by Hernan Diaz.
Riverhead, 405 pp., £16.99, August, 978 1 5290 7449 9
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Katherine Mansfield's​  wonderfully wrong-headed criticism of E.M. Forster was that he was a dab hand at warming the pot, ‘but there ain’t going to be no tea.’ Readers of Hernan Diaz’s new novel get their first sniff of a tea bag about halfway through the book’s 400-odd pages. Trust is made up of four sections, the first presented as a complete novel (Bonds by Harold Vanner), the second as a draft memoir from the 1930s, both of them concerning a New York financier with a gift for reading and manipulating the market. The degree of overlap between Benjamin Rask in the novel and Andrew Bevel in the memoir is for the reader to assess as the book goes on, though not a great deal has been done to bring curiosity to the boil, or even above room temperature.

Benjamin Rask, an only child born in the 1870s, is the heir to a long-established family made wealthy by the tobacco trade. He isn’t an obviously dynamic personality. When he was bullied at boarding school, where he ‘excelled, dispassionately, in every subject’, it turned out, luckily enough, that ‘his impassiveness made him a dissatisfying victim’ so he was soon left alone. After the relatively early deaths of his parents he inherited the family business, divested from tobacco, dismissed his advisers and learned to trust his own instincts as a speculator. The world of high finance interested him almost as an abstract entity, governed by a set of procedures that could be mastered intellectually.

His lack of interest in keeping up appearances and deficit in social skills were remedied to some extent by his marriage to Helen Brevoort, the impoverished child of an old Albany family. Though her mother worked hard to contrive the match, Helen had her own reasons for going along with the machinations. She wanted not luxury but the freedom and privacy that money can give (‘In his vast solitude she would find hers’), but there was also real feeling between the two, of a muted kind, based on consideration and respect for difference. They developed a taste for chamber music and hosted private recitals where they could sit together in silence, ‘sharing emotions for which they were not responsible and which did not refer directly to the two of them. Precisely because they were so controlled and mediated, these were Benjamin and Helen’s most intimate moments.’

Helen’s father suffered from mental illness, and when the same shadow fell on Helen her husband searched for the best treatment money could buy. The institution he chose was Swiss – the same place where her father was cared for, and from which he went missing. Rask wanted an entire wing of the sanatorium renovated for her exclusive benefit. When its director refused, he rapidly arranged for the publication of an article in a German medical journal casting doubt on the man’s research and got what he wanted after all. He remained involved in Helen’s care, after a fashion: ‘He was a tender nurse who understood that his love was best manifested by its inhibition – he was present but unnoticed, solicitous but removed.’

The second section is called ‘My Life’, and is supposedly written by Andrew Bevel, whose life story loosely corresponds to Rask’s. When Bevel speaks of his inheritance he isn’t referring to the family wealth but an ‘inherited talent for algebra, calculus and statistics’. According to Bevel, every man of business should be a polymath, since ‘finance is the thread that runs through every aspect of life.’ He has given himself up to the pursuit of knowledge in every conceivable realm, or so he says, yet the record of his life is left full of blanks to be filled in later to give the desired impression. ‘The incident on the riverbank’, a reference that is never explained, might hint at trauma, but overall the effect is insipid. A certain dry irony is conveyed by placeholder headings such as ‘More about mother’, ‘Examples’ and ‘Small everyday stories’. The thinness of detail is made to confirm rather than weaken the authority of a rudimentary self-portrait.

Bevel takes pride in his talent for anticipating the market, though he plays down his reputation, based on his ability to ride the storm in times of crisis, as a sort of Wall Street clairvoyant. There would come a point on days of heavy trading when the sheer volume of transactions caused a delay in the ticker tape machines (this is one of the few details in the book to conjure up a substantial past). For an interval, by definition a crucial one, investors would have to make decisions without up-to-date information. Bevel acknowledges his remarkable success in these circumstances, when ‘flying blind’ Luke Skywalker-fashion, but emphasises that for consistent performance intuition must be supplemented by the analysis of huge quantities of data.

The woman Bevel marries (‘Picture 1000 words: reproduce here Birley’s portrait of Mildred’) shares a family background with Helen Rask, but is even less definite as a character. Both women involve themselves in philanthropic enterprises, mainly of an artistic nature, in a way that perhaps mitigates their husbands’ conviction that their own prosperity is the only guarantee of security that society needs. Mildred too has health problems that require treatment in Switzerland, though they are much less lurid than Helen’s. Her life, as her husband represents it, seems to have amounted to the diffusion of a moral perfume: ‘She touched everyone with her kindness and generosity. Examples. And I know her kind hand will still be reaching out to generations to come, long after I am gone.’

