narrative styles, Trust seeks a more complex profundity than this final argument. But in its ultimate maneuver to Mildred’s power of financial artistry, the novel proves more pat than the layers that once concealed it. Unpredictable chance and arbitrary opportunism have no place in Trust. The Bevels’ miraculous American fortune is still derived from one great individual, and it is still treated as a miracle in a novel that claims to dispel both great individuals and sacred stories.
Kevin LaTorre is a writer and poet living with his family in North Carolina. His work has appeared in Reformed Journal, Front Porch Republic, The Blotter, and other publications. He writes essays about Christianity, literature, and poetry at kevinlatorre.substack.com.