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June 2022 Issue [Reviews]

The Secret History

Hernan Diaz dismantles the American dream
Illustration by Jorge González

Illustration by Jorge González


The Secret History

Hernan Diaz dismantles the American dream

Discussed in this essay:

Trust, by Hernan Diaz. Riverhead. 416 pages. $28.

In the Distance, by Hernan Diaz. Coffee House Press. 240 Pages. $16.95.

Every nation has delusions about itself that it holds dear, delusions that take the form of stories. America’s own foundational stories—its heroes and archetypes, its go-to plots—are perhaps better read not as a way of understanding ourselves, but as permission to avoid understanding ourselves. Some of our most internalized parables of American motive, American character, are soothing misdirections. What is a western, after all, but a kind of hermeneutic care package of perversely lionizing myths about the most shameful facts of our inheritance? Who were the pioneers, really, or the Founding Fathers? Where does the wealth of America’s capitalist princes come from? What’s a self-made man?

We are in something of a golden age of this kind of prophylactic, dissent-averse national mythmaking. “Make America Great Again” is essentially a demand to return not to any actual, bygone America, but to the core myths themselves, and to criminalize disloyalty to them (hence the panic about critical race theory). So even if, for a socially conscious American fiction writer, the imperative to engage with our uniquely contentious present might feel especially strong right now, you could make the case that our past is that present’s real battleground. This, after two novels, is beginning to seem like the project of Hernan Diaz, one of the least derivative, most eccentrically ambitious fiction writers I’ve read in a long while.

Diaz was born in Buenos Aires in 1973, but after the Argentinean military coup of 1976, his father—a left-wing filmmaker—was obliged to flee. They moved to Sweden, then back to Argentina years later; Diaz went on to study in London and eventually settled in Brooklyn. All of which makes it even more remarkable that his first novel, In the Distance, was a western, set on the American frontier beginning in the years before the Civil War. Without an agent, he submitted it to the tiny but formidable Coffee House Press. It became a succès d’estime and then some, eventually named a finalist in 2018 for both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

His new novel, Trust, takes the form of four separate books by four different, fictitious authors. The first of these, written in a lucid, eagle-eyed style, chronicles the rise and rise of Benjamin Rask, an early-twentieth-century Wall Street titan. It is titled “Bonds” (the world of finance being rife with such low-hanging double entendres, not unlike “trust” itself) and attributed to Harold Vanner, though we have no sense, for a very long time, of who that is. Rask’s is not some tale of humble beginnings, his ancestors having made a fortune in tobacco; but Benjamin’s own interests, once his father dies and that fortune becomes his, tend not toward the manufacturing enterprises that might make him even more money, but toward money per se. His talent for investing grows into a peerless genius:

The isolated, self-sufficient nature of speculation spoke to his character and was a source of wonder and an end in itself, regardless of what the increasing numbers represented or afforded him. . . . The larger the operation, the further removed he was from its concrete details. There was no need for him to touch a single banknote or engage with the things and people his transaction affected.

Rask, a marvelously specific creation, is also an American cultural figure who has always been with us: the stupendously wealthy person who somehow doesn’t care about wealth. We’re prone to attribute a strange sort of moral purity—an incorruptibility—to these figures; this seems particularly true of the world of high finance. Perhaps this is partly because we don’t really understand what they’re doing; the self-conscious mystification of money is meant to shut us out of its workings and impart an element of magic to it, magic that only magicians can perform or even fathom. They are a special class of oppressors whose amoral monkishness we admire. Sometimes we might even look to them as saviors.

In any event, Rask has little interest in anything his money might buy: “Luxury was a vulgar burden. The access to new experiences was not something his sequestered spirit craved.” After a while, though, he comes to fear that a rich man who spends no money will be regarded as eccentric. Mostly out of a desire to avoid drawing attention to himself, he consents to doing some conventional rich-person things, like joining clubs and serving on the boards of charities. More or less in this spirit, he also decides to marry.

His wife, Helen, though she enters the story late, gradually takes over as the true subject of “Bonds.” A child prodigy from an eminent Albany family that decamps to Europe after dissipating its fortune, she is brilliant and solitary—much like Benjamin—and their marriage, which seems at first like a recipe for misery, instead inspires a strange kind of mutual respect and even devotion:

Until meeting, neither of them had ever known anyone who would accept their idiosyncrasies without questions. Every interaction out in the world had always implied some form of compromise.

