Living up to the Promise
In 2017, Hernan Diaz finally made his long-awaited entry into the world of full-length prose with the publication of his debut novel, In the Distance, a book that tackled rootlessness and foreignness, subjects that Diaz knew a thing or two about. He was born in 1973 in Buenos Aires during a tumultuous phase in contemporary Argentinian history, prompting his family to move to Sweden when he was just two. Swedish was his first language. His family would move back to their home country once peace was restored. He moved to London to pursue further studies before finally settling down in New York where he spent the rest of his adult life, the majority of which he spent working as a teacher.
His interest in writing started when he was young. He wrote poems, rudimentary comics, and even short stories but his interest in writing waned when he was in his mid-teens. But as the old adage goes, if you got it, you got it. It wasn’t long before he found his mojos back. He started getting his groove back in his mid-twenties. When the opportunity to be the editor of an academic journal opened, he gave up his teaching position at the State University of New York to focus on his new endeavor. A couple of years later, he published his debut novel. In the Distance, a novel he worked on for six years, was met with resounding success. It earned Diaz several accolades and was even nominated for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2018. Diaz fell short as the award went to Andrew Sean Greer’s Less.
All of these accolades Diaz received in his debut novel announced to the world the ascent of a new and promising literary voice. Diaz eventually made good on this promise. Building on his initial success, his sophomore novel, Trust was published in 2022. Like its predecessor, Trust was warmly received by both the general public and literary pundits alike. It received the same amount of resounding success, if not even more, than Diaz’s debut novel. Trust was longlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize in 2022. It was also listed by the New York Times as one of the Top Ten Notable Books of 2022. This was on top of several similar praises from literary publications and award-winning bodies, such as the 2022 Kirkus Prize. 2023 Trust took it a step further when it was announced as the co-winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; the other winner was Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. This effectively fulfilled the promise held by In the Distance.
“Every life is organized around a small number of events that either propel us or bring us to a grinding halt. We spend the years between these episodes benefiting or suffering from their consequences until the arrival of the next forceful moment. A man’s worth is established by the number of these defining circumstances he is able to create for himself. He need not always be successful, for there can be great honor in defeat. But he ought to be the main actor in the decisive scenes in his existence, whether they be epic or tragic.”~ Hernan Diaz, Trust
In his sophomore novel, Diaz transported the readers to the Roaring Twenties, subsequently working its way to the Great Depression. The story was made up of four manuscripts that are in different stages of completion. At the heart of these four books were a Wall Street businessman and his wife, with each book conveying a different version of their story. The first book was a novel-within-a-novel, a bestselling novel written by Harold Vanner. The book’s title was Bonds and related the story of investor Benjamin Rask and his wife, Helen. Benjamin Rask was born into an affluent family that descended from New York’s Gilded Age. He was a scion to a long line of successful tobacco traders. Orphaned at eighteen, he inherited his father’s fortune and business.
Rask grew up in luxury but the opulence of high society has never excited him. When Benjamin was growing up, he was asocial and oblivious to the shiny things around him. Following the economic crash of 1893, he found one thing that interested him, one in which he excelled: investing. To kick the ground running, he disposed of his family’s business and properties to jumpstart an investment firm on Wall Street. Money flowed in but luxury remained at the back of Rask’s mind. It was, however, time to divert his attention. Enter Helen Brevoort, an equally reserved personality who also descended from New York money but her family’s fortune has been dwindling over the years. While they shared some interests – such as their interest in mental health research – and shared a mutual admiration of each other, their marriage, however, was more of convenience than of love or passion. As the husband was busy accruing wealth, the wife was establishing herself as a patron of the arts.
Everything came to a head in the late 1920s. Due to his deep understanding of the market, Rask was able to anticipate the crash of 1929, hence, cashing in on his investments. He was able to profit immensely from this bold but calculated move. While the rest of the country found itself reeling from the impact of the crash, Rask soon found himself at the heart of a major scandal. The media started dragging his name around, accusing him of being the mastermind behind the crash. As the country descended to the Great Depression, Rask’s nonchalant attitude toward these accusations and the situation has not softened the public’s view of him and his actions. The Rasks were ostracized, outcasts whose acquaintances have turned their backs on them. To redeem their name, Helen started spearheading and organizing economic relief efforts.
