Controlled perception: a 20th century tycoon’s life

Trust is one of those novels where the narrative structure is as much a part of the puzzle as the dramatic plot. It can be confusing at first, if you don’t know this, specifically that the four sections are in conversation with one another. Each section is a book about a reclusive 20th century Wall Street tycoon — one novel, two memoirs, and a diary – as they dismantle the rumors that surround his powerful influence and stratospheric wealth.

Everyone in New York has read the gossipy society novel by Harold Vanner with its eccentric, anti-social characters Benjamin and Helen Rask. Benjamin’s phenomenal investing acumen elevates him into the rarified air of not just extraordinary wealth but also financial idolatry. That’s because through economic and stock market panics and downturns, he miraculously prospers, while his wife Helen becomes New York’s ideal philanthropist. But the world turns on Benjamin when the stock market crashes in October 1929. Everyone is ruined, and yet Benjamin rakes in colossal profits. A scapegoat is needed, and “the eccentric semi-recluse fit the bill perfectly.” Rumors abound that Benjamin caused the financial disaster for his own benefit.

Following Vanner’s novel, the next section is a memoir by Andrew Bevel. At first, I couldn’t figure out who he was, or why I was reading his recollection that’s flecked with to-do notes. Several pages in, I recognized the obvious similarities between him and Benjamin Rask; the life events were the same, although with noticeably differing details. It’s not a spoiler for me to tell you the couples are the same people, Harold Vanner’s Rasks being the fictionalized version of the Bevels. It’s that puzzle at work in the narrative structure that I mentioned earlier, and a reason we come to understand why the book is titled trust and not truth, as in, which version can you trust to be the truth. It’s the position we’re in when considering someone like Bevel/Rask in the present day. What can we trust is real, and what’s the controlled perception?

The third section in the novel is another memoir, and here the stakes get higher, the question of what’s going on, why so much intrigue over this financial magnate. Andrew Bevel has hired Ida Partenza (the woman writing this section’s memoir) to take dictation as he speaks his version of his life, correcting what Harold Vanner wrote. Let me again invoke the puzzle at work: Ida is taking down the memoir we just finished reading in the second section. Perhaps you can see now how the sections are communicating with each other. This one gives us Ida’s viewpoint, and it includes her personal life events.

It’s 1938, Ida’s a girl from Brooklyn, daughter of an Italian immigrant. Her anecdotes are the most dramatically active, proffering reveals that explain the first two sections and showcasing Andrew Bevel’s rage at being misunderstood over the October 1929 market crash. Ida comes to realize she should be afraid of him, that he’s not to be trusted. He tells her he’s acquired a controlling stake in the company that published Harold Vanner’s book. He’s also inundated the novelist with lawsuits, intends to pulp all future copies of the book, and end Vanner’s literary career. She sees how this powerful person bends and aligns reality in his thinking about his life to the point of seeing his bent version as the truth. It’s chilling to read.

This is a slow boil of a story. There’s no gun under the seat, no romance or violence taunting us, rather a provocative undertow of a need to know what the author is up to, what actually happened in 1929, and also: Who knows the facts about Andrew Bevel’s wife? The big reveal arrives in the final section, sporadic entries in the wife Mabel Bevel’s diary. It leaves us with a troubling reality that feels unfair, and yet it’s the one thing we likely can trust in this cleverly imagined new novel.

Trust by Hernan Diaz is published by Riverhead Books. A version of this review aired on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM, broadcasting throughout central Ohio.

3 thoughts on “Controlled perception: a 20th century tycoon’s life

  1. Thanks for this, Kassie. I watched an interview with Hernan Diaz on PBS NewsHour, And I was immediately intrigued. Your review has only added to my interest.

    But at the moment I am binging on Elizabeth Strout. I have read Oh William and My Name is Lucy Barton, And I am now starting in on Anything Is Possible. I am fascinated by the voiced Strout has created.

    And as I write this I see there is a connection between the writing of Diaz and Strout, both in their creation of fiction written as memoir And in the utilization of different points of view.

    Best to you, Mary

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Elizabeth Strout is indeed binge-worthy! And her books are perfect for summer reading. Something about them resonates with long afternoons of reading. Thanks for your thoughts about the Hernan Diaz novel!


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