Helen becomes well known as a patron of the arts. Their childlessness is neither surprising nor tragic to them.

At this point, history intrudes. Such is Rask’s antiseptic prowess when it comes to foreseeing the movements of the market that when the Great Crash occurs in 1929, not only does he emerge unscathed, but he profits enormously. When news of this gets out, however, public opinion, instead of offering its usual genuflection to his genius, turns against him. He is even accused of having crashed the economy on purpose, just to swell his own coffers. Benjamin is bemused by this, to the extent he notices at all; never in his life has he connected the beguilingly abstract movements of capital to real human beings, or human suffering. But for Helen, it is a different story. Unlike her husband, she is able to see the world, and herself, through others’ eyes. When she walks outside their Manhattan mansion, she senses the fury directed at her simply for living on the rarefied plane of her husband’s success. She feels the enmity of total strangers; worse, perhaps, her artist and writer friends start distancing themselves. Her guilt and confusion begin to degrade her mental and even physical health, and this, much more than any anger leveled at him, gets her husband’s full attention.

As compelling as this is—coldly and beautifully rendered, with remarkable psychological precision and all the fascinatingly lurid details of a life of almost lunatic privilege—one feeling it engenders in the reader, as the story moves toward its climax, is that it is, in some logistical sense, moving too fast: that is, the history of the Rasks will surely wrap up less than a third of the way through the hefty novel one is holding. As for the possibility that Trust, which began by tracing Rask’s ancestry, might project into the future as a generational saga, or even end up in our present day—this is belied by the fact that Benjamin and Helen have no children. So what is Diaz building toward?

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The answer, at first, is more disorienting than the question: he starts the novel over again. Trust’s second section, entitled simply “My Life” and attributed to a previously unmentioned character named Andrew Bevel, tells the story—in first person this time—of a man with broad similarities to Benjamin Rask: he’s very rich (because he understands “the markets”), he came of age in the early years of the twentieth century, he had a long and happy marriage that ended with his wife’s untimely illness, and he is more than a bit hard to take on the subject of his own genius and the unfair, envy-generated vilification thereof. (“I have always been a guardian of public interest,” Bevel writes, “even when it may seem my actions go against the public interest.”) The straightforward, almost cranky voice of Bevel’s memoir is stylistically inferior to that of “Bonds,” but this is in keeping with what we come to know of Bevel himself, a solipsistic dullard who prizes what he thinks of as common sense, and whose heartfelt tributes to his wife seem mostly to trivialize her interests. This absence of polish may derive from the fact that Bevel’s memoir is either still in progress or else was left unfinished—a circumstance cleverly conveyed in passages like this one:

[My great-grandfather] bolstered, both to his and the country’s great benefit, the treasury notes issued to fund the War of 1812, which led to our nation’s first paper money, circulated in 1815.

More examples of his business acumen.

Show his pioneering spirit.

Bevel himself is no mystery (“The market is always right. Those who try to control it never are”); the real mystery is what this memoir is doing inside Trust at all. For a while it seems almost like what is known in contemporary publishing as a “comp title,” something a not-very-discerning algorithm might recommend if you enjoyed “Bonds.” Is Diaz’s novel meant to be a series of brief histories of hideous Wall Street men? The similarities accumulate: Bevel, like Rask, manages to profit obscenely from the crash in ’29. His wife, too—less euphoniously named Mildred—is an arts patron; she, too, goes to Europe for expensive and ultimately unsuccessful medical treatment. The Bevels’ story differs from the Rasks’ in its small details, but from above, “My Life” mirrors the path of “Bonds” closely enough to feel uncanny. And the fact that “My Life” is, on every level, less complex and more sentimental than “Bonds” starts to seem almost like a provocation:

Finance is the thread that runs through every 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. This, in turn, means there is no affair that does not pertain to the businessman. To him everything is relevant. He is the true Renaissance man.