As the story moved forward, it became apparent that Bonds was a work of roman à clef. The inspiration for the novel was soon revealed. The novel was inspired by the fictional couple Andrew and Mildred Bevel, who, as the novel-within-a-novel depicted, were a wealthy couple who thrived during the Roaring Twenties. The depiction of the couple’s life, however, was not faithful. Bonds, after all, was still a work of fiction and Vanner used his creative license to alter some details of the story where he saw fit in order to make the story more appealing. But were these alterations really for enhancement or were they meant to malign? The latter was what Bevel had in mind. The thinly veiled implications of Bonds were not lost on Bevel, thus infuriating him. He had all copies of the book removed from the New York public library system. In order to regain the narrative, Bevel commissioned Ida Partenza to ghostwrite his memoir. His story formed the second of the four books: My Life. The manuscript, however, was not completed.
“Intimacy can be an unbearable burden for those who, first experiencing it after a lifetime of proud self-sufficiency, suddenly realize it makes their world complete. Finding bliss becomes one with the fear of losing it. They doubt their right to hold someone else accountable for their happiness; they worry that their loved one may find their reverence tedious; they fear their yearning may have distorted their features in ways they cannot see. Thus, as the weight of all these questions and concerns bends them inward, their newfound joy in companionship turns into a deeper expression of the solitude they thought they had left behind.”~ Hernan Diaz, Trust
Trust. It is a very big word and no amount of superlatives can underscore the heavy implications that the word carries. It can be defined in a million different ways but its real definition cannot be fully captured. It is a belief system. It straddles the fine lines of morality. It is an important and imperative element in the different relationships we build around us; relationships are even built on them. A relationship, regardless of notions, prospers where trust is. It can be between lovers. It can also be between friends. It can also be between the writers and their readers. The absence of trust is very telling of the state of the relationship. With stories overlapping each other and each providing a different version of events, which one can the reader trust. Further muddying the story were the versions of Partenza and Mildred which was conveyed in the third and fourth part of the novel, A Memoir, Remembered, and Futures, respectively.
The importance of the book’s overriding theme carries way more weight than it shows on the surface. It is a microcosm of how truths have been and are being conveniently and deliberately altered or revised to fit one’s own objectives. In an age when the veracity of history, mainly documented and written history, is constantly challenged, the book’s subtly veiled message is timely and important. We cannot deny that we have the proclivity to readily accept for truth details and information that validate our own views and biases. Everything else is a farce or propaganda, despite pieces of evidence that point to the contrary. As social media is now being weaponized to propel personal motives, it has become imperative for us to be more critical of the information that comes our way.
But trust, under Diaz’s masterful sleight of hand, is a wordplay. For Diaz, trust does not only pertain to the reliability of someone or something as trust also comes in the form of a financial arrangement that permits a third party to hold and manage the assets of a beneficiary. Financial trusts are very common among the affluent and are ubiquitous in movies, television series, and even works of fiction. This underlined the novel’s primary currency which is, unironically, money. The story underlined how with great money one can wield influence and even power. Money is a very powerful tool. There is a value in the old adage that states that money makes the world go round.
In good hands, money can be used for the greater good, such as the health and art advocacies of Mildred. It can be used for philanthropical works. Money can be used to build. On the opposite side of the spectrum, money can be used to destroy when in the wrong hands. Andrew demonstrated how enormous wealth can be used to influence the rest of the world, prompting it to bend to his will. He used his wealth to manipulate, not only the stock market but also his public image. Bevel used his wealth to cast himself in a good light. He had a skewed view of his wealth, believing it to be a corrective tool rather than a device for distortion. His self-delusion was further underlined in Ida’s memoir. Bevel’s order to pull out all copies of Vanner’s book resonates in the present. The conservatives have doubled up on their campaign to remove books they deemed as subversive from public libraries.
“A nation’s prosperity is based on nothing but a multitude of egoisms aligning until they resemble what is known as the common good. Get enough selfish individuals to converge and act in the same direction, and the result looks very much like a collective will or a common cause. But once this illusory public interest is at work, people forget an all-important distinction: that my needs, desires and cravings may mirror yours does not mean we have a shared goal. It merely means we have the same goal. This is a crucial difference. I will only cooperate with you as long as it serves me. Beyond that, there can only be rivalry or indifference.”~ Hernan Diaz, Trust
The real brilliance of Trust lies in its exploration of the erasure of truth. This was a seminal subject addressed in the story. This was addressed repeatedly in the story. The novel commenced with a “truth” that readers immediately accept as the story’s truth. However, as the story moved forward, this generally accepted truth was slowly but brilliantly deconstructed. There is no single truth and as the story takes on its different forms, from a novel to a draft memoir to a memoir before concluding with a journal, these gaps are increasingly becoming more pronounced. Diaz was breaching the “trust” between the reader and the writer. In this tangled web, he was subtly but effectively challenging the readers to seek out their own truth. Elsewhere, the novel explored mental health and delved into the tediousness and creativity of the writing process.
