Book Review: Trust

Book Review: Trust

Trust by Herna Diaz took home the Pulitzer Prize, landing it on my TBR. And with all the mystery behind its structure? It’s a “literary puzzle?” Cool. But it was the subject matter that killed if for me: Wallstreet and finance in New York City in the 1920s-1940s or something. But also the characters and the mystery itself (including the reveal)—I just wasn’t interested in any of those things. Could I see the art of the whole thing? Yes. Did I appreciate the writing style? Mostly, though seeing that through my boredom of the topic was difficult. Do I think it was more experimental than well-executed? Probably.

When Harold Vanner publishes a novel about Wallstreet elites Benjamin and Helen (Brevoort) Rask, everyone knows that it’s really about Andrew and (the late) Mildred Bevel. But Andrew’s not happy about the story told in the fictional version, not at all. So he hires an assistant to help him pen his own autobiography and set the record straight. But there are complications and his assistant, Ida Partenza, is wrapped up in the middle of them, searching for a truth that she isn’t allowed. Did Mildred keep journals? Where did they go? And would they shed light on the truth even if Ida could find them?

As I said, this book was on my TBR because it won a Pulitzer last year. I had moved last year’s big prize winners to the top of my TBR before I joined all these book clubs (which made my standing TBR bump back a bit). But when I saw that a local book club (like just around the corner) was covering this title in May, I decided to go and discuss it with them, therefore giving Trust a deadline. Win-win.

I would like to begin with structure. I like to know exactly what I am holding in my hands when I begin reading, at least as regards tone or vibes and definitely structure. I’m not a fan of being confused until I figure it out a few chapters in. If you like that feeling of disorientation until you grasp what it is you are reading (in this case, for some readers until hundreds of pages in), then skip this paragraph and the following list. For those of you who want to know, Trust is a novel comprised of four separate but related novels inside. The first section is a fictional novel in its entirety (though it isn’t terribly long). The second section is a fictional, incomplete autobiography as a reaction to the novel. The third section is a fictional memoir written years later by the assistant who was helping to write the autobiography that was never finished. The fourth section is fictional, translated diary entries from the most mysterious character from the three stories that precede it.

To break it down by title and page numbers:

  • Bonds, Harold Vanner (a supposed novel), 124pps.
  • My Life, Andrew Bevel (a supposed, unfinished autobiography), 66pps.
  • A Memoir, Remembered, Ida Partenza (a memoir combined with an expose), 168pps.
  • Futures, Mildred Bevel (journal entries), 41pps.

Whether or not you read the two paragraphs I warned you about or not, Trust is a “literary puzzle,” according to the back cover copy. And it is,  but to be frank, that makes it sound way more exciting than the experience allows for. Trust is mellow, understated and nuanced. It takes a helluva lot of pages to get anywhere and even the big reveals—the main (and sparse) drama—is told in a largely calm way. Thankfully the two actual-fake-books are longer sections than the two fake-document sections, so that makes for more interesting reading than just-bear-with-me reading (like think Biblical begats).

It takes a long time to get to the aha!s, which means it would make a great re-read. I will never do it, though. I don’t want to re-read it. I didn’t even really want to be reading it the first time (once I had given it enough of a chance to feel what I was reading). Wallstreet! Finance! New York City! The first two things are topics that make me want to snooze. The third is one I consider overdone. (If I never have to watch another movie about LA or read another book about New York City, I will be just fine with that. It’s not just about a topic being overdone, it’s also about Hollywood and Big Publishing and how those worlds present themselves with their heads up their butts.)

While I was reading, I felt like I was reading a gimmick, like everything I was doing was to catch the gimmick. This guy, you see, he took four different fictional documents and presented them so that we have to figure out for ourselves how they work together and how—even if there is a—truth. But he didn’t weave things together, oh no. He gave the texts to us separately. And we just have to calm the heck down and plow our way through. It’ll be worth it to figure it out but mostly it’ll be worth it to explore the many topics that are embedded in the work so deeply it’ll take a discussion and/or re-reads to really appreciate it.

