We Tell Ourselves Stories About Money to Live

Hernan Diaz’s new novel audaciously tells a tale of American capital—again, and again, and again.

A faceless man in a suit almost shoulder deep in a pile of money
Mathieu Bourel

Stories about American capitalism tend to have a recognizable villain: the robber baron, the business tycoon, the financial investor, your boss. But, as Karl Marx once put it, the evil capitalist “is only capital personified.” Far more chilling, he wrote, are the workings of capital itself, which, “vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” Writing about that, as he knew firsthand, was much more difficult.

Look around today and it’s not hard to see capital’s life-sucking forces still at play: We sense them in tech companies’ profit motive, in the exploitation of migrant labor, in Amazon’s economic and physical domination. The world of industry and finance—and its long reach into our lives—has only grown more complex since Marx’s day. The challenge of writing about the shadowy system behind the “evil capitalist,” though, remains. How does one even begin to capture its contortions?

Hernan Diaz’s new novel, Trust, takes the challenge of narrating the entanglements of modern-day capitalism head-on. It begins with the lead-up to the Wall Street stock-market crash of 1929, following the sublime booms and busts of economic history from the vantage point of individual people. Trust is an audacious period piece that—over the course of four acts, each framed as a “book”—seeks to undo the hardened conventions undergirding myths about American power. And it deftly illustrates how stories about the nation’s exceptionalism are inextricable from the circulation of money.

Trust begins like a fairly conventional bourgeois novel that portrays the rich interior lives and domestic spaces of the elite ruling class. Its first book, “Bonds”—a salacious page-turner about a successful 1920s financier named Benjamin Rask and the mysterious illness and death of his wife, Helen—works like an act of narrative seduction, luring readers into the velvet-draped world of the 1 percent. “With perverse symmetry,” goes its gossipy narrator, “as Benjamin rose to new heights, Helen’s condition declined.”

Once it settles us in this milieu, however, Trust starts to strip it down to its foundations. Book two, “My Life,” is stylistically jarring: It’s the first-person account of a financier named Andrew Bevel, whose depiction of his stock-market success and his recently deceased wife, Mildred, eerily resembles the story just relayed in “Bonds.” Presented in manuscript form, Bevel’s autobiography is both bombastically overwritten (he frequently compares his life’s trajectory to that of the nation) and underwritten, peppered with little notes to himself to fill in details (“More on Mildred’s spirit”; “More home scenes. Her little touches. Anecdotes.”).

The overlapping characteristics between the two books are so uncanny that “My Life” initially reads like a mistake. On starting it, I kept flipping back to “Bonds” to confirm that I hadn’t gotten its characters’ names wrong. But book three, “A Memoir, Remembered,” clarifies the reason for this doubling. This first-person account is written by Bevel’s ghostwriter, Ida Partenza, the daughter of an Italian anarchist who works, much to her father’s chagrin, for their class enemy. Yet having been in Bevel’s confidence, Ida can, years after his death, now betray it: Her memoir reveals “Bonds” to have been the thinly veiled fictionalization of Bevel’s life following Mildred’s death. Bevel’s autobiography was, in turn, a highly orchestrated publicity stunt to override it—a project of “bending and aligning reality,” as he used to explain to her. Now “A Memoir, Remembered” is doing just that, once more.

In moving from the fluid, omniscient narrator of “Bonds” to Bevel’s badly written, halting I—and then subsequently revealing the latter to be manufactured as well—Diaz suggests that no individual perspective can be trusted. Each subsequent section torques and troubles how to approach the prior ones—the novel’s title becomes both a play on the financial instrument and an interpretive guide for the reader. Diaz keeps us guessing at what is “real” (a word that appears 34 times in the novel). We may think we know which character is most reliable, but tweak the lens ever so slightly and that comfort in an established viewpoint dissipates almost immediately.