When a novel doubles one of its formal elements there is likely to be a halving elsewhere. In Trust the duplication of narratives, these life stories both convergent and divergent, has the effect of slowing a forward movement that was already very moderate. Whether it’s Benjamin and Helen or Andrew and Mildred, these are bloodless figures, with any intrinsic interest overshadowed and made almost irrelevant by the economic power they wield and represent.

Only in the third part of the book, ‘A Memoir, Remembered by Ida Partenza’, does the relationship between the earlier sections become clear. Partenza was hired by Bevel in 1938 to type up his memoirs, and came to play a strong shaping role in the project. Bevel intended the memoir to supersede Harold Vanner’s novel, Bonds, which he viewed as a roman à clef amounting to proxy assassination, taking offence particularly at the representation of the not-so-fictional wife as mentally ill. Bevel refuses to engage directly with the book, believing that ‘denial is always a form of confirmation,’ but by buying Vanner’s publisher he is able effectively to suppress it.

According to Ida Partenza, Bonds received praise on publication, being chosen as one of the Nation’s ‘Notable Books of the Year’ while Harper’s included it on its list of Christmas picks. Other reviews deprecated the obvious influence of James and Wharton, among others. It would be easier to accept any or all of these assessments – Bevel’s outrage at a scurrilous portrait, praise for literary quality, reservations about originality – if the novel hadn’t supposedly been printed in full as the first part of Trust. Quite apart from being barely thirty thousand words long, Bonds bears hardly any resemblance to a 1930s American novel in structure, style and tone. In any case, if it is to be read as a hatchet job, then passages like this make a bad job of it:

[Rask’s] mourning was simply a more radical expression of his marriage: both were the result of a perverse combination of love and distance. In Helen’s life, he had been unable to bridge the abyss that separated her from him. His failure had never turned into resentment or stopped him looking for new crossings. But now, even if his love remained unchanged, that distance had become absolute.

Something more full-blooded would be expected, at a period in American literary history when Sinclair Lewis had already made his mark. It would have been a shrewder move to present Bonds only in extracts, as Ida reads them to understand what Bevel wants from her (this is where the story proper gets going anyway), rather than starting the book with an uncontextualised slab of prose that isn’t engaging as narrative or plausible as an artefact of its period.

Diaz has gone to some trouble to give Ida Partenza an alarmingly vibrant back story, her widowed father an Italian anarchist with bloodcurdling stories of the risks he ran back home, some of them possibly true, who brings a fixed hatred of capitalism and all its works with him to his new country. Papa Partenza welcomes the Great Depression, as both Rask and Bevel do, though for very different reasons. While Rask saw it as a necessary fever after which the markets would regain their health, Bevel blamed it on the meddling of the Federal Reserve Bank and the proliferation of ignorant and overextended female investors. He comes through it further enriched. For Partenza the Crash marks the moment when the exploited masses realise their historical position and rise up.

‘Anarchist typesetter’ sounds like an unlucky pick from a grab bag of possible characters in a creative writing class, but Diaz gets some mileage out of it. Ida even finds a slightly strained point of correspondence between the elements of her father’s make-up when she observes the main thing typesetters and revolutionaries had in common: ‘They knew the matrix of the world was reversed, and even if reality was inverted they could make sense of it at first glance.’ She runs the risk of turning this worthy activist into an absurd figure when she mentions the deluxe limited edition of the anarchists’ almanac her father prints, in which it isn’t saints’ days that are marked, but executions, strikes and uprisings. The risk becomes extreme when she calls attention to the faults in his work: ‘Did my father preserve my numerous spelling errors out of respect for my writing or because they were invisible to him? Suspecting the latter, I never dared to ask him.’ The turns towards realism in Trust are consistently countered by turns away from it. A freelance typesetter, elsewhere described as a perfectionist, who can’t spell and works alone (so there is no one to check his work) seems close to a bad joke.

When Ida applies for the job as Bevel’s secretary she gives a name less exotic than her own (Prentice). Asked for a personal statement she produces dull fantasy (father a sales clerk in a haberdashery, home in Turtle Bay rather than Brooklyn) though she ends with a flourish about the need for each of us to carve the present out of the shapeless block of the future. In a literary version of Gresham’s law, and not for the first time in the book, bad faith narratives drive out good faith ones. She gets the job. She soon discovers that Bevel’s idea of setting the record straight about his life and his marriage is to edit out everything distinctive about Mildred, in particular her adventurous cultural tastes. She plays along, however unwillingly, and finds a suitably overconfident voice for Andrew himself on the page. Ida’s point of view is split between her experiences in the 1930s and a mature retrospect from 1981, when she revisits the Bevel house, now a museum. She wonders what she missed, and what her employer was trying so hard to conceal.