I really wish it hadn’t taken Diaz 400 pages to make us think about how everyone has their own truths. Or think about women as copies or clones (so haunting). Or explore marriages of convenience. Or compare history with fact, consider how history changes over time.

At the book club, it was really interesting to see people come in not liking the book and then, after discussion, remark how much their opinion had changed. This is the kind of book where that could happen: when studying it, a reader might find there is much more there than the (un)enjoyment. This is where much of the value is, maybe. On the other hand, I found the actual writing to be lackluster until it suddenly wasn’t for a bit, and, despite everyone else’s opinion, I was not impressed by a real variance of voice between sections. There is a character (the socialist father) that doesn’t seem to pan out as a concept. A confusing spot with the boyfriend and the truth (and no one could say for sure what was supposed to have happened there). Is it entertaining as it goes? Like 95 per cent no. Is it worth it as a read? Yes, if what you are looking for is innovation in literature, slow simmers with mellow moments of revelation. Finance. Wallstreet. Historical fiction that is more literary than genre. And the big prize winners, which as far as I can tell is a real crap shoot.

Diaz’s first novel, In the Distance, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer (and the PEN) and won other awards. Trust is his second novel. It won all sorts of awards and was on about a million best-ofs lists. His short stories have appeared in several of the top literary magazines and he’s received several top fellowships. He also has a biography on Luis Borges.

Diaz is Argentinian-American, having also lived in Sweden and England. He is a professor at Columbia and runs a literary magazine.

“He became fascinated by the contortions of money—how it could be made to bend back upon itself to be force-fed its own body” (p16).

“She was older, well-read, and educated enough to realize that Leopold was becoming a hoarder of nonsense. She was being displaced by dogmas and creeds that a few years before would have been the object of their shared ridicule and served as inspiration for their absurd tales” (p34).

“…she thought there was no greater violence than the one done to meaning” (p41).

“The faint coolness in the air was also a scent. It was not the conspicuous tokens of affluence that impressed her—the obvious Dutch oil paintings, the constellations of French chandeliers, the Chinese vases mushrooming in every corner. She was touched by smaller things. A doorknob, An unassuming chair in a dusky recess. A sofa and the void around it …. These were all common-enough objects, but they were the real things, the originals after which the flawed copies that littered the world had been made” (p51-52).

“Finding bliss becomes on with the fear of losing it” (p57).

“She knew that Mr. Brevoort’s newly acquired eccentricities, her heightened frivolity, her calculated impertinence, and her gratuitously flamboyant behavior were not simply manifestations of unbridled joy but acts of a festive sort of aggression directed straight at Helen both as a dare and as a lesson—‘This is the life you should be living’” (p62).

“Most of us prefer to believe we are the active subjects of our victories but only the passive objects of our defeats. We triumph but it is not really we who fail—we are ruined by forces beyond our control” (p73).

“The mind becoming the flesh for its own teeth” (p83).

“And what is choice but a branch of the future grafting itself onto the stem of the present?” (p100).

“His mourning was simply a more radical expression of his marriage: both were the result of a perverse combination of love and distance” (p123).

“Today’s gentleman is yesterday’s upstart” (p136).

“No enterprise can fully succeed without a true understanding of human behavior” (p142).

“Every financier ought to be a polymath, because finance is the thread that runs through very aspect of life. It is indeed the knot where all the disparate strands of human existence come together. Business is the common denominator of all activities and enterprises” (p149).

“Although I loved and appreciated her from the moment we met, only once she had left it did I notice how far-reaching and pervasive her influence was in my everyday world” (p165).

“Workers became consumers. And in short order consumers became ‘investors.’ Because debt no longer carried the stigma it used to, the masses did not hesitate to gamble with money that was not truly theirs” (p181).

“…this reckless gambling undermined the foundations of [America’s] hard-earned prosperity” (p182).

“When we first wake up in the morning we trade rest for profit” (p189).

“Because the worst literature, my father would say, is always written with the best intentions” (p204).

“Man had become the machine’s machine” (p210).

“Needless to say, he objected to consumerism and the alienation fueling it—in a perverse circle, workers kept dehumanizing jobs in order to both produce superfluous goods and purchase them” (p215).