by Hernan Diaz
Riverhead Books, 2022
Reviewed by Sam Downs
Hernan Diaz’s first novel, 2017’s In the Distance, was a finalist for both the PEN/Faulkner Award and a Pulitzer, in addition to being named one of the top twenty novels of the decade by Lithub. The book traces a young Swedish immigrant’s lonely eastward voyage across 19th century America and against the grain of US frontier mythology—a plot reflective of the novel’s broader critique of the westward expansion’s founding myths. In like fashion, this year’s Trust revisits an American archetype by charting a new route across familiar terrain. But whereas In the Distance produces a better myth, a myth revealing the flaws of its precursor, Trust examines the mythmaking process itself.
The novel is comprised of four narratives, each centering a conflicting account of the means by which famed Jazz Age real estate tycoons Andrew and Mildred Bevel made their fortune. In Bonds, a novel-within-the-novel evoking Dickens and Wharton, protagonist Benjamin Rask is portrayed as having been denied little in life but “a heroic rise.” Rask, as is widely known among Bonds’ contemporary readership, is a thinly veiled surrogate for Andrew, whose furiously counterposed autobiography-in-progress comes second, drafted with the aid of ghostwriter Ida Partenza, whose own memoir of writing said biography comprises the third section—all to be followed, finally, by Mildred’s journal entries, compiled in the years of the couple’s ascendance.
If sorting out exactly how the Bevels made their money sounds difficult, well, that’s the point. Above all else, Trust emphasizes the truth’s evasive nature and, moreover, its malleability—a condition the novel’s moneyed frankly exploit. “My job is about being right,” Andrew at one point asserts, “Always. If I’m ever wrong, I must make use of all my means and resources to bend and align reality according to my mistake so that it ceases to be a mistake” (266). In like fashion—and frustrated with his own fictionalization as he may be—Andrew serves as an apt cipher for the American megalomaniac, past or present, fictional or nonfictional, the sort of Trump-Kissinger-Madoff- and also Gatsby-eque individual with the resources and the delusion and/or brazen dishonesty necessary to peddle misinformation to the masses.
But Diaz does more than underscore the timeless advice that money enables a shaky relationship with the truth, going on to draw a more pointed connection between money and his own chosen medium: fiction. Or so it seems at first. “What is money?” Bevel contends, “Commodities in a purely fantastical form…[and] if money is fiction, finance capital is the fiction of a fiction.” (216). In other words, as money is a medium of exchange for goods and services, investments—or, the exchange of money for the promise of future money, or “return on one’s investment”—are a medium of exchange for a medium of exchange—a fiction of a fiction.
What are the implications of this critical comparison for the work of fiction that is Trust? By way of response, the novel makes an important distinction between what we might call archetypal fiction and these “fictions of fictions,” or “[k]itsch… A copy that’s so proud of how close it comes to the original that it believes there’s more worth in this closeness than in originality itself…prizing imitation over archetype” (370). If archetype, like prototype, refers to an “original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations,” and in art refer to the shared or universal traits that permit collective understanding of a work, kitsch is more difficult to define not least because its critics tend to consider it malicious by definition. Consider Hermann Broch’s definition, that kitsch represents a “confusion of the aesthetic and ethical principles” or its more incisive echo in Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel: “Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling.”