And then the novel starts over again, once more in the form of a memoir, written almost five decades later. The author of this one is Ida Partenza, an elderly, successful, and well-respected fiction writer. But the story she wants to tell this time is a true one. It began on June 26, 1938, when she answered an ad (using a false last name, to seem less like the immigrant’s child that she is) for what turned out to be a job as a private, even somewhat secret, secretary to the famous financier Andrew Bevel.

This is where Trust starts to become a challenging novel to review. To describe it past a certain point is to risk giving too much away. One of the many levels on which it succeeds is that of a puzzle, and the further one ventures into summary, the more apparent the outlines of the puzzle become. In its first two books especially, much of what propels the reader through Trust is the simple, suspenseful question of whether these disparate parts, with their ghostly echoes, will unveil a whole at all.

It’s a substantial formal leap from In the Distance, whose tale was much more straightforwardly told: a young Swede named Hakan Söderström, hardly more than a boy, plans to emigrate to New York with his brother, but they are separated in the crush at the wharf, and Hakan gets on the wrong boat—one that takes him all the way around Cape Horn to San Francisco. His only goal is to reunite with his brother in New York; having no idea how far away that is, his plan is to walk there. It’s a kind of historical reverse commute, as a steady flow of fortune-seekers heads past him in the opposite direction.

“A western without cowboys” is one way In the Distance has been described, but Diaz’s subversion of this and other pillars of the genre is never simple or satiric—nor even political, really, except in the sense that it is impossible to engage the tropes of greed and violence and vigilantism inherent in the western without some political byproduct. Diaz’s western is existential. (Some have compared it to the work of Cormac McCarthy, but to me the novel it evokes most is Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, another almost hallucinatory evocation of frontier solitude and its effects on a man’s mind, an experience of interiority that, for better or worse, is lost to us forever now.) It’s about the terror, not the romance, of wide-open spaces, of loneliness and silence, of the overpowering effort required just to stay alive. Yet, as brutal as the solitude is, the advent of other human beings in Hakan’s journey—even just the sight of them on the horizon—is almost never good news. More than anything, In the Distance is a western not about John Ford–ish ur-Americans, but about the feeling of deep foreignness that characterizes both man in uninhabited space and immigration to the New World itself. There’s very little direct dialogue in the early part of the novel, not because no one’s talking, but because Hakan can barely understand a word. At one point, with the sort of momentary, one-off technical flourish at which Diaz excels, a long exchange in English is rendered on the page as near-gibberish, not for comic effect but as Hakan’s sincere effort to make sense of it.

Human interaction, in circumstances of scarcity, will lead to violence, and Hakan is eventually caught up. He commits an act that, in a traditional western, might be considered business as usual, if not downright heroic; knowing what he is capable of, though, changes forever the way he thinks about himself. It also changes what others think about him. Total strangers he meets on the trail recognize him (in part because of his size) on sight. They have heard stories about him, myths; which details the myths get wrong is beside the point. Hakan is no longer in control of who he is—the pioneer culture will make of him, and of his actions, what it requires. He becomes a prisoner (literally, at one point) of his own legend, and by the time the novel is over, his behavior and even his appearance have begun to capitulate to that legend rather than try to correct it.

It’s this question of capitulation that brings us back to Trust. If the rich really are different from you and me, then one place Diaz might locate that difference is in the fact that a poor man will accept his powerlessness in the matter of who shapes his story, while a rich man may not. “If I’m ever wrong,” Bevel says to Ida at one point, “I must make use of all of my means and resources to bend and align reality according to my mistake so that it ceases to be a mistake.”

Ida’s father likes to refer to himself not as an immigrant, but as an exile. Working as a typesetter in Brooklyn, he still espouses the revolutionary politics that got him into trouble back in Italy, even when his only audience is his daughter. “All throughout history,” he tells her, “the origin of capital has been slavery.” Though Ida listens with a healthy filial skepticism (all her life she has heard him thundering with his anarchist buddies about the need for “action,” but what action has actually been taken?), she does listen, and thus the novel finally gains access to a perspective on financial capitalism from someone other than its overlords:

Above all, he detested finance capital, which he viewed as the source of every social injustice. Whenever we found ourselves walking along the waterfront, he would point at lower Manhattan, tracing the skyline with his finger while explaining that none of it really existed. “A mirage,” he called it. Despite all those tall buildings—despite all that steel and concrete—Wall Street was, he said, a fiction. . . . “Stock, shares, and all that garbage are just claims to future value. So if money is fiction, finance capital is the fiction of a fiction. That’s what all those criminals trade in: fictions.”