On the surface, Trust is a story about wealth and money, using seminal historical events to capture how it can be used for good but also a tool “to bend and align reality” to fit one’s purposes. It all seems very straightforward. As the narrative moved forward, what was unveiled was a complex and richly layered story that grappled with several seminal and timely subjects. The four intricately woven parts – each part providing the novel varying but interesting textures – underscored how truth, and by extension, history, is blatantly distorted and even erased. At the same time, the novel peeked into the complexities of marital life, mental health, and even misery. All of these were capably woven together into a lush tapestry by Diaz’s immense and formidable writing talent. In backing up his solid literary debut with an absorbing sophomore novel, Diaz has consolidated his status as one of the present’s most excitable writers.
“Every single one of our acts is ruled by the laws of economy. When we first wake up in the morning we trade rest for profit. When we go to bed at night we give up potentially profitable hours to renew our strength. And throughout our day we engage in countless transactions. Each time we find a way to minimize our effort and increase our gain we are”~ Hernan Diaz, Trust
Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%
One thing about American literature is its diversity. Hernan Diaz has a mixed heritage. He was born in Buenos Aires but was raised in Sweden and is now an American national. However, I have never heard of him until the 2022 Booker Prize longlist was announced; unfortunately, Trust failed to make it to the shortlist. Aside from Trust being my first novel by Diaz, it was also my first novel from the 2022 Booker Prize Longlist. Over the months after I read the book, it gained more attention and positive feedback. It was literally on every literary award-giving body’s list. It was the talk of the town and this year, it was announced as co-winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize. To be honest, I wasn’t too keen on the story. I was even a little underwhelmed. I was confused but as soon as I started to reflect on the book’s message, the more I started to appreciate the story and Diaz’s brilliance as a writer. It was not perfect but it held so much promise. I am now thinking about reading Diaz’s debut novel while looking forward to more of his future works.
Author: Hernan Diaz
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publishing Date: 2022
Number of Pages: 402
Genre: Literary, Historical
Even through the roar and effervescence of the 1920s, everyone in New York has heard of Benjamin and Helen Rask. He is a legendary Wall Street tycoon; she is the daughter of eccentric aristocrats. Together, they have risen to the top of a world of seemingly boundless wealth. But at what cost have they acquired their immense fortune? This is the mystery at the center of Bonds, a successful novel that all of New York seems to have read. Yet there are other versions of this story.
Hernan Diaz’s TRUST elegantly puts these competing narratives into conversation with one another – and in tension with the perspective of one woman bent on disentangling fact from fiction. The result is a novel that spans over a century and becomes more exhilarating with each new revelation.
Provocative and propulsive, Trust engages the reader in a quest for the truth while confronting the myths shrouding wealth, the fictions that often pass for history, and the deceptions that can live at the heart of personal relationships.
About the Author
Hernan Diaz was born in 1973 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Following escalating tensions between the left wing and the right wing, Diaz’s family moved to Sweden when he was just two years old. The family returned after the restoration of democracy. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Literature (Licenciatura en Letras) from the University of Buenos Aires. He then moved to London where he pursued his master’s degree at King’s College. In 1999, he moved to New York where he received his PhD from New York University. His dissertation explored comparative literature, Latin American literature, and philosophy.
On October 10, 2017, Diaz published his first novel, In the Distance. His debut novel received positive reviews from literary pundits. The novel also received several accolades such as the 2018 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing for Fiction, the 2018 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, the 2018 Prix Page America Award, and the 2018 New American Voices Award. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. In 2022, he published his second novel, Trust. Like its predecessor, the novel received critical acclaim. It was listed by the New York Times as one of the Ten Best Books of 2022. It also won the 2022 Kirkus Prize for Fiction and the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was also longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize for Fiction.
Apart from his novels, Diaz’s stories and essays have appeared in various publications such as The Paris Review, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Granta, The Yale Review, Playboy, and McSweeney’s. He also Borges, between History and Eternity, a nonfiction book. Diaz was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2019 Whiting Award. He also received fellowships from the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers and The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center. Beyond writing, he is the associate director of the Hispanic Institute for Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University and serves as the managing editor of the Spanish-language journal Revista Hispánica Moderna.