The unraveling comes to a head in the enigmatic fourth book, “Futures,” which ultimately presents Mildred’s own, unfiltered voice. “Futures” consists of Mildred’s diary entries from her final days in a Swiss sanatorium as she appears to descend into madness. Mildred’s confessional scribblings convey the most private genre in Trust: They include the banal details of bad hospital food (“Already tired of milk + meat diet”) as well as more revelatory particulars about the hand she’s had in her husband’s financial success (“By trading in outsized amounts + inciting bursts of general frenzy, I started creating the lags”). With “Futures,” readers are forced to reevaluate what they thought they knew about the Bevels’ story—and about how money, and agency, gets distributed. If Mildred was in fact the financial genius in her marriage, she could only ever manipulate the stock market using her husband’s money and from his perch. Behind every powerful man, we might say, is a more brilliant woman running the numbers.

We arrive at this realization not only through what Mildred writes but how she organizes it—not just through content but also through form. Her initial entries are clearly categorized under morning (“AM”), afternoon (“PM”), and evening (“EVE”), suggesting her attunement to the passing—and perhaps the consequences—of time. But by the end, her thoughts blur together. As Mildred’s body decays, so do her sentences, which start to fracture from paragraphs down to sentence fragments (“Confined to bed”; “No pleasure in juice”) and portmanteaus (“Befogged”; “Bird-crowded”). “Futures” concludes with ever more laconic phrases (“Mostly fruit / Hemicrania / Unable to do much”) that look less like the final lines of a novel than the beginning of poetic flight—of, we might say, future abstractions. The cozy bourgeois world of “Bonds” gets deconstructed, through Mildred’s words, into the harsh tones and angular vectors of high modernism. The progression suggests that one way fiction might approach the depiction of capitalist totality and its impossible forms is by presenting it, however futilely, through incommensurable shards.

That Trust’s story unfolds rather like one of Jorge Luis Borges’s labyrinthine stories isn’t happenstance. Originally trained as an academic, Diaz wrote his first book about Borges’s narrative puzzles. He’s also experimented himself with genre before: His debut novel, In the Distance, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer, was set during the California Gold Rush and played with the stylistic tropes of the Western. Trust continues to turn the screws of both genre and structure, relentlessly retelling the same story from different angles. “There is this priggishness around moneymaking,” Diaz recently told Vanity Fair, discussing the book. “It’s this enormous paradox in American history, between this priggishness and this hyperfetish around money.” In writing Trust, Diaz hoped to linger on some of the uglier aspects of wealth while also attending to people, and in particular women, who do not typically represent mythical American financial power.

Diaz shifts purposefully back and forth between these two lenses (the wide-angle and the close-up), sometimes even overlapping them in an uncanny palimpsest. In one striking scene, Ida observes Bevel staring out his office window, as a welder “sitting on a beam that seemed to be floating in the sky” looks back at him. She notes that “each man appeared to be hypnotized by the other,” before realizing that the welder is only gazing into his own reflection in the window. While Bevel can see the welder, the welder cannot look back—it’s essentially a one-way mirror. Rarely does Diaz inhabit the perspective of the worker, except when that worker comes within proximity to power (like Ida). More often, he gives texture to individuals who stand in (sometimes self-consciously) for the broader world of finance as a way of drawing readers closer to the abstract complexities of capital accumulation. In Trust, Bevel is almost the parody of a hubristic capitalist, writing in his memoir, “I saw not only the destiny of our great nation fulfilled but also my own.” But the arc of capital is longer than any single life, and Bevel hardly gets the final word here. As Ida and Mildred’s subsequent sections make clear, there is always someone else who can overwrite your story.

Trust ultimately refuses to clarify exactly what the true version of its story is, leaving readers to speculate on what is “real” and what is “fake.” Why Mildred suddenly gets sick right when Bevel’s fortune is ascending, and whether she’s the secret author of “Bonds” (a theory the reader is invited to entertain) are left open questions. “In and out of sleep,” goes Mildred’s final entry, “like a needle coming out from under a black cloth and then vanishing again. Unthreaded.” Trust ends not with a climactic bang but with a disappearing magic trick—and only the barest whisper of a possible heroine. We may not get close to grasping the heart of the mystery. But that’s hardly the point. Instead, we might at least begin to perceive how little it is we can see at all.