But Ida, partly out of rebellion and partly because the two of them are broke, takes the job as Bevel’s secretary in the very belly of the fictive beast; the project on which she is engaged becomes Bevel’s memoir “My Life.” Given surprisingly free rein, she describes in retrospect her difficulty doing justice to his singular voice. At length she abandons that effort in favor of a more purely artistic solution, which is to give Bevel the voice Bevel wishes he had: the Great Man voice, the voice she finds in memoirs by Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Benjamin Franklin, and various other legendary Americans:

The books started to merge into one another. What was individual about each man . . . yielded to what I thought, at the time, they all had in common: they all believed, without any sort of doubt, that they deserved to be heard, that their words ought to be heard, that the narratives of their faultless lives must be heard.

Ida’s venture into this “secretarial” work is further enlivened by her discovery that she is being surveilled while she does it, down to the theft of discarded manuscript pages from her trash. The prime suspect is her boyfriend, who is looking for a scoop to launch his journalism career, but there are others, not excluding her reality-bending employer himself.

But if the novel’s nominally contested space is mythological—who gets to determine how we remember powerful men, and to what end—the real battlefield turns out not to be a financial market, nor the court of public opinion, but the life of a woman. Andrew Bevel’s motivation for publishing a memoir goes beyond that reflexive droit du seigneur Ida describes. One of the many artist friends for whom his poor, guileless Mildred served as patron was a struggling young writer named Harold Vanner.

“Bonds,” then, despite its fig-leaf name changes, is a thinly disguised novel about the Bevels, and a highly successful one at that—so successful that Bevel has effectively lost control of his own narrative, even that of his inner life, to a near-stranger. Bevel’s fury is epic. (The revenge he ultimately takes on Vanner will terrify every writer who reads it.) He cloaks it in a kind of chivalry, insisting that his wife is the one who has been wronged. What’s interesting about this is that Vanner’s Helen Rask seems (in most ways) quite a flattering take on his source material: sharp, thoughtful, with all the interior complexity of a great character. Here she is upon seeing her husband’s home for the first time:

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. They all reached out to her with their heightened presence. 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.

Yet that complexity is precisely what enrages Bevel. The truth, he insists, was less compromised, less artistic:

Mildred was the quiet, steady presence in my life that made so many of my achievements possible. I take it to be my duty to ensure that her memory does not fade and that her placid moral example endures through time. I offer here my wife’s loving portrait, resigned to knowing it shall fail to fully honor her dignity, candor and grace.

To Ida, there’s something fishy about that kind of hagiographic language applied to the love of one’s life; indeed, she claims to have always suspected that Bevel’s worshipful portrait of his late wife was masking some more ambiguous secret. Now, quite unexpectedly, late in her own life, she has an opportunity to set the record straight. Hence the existence of Trust’s fourth and final book, an answer to the question of why Ida is committing all this to paper only now: she claims to have discovered one of the lost journals of Mildred Bevel, written shortly before her death. It discloses (as I cannot) the secret Ida was looking for. It is also quite provokingly, not to say suspiciously, well written. Reasons to doubt its veracity abound, but they yield to the satisfaction of hearing Mildred’s voice at last—the voice that generations of men had drowned out and ignored.

Trust is a story about the fight over control of a story. Its four stylistically disparate sections are chronologically consecutive; the novel moves forward in time by continually reappraising its beginnings. So, too, one sees, does Diaz. He formally dismantles the legend of Andrew and Mildred Bevel as one might cut down a tree to expose its rings, and in doing so he shows us something about American success stories: that they are always told to serve their tellers. Like his fellow novelist Ida, he is inspired to understand through mimesis that Great Man voice, the one that takes for granted—then as now—that it will be listened to, that it can dictate what it would like us to hear. Like Ida, he does the job perfectly, then finds a quietly savage way to undo it.

 is the author, most recently, of the novel The Locals. His article “Walk Away” appeared in the May 2018 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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