It takes about 200 pages for readers to encounter Ida Partenza in Hernan Diaz’s “Trust,” a fragmentary novel told in four interlocking novels: “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 when she begins telling her story; it’s the end of the 20th century, and she’s a writer and successful enough to turn down a commission from The New Yorker. The commission in question was offered in 1981 to mark the opening of the Bevel House, a new addition to Manhattan’s Museum Mile celebrating the business acumen of Andrew Bevel and the philanthropic legacy of Andrew and his wife Mildred.
Like the editor of The New Yorker, since she signed a non-disclosure agreement, very few people know that Ida’s career path was inseparable from Andrew hiring her as his secretary decades earlier with a very specific project: “I’ll speak; You will dictate. . . They also have a penchant for storytelling, which can come in handy.”
The task for Ida? Ghostwrite Andrew’s memoirs to improve public perception of him and his wife. While Andrew’s involvement in “the most phenomenal bull market in history” has come under scrutiny from governments and journalists, his primary concern is combating what he sees as the slanderous attacks in the popular novel Bonds. In this book, a couple mirroring the Bevels emerge from the 1929 stock market crash with more wealth than ever before, as indeed the Bevels did. “My actions have protected American industry and business,” says Andrew. “Did I benefit from these actions? Without doubt. But so will our nation in the long run, freed from market piracy and government interference.”
The impression Bonds makes on Ida, however, is more than truth versus fiction: “It was the first time I read something that existed in a vague space between the intellectual and the emotional. From that moment I have identified this ambiguous field 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 – uncompromising financiers who bend markets and people to their will; a justifiably disillusioned immigrant; marginalized women — Diaz’s plot is unveiled through four stories that continually raise questions about what can and cannot be believed.
What bothers Andrew Bevel most about Bonds is the portrayal of the wife dying like Mildred Bevel in a Swiss sanatorium (although Andrew had always insisted her illness was cancer and not insanity). As she begins to shape Andrew’s memoir in the image of his creation, Ida wonders why the Bonds writer would subject her to this fate: “I’ve come to the same conclusion over and over again: He broke her mind and body, just because it looked like a better story to him. . . He forced her into the stereotype of fateful heroines throughout history who were made to provide the spectacle of their own demise. Put them in their place.”
With “Trust” everything is in its place. Like four exquisite dioramas, Diaz built all of these stories with great precision to ask two fundamental questions: Why do we tell stories? And at what cost are these stories told? The stories in question revolve around finance, power and identity, are all self-serving and about much more than what one person does to another. The economy is a story. The creation of art is a story. Building a reputation is a story. When her father claims that “money is a fiction,” young Ida replies that fictions are harmless. “Fiction harmless?” he shoots back. “Look at religion. fiction harmless? Look at the downtrodden masses content with their lot for embracing the lies laid upon them. The story itself is just fiction – fiction with an army.”
Trust targets the role of fiction in our lives, cleverly obscuring essential elements of literary criticism in these stories 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 secondary character worthy of being a protagonist in her own right. Perhaps one day an author will do for her what Jean Rhys did for the “lunatic in the attic” in Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” in “Wide Sargasso Sea.”
We never get any meaningful insight into Harold Vanner’s motivations for writing Bonds. It should be so. Novelists are not required to explain why they tell their stories. The job of novelists is to tell their stories. But Andrew’s repeated desire to get Ida “to make both his financial operations and his wife’s portrait as accessible as possible to the ‘ordinary reader'” may give us a glimpse of one reason Hernan Diaz wrote “Trust.” hat: a remarkably accessible treatise on the power of fiction. Undoubtedly clever and ingenious, this novel not only reflects the truth but helps us understand it better.
By Hernan Diaz
Riverhead, 416 pages, $28
Buzz Poole is co-founder and editor of Sandorf Passage, based in South Portland, Maine.