As if to make up for the lack of drama in the earlier part of the book, this section (by far the longest) skips through a series of potential genres, never quite settling on one. There is a touch of the Gothic, with that suggestion of Mildred having dark secrets. There is a certain amount of intrigue, with the theft of personal papers and an extortion attempt that might conceivably be Bevel’s way of testing Ida’s loyalty. There are efforts at suspense – Bevel wants her to be available to him at all times, in accommodation provided for her. During the interview process she noticed that her physical type was over-represented on the shortlist. Might this be a warning sign? One chapter ends with the artificial breathlessness of a cliffhanger: ‘For the first time since meeting Andrew Bevel, it occurred to me that I should be afraid.’ There’s a romance with a childhood friend that soon goes wrong, soured by the young man’s resentment of her success in her career. He’s a journalist, though the characterisation here is paper thin. ‘“I’ve been thinking,” Jack said after a brooding pause. “Perhaps my place is in Europe. Report from there. From the front line. Like Hemingway. Maybe even join the front line. The International Brigades. You know? Do something. This idleness is killing me.”’ A paragraph like this should have the equivalent of one of Andrew Bevel’s memos attached: ‘Work up beyond the caricatural’ perhaps. The strangest genre to put in an appearance is the detective story, though in the 1980s part of the book Ida is indeed playing detective, searching for evidence of Mildred’s real life in the papers held by the museum archive. When she was young she had been addicted to the detective stories of Christie, Sayers, Allingham – in fact, ‘these were the women who took care of me in the absence of my mother.’ They allowed her to live in a world where harmony would always banish lawlessness and confusion.

But all these genre elements are red herrings. When in 1981 Ida gains access to Mildred’s private quarters in the house on East 87th Street, she finds no trace of the Gothic, nothing to suggest the quarters of a sickly child-bride, let alone a prisoner or a madwoman, but instead a bedroom that was (hard thing to visualise) ‘an angular cloud’ and a serenely uncluttered sitting room. ‘In contrast with the rest of the house there was a monastic sort of calm here – what, in retrospect, I recognised as a modern, austerely avant-garde atmosphere.’ It has already been established that Mildred was a supporter of modern music, responsible for commissioning work from Webern, Krenek and Berg, not to mention Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Bartok (‘to name just a few’, though the list is already too long for plausibility). After the Crash, Mildred’s papers reveal that she did all she could to relieve financial and human suffering. ‘The owners of factories, stores and farms write to let her know how much the aid received has done for them and their communities. But these letters are outnumbered by a renewed outpour of gratitude from the same kind of beneficiaries she favoured in the past – libraries, musical institutions, universities.’

That formula about retrospectively recognising the avant-garde has something teasingly truthful about it, leaving open the possibility that Ida, seeing the same rooms in 1938 rather than 1981, would find them soulless and unfeminine. The music of Webern might strike her even now as unworthy of largesse. It’s human nature when contemplating the past to assume that we would immediately recognise what is culturally and politically progressive, just as we are on the right side of every current debate. The balance here, though, is precarious – if you turn Mildred into a one-woman Arts Council and welfare state then capitalism doesn’t seem so unfeeling.

Diaz goes much further than this in Trust’s short last section, which is made up of Mildred’s diary entries, found in the museum (and stolen from it) by Ida. The novel reveals itself as an exercise in what might be called the pasteurisation of the past – the filtering out of microtoxins likely to trouble modern digestion. At the end of Francis Spufford’s novel Golden Hill, for instance, set in 1740s New York, the characters are rewarded by the fiction that contains them in strict accordance with our current ideas of value, so that the oppressed are gathered in and the entitled left behind. Yet so exquisite has been Spufford’s performance of the past, so fresh the perspectives opened up, that it would be an ungrateful reader who felt cheated.

The past is a different country, yes of course, but those who inhabited it were exactly like us, or can be made to defer to our priorities. Where there are hidden figures they can be brought into the light; if not they can be fabricated in neglected pockets of the record. Trust, though, is not in the same class as Golden Hill. When the mystery is solved here, it isn’t at all like the dénouement of the detective stories Ida describes, where a threatened harmony is restored, everything made clear, everything explained, everything shown to be well with the world. The ahistorical revelations of the last section are all that Diaz cares about, to the point where the preceding sections crumble in the mind the moment they have served their purpose. And if faulty construction seems to him a small price to pay for the wish-fulfilment in store, it’s possible to disagree. Readers of the book can reasonably expect its various strands to be pulled into a tight knot, or, failing that, to be arranged in a pretty bow.

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