Others defend kitsch on democratic grounds. As encapsulated by Thomas Kulka, in Kitsch and Art, “If works of art were judged… according to how many people like them—kitsch would easily defeat all its competitors.” After all, kitsch’s inherent populism is why it is so familiar to so many of us, if not as a concept then as the tacky Eiffel tower keychain, the garish dashboard hula dancer, the Louis Lamour western and the copies it spawned, and also the St. Francis figurines and wall-hanging portraits of Jesus and Mary—the latter capturing the complexity of criticizing kitsch offhandedly. As Ed Simon writes in “In Defense of Kitsch,”
Aesthetic attacks on kitsch are not just statements against Catholic theology (implicit or explicit, conscious or unconscious), but also, in some sense, attacks on Catholic believers themselves. If the discourses of discernment that mock, belittle, and judge kitsch can be seen as denigrating certain aspects of Catholic theology, they must also be read alongside histories of racial and ethnic marginalization. So often, the examples that are given of kitsch, from the “Mary on the Half-Shell” displays popular in northeast American working-class neighborhoods, to reproductions of fine art masterpieces, from the Pietà to The Last Supper, are clearly Catholic…Implicit in such attacks are beliefs that these works lack the refined taste or simplicity of a Shaker chair, that they’re just too ethnic. Such critiques can be seen as not just anti-Catholic, but in some sense anti-Irish, anti-Italian, anti-Hispanic, and so on…
Persuasive as Simon’s argument may be, I find it difficult to separate the extent to which my grandmother’s gaudy, wall-hanging portrait of Jesus—the forthright and remarkably gleeful disposal of which would earn my father a scolding upon her death—represented an essential cog in the greater mechanics of her identity, or even her Catholicism, and not simply the Vatican’s best efforts in adorning its followers’ homes with iconography announcing no more than devotion to a single story. Could my grandmother not have hung better, more provocative artwork and continued to thrive in the way that she did, brushing passed them on her way to more pressing business? Is it not also worth noting here that kitsch retains a unique foothold in what might as well be the Amazon.com of religious monopolies?
More compelling may be the perspective of C.E. Emmer, who describes kitsch as “a part of a general human defense strategy, a healing process, an expression of the psyche’s own strength.” In Emmer’s view, kitsch arises as a means to cope with modernity’s expanding demands, such as “encounters with change, discontinuity, instability, complexity, breaks with tradition…confinement.” The idea that kitsch provides a means to cope with confinement, in particular, charts a course toward resolving some of Trust’s central questions. Confinement, after all, has long been a recognized feature of fame and fortune—at least and certainly not only in the U.S. In life, wall street execs, athletes, and pop stars decry loneliness atop the social order. In literature, Gatsby longs for Daisy Buchanan amid the white noise of his unruly parties. As a character in Trust puts it, “one can measure the reach of someone’s influence by the thickness of the hush enveloping them.” And certainly, the Bevels are each enveloped by the hush their accomplishments.
But as a casual witness to history might point out, the hush of accomplishment doesn’t envelop women the way it does men, nor does fortune convey power equally. As the novel catalogues the ways Andrew attempts to “bend and align reality,” Mildred’s reality is bent for her as she remains conspicuously offstage. Indeed, scant evidence of Mildred’s interior self remains sequestered in one of the book’s rare narratives notably not intended for an audience. An argument can be made for Andrew’s confinement, too. Because while he certainly isn’t erased, his success in manufacturing a false image of himself has had its intended consequence: a true narrative account of his life is almost entirely obscured. He has effectively become kitsch-incarnate—the truest depiction of himself persisting only in the stories he works hardest to suppress.
It’s quite sad, really. Harkening back to ill-fated Gatsby, Bevel desires not even the green light, already representative of Daisy—or love, or “The American Dream”—but the green light of a green light, the “fiction of a fiction,” the dream of buying and putting up for resale someone else’s prepackaged dream. For all his supposed grandiosity, Andrew Bevel’s assumed identity, like many a millionaire despot, is ultimately a counterfeit of a check that went bad a long time ago, but that keeps getting accepted on the basis of—what else but—misplaced trust.
More to the point, is Trust trustworthy? Is it art or kitsch? Diaz encourages readers to answer that question for themselves. Indisputably, though, he also lends advice in the manner of a dependable friend: cogently, assuredly, compassionately, and while cautioning one ought to take everything with a grain of salt, consider multiple perspectives, be careful—even of me.
Geist and Zeitgeist: Six Essays by Hermann Broch. Catapult (2003) ISBN: 978-1-582-43168-0
Hermann Broch; ed. John Graves.
“In Defense of Kitsch.” JSTOR Daily. July 29, 2020. https://daily.jstor.org/in-defense-of-kitsch/
“Kitsch Against Modernity.” Art Criticism Vol. 13, No. 1 (1998), pp. 53-80
“The Flower and the Breaking Wheel: Burkean Beauty and Political Kitsch”
International Journal of the Arts in Society Vol. 2, No. 1 (2007) pp. 153-164
Kitsch and Art. Penn State University Press (1994) ISBN: 978-0-271-01594-1
The Art of the Novel. Harpperen (1986) ISBN: 978-0-060-97204-2