How is reality funded?” asks the wealthy tycoon at the centre of Hernan Diaz’s Booker-longlisted second novel. His answer is “fiction” – specifically, the “fiction of money”. The value of any commodity comes from us buying into its wider narrative. Unless we trust that a banknote “represents concrete goods”, it is just a piece of printed paper, as open to distortion as a novel, or a memoir, or a diary.
Trust incorporates all three of these literary forms. As with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Richard Powers’s The Overstory, its structure relies on interconnected narratives which deepen and destabilise one another. Diaz’s first novel, the Pulitzer prize finalist In the Distance, was about a penniless young Swedish immigrant meeting swindlers and fanatics in California. In Trust, he has built a postmodern version of a historical novel around a character at the other end of the economic scale – a Gatsby-like tycoon in 1920s New York who dutifully hosts lavish parties at which he is rarely glimpsed. His name is Andrew Bevel, a guy who becomes “a wealthy man by playing the part of a wealthy man”. At his side is his seemingly longsuffering wife, Mildred, a figure occasionally reminiscent of Zelda Fitzgerald. The Bevels’s marriage is built around a “core of quiet discomfort”, a shared awkwardness which for them is “inherent to most exchanges”. If every get-rich tale is ultimately a crime narrative – a story of whodunnit, how and why – the central heist in Trust is the Wall Street crash of 1929. By embracing the American spirit of “fake it till you make it”, Bevel finds that the financial crisis makes him even richer. Indeed, some New Yorkers start to claim that he caused it.
There is nothing wealthy individuals love less than a scandal – a moment when the reins of narrative-making slip out of their hands. Diaz’s own structure enacts this. The first part of Trust is a novel-within-the-novel: a fictionalised telling of the New York power couple’s lives. But that’s just the setup for the book’s second section, which presents itself as an autobiography by Mr Bevel himself. Like all vanity projects by unintentionally amusing millionaires, the purpose is “to address and refute” the fictions about him, setting the historical record straight once and for all. What unfolds is a hilarious send-up of the celebrity memoir, complete with a generic and self-aggrandising title (My Life), a heavy dose of misleading platitudes (“my wife was too fragile, too good for this world”), and occasional glimpses of the unabashed capitalist mentality underneath (“what matters is the tally of our accomplishments, not the tales about us”). Bevel’s later chapters descend into random notes towards a future draft we know this big shot mercifully lacks the self-awareness to finish (“WHOLE SECTION: ‘Clouds Thicken’?”).
The third section of Diaz’s book brings about another change of weather: it is a young Brooklyn woman’s account of meeting the ageing financier during the Great Depression, and being hired to help tell his story. At this point we begin to feel we are getting a handle on the Citizen Kane-style mystery driving the book: who was this tycoon, actually? And was his wife really just an accessory on his arm? But the novel’s fourth and final section pulls the rug from under us one last time, offering us fragments from Mildred’s long-withheld diary. Trust poses questions of authorship and ownership at every turn: when did wealth become the defining element of every American success story? What values and costs can be ascribed to the “Great Man” theory of history? And to whom do such men owe their greatest debts? If you imagine a brilliantly twisted mix of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Virginia Woolf’s journals, JM Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, and Ryan Gosling’s breaking of the fourth wall in The Big Short, you’ll get some sense of the surprising hybrid Diaz has created.
It is perhaps telling that Diaz started his writing life with a scholarly text about Jorges Luis Borges, who once wrote that money represents “a panoply of possible futures”. A Borgesian sense of play imbues almost every page of Trust, along with a dash of Italo Calvino’s love of exploring different versions of a single idea or city. Through perfectly formed sentences and the skilful unpicking of certainties, Trust creates a great portrait of New York across an entire century of change – a metropolis that is “the capital of the future”, yet consists of citizens who are “nostalgic by nature”. A city that, in other words, looks backwards and forwards at the same time – as any place that mixes old money and new money must. Trust is so packed full of ironies that it can sometimes feel airless. But it is also a work possessed of real power and purpose. It invites us to think about why the category of imaginative play we most heavily reward as a society is the playing of financial markets, often at a heavy cost. It’s a testament to Diaz’s cunning abilities as a writer that you end his book thinking that – if truth is your goal – you might be better off relying on a novelist than a banker.