Everything you think you know is wrong. Trust by Hernan Diaz

I started this book with no preconceptions. It was just the next book on the Camp TOB reading list. I ended with a new favorite book–one that I could see rereading someday which I don’t say very often.

The story concerns a wealthy man who becomes even more wealthy through inventive financial creativity. Along the way, he marries a woman intent on producing an heir. He comes to love her deeply by the time she dies as the result of an experimental technique intended to cure her extreme depression.

At least that’s what the first part is about.

I loved it, this first section of Trust a novel within the novel called Bonds. However, while I enjoyed the story, what stuck out for me was the language. Trust/Bonds has some of the most advanced vocabulary I’ve even encountered in a contemporary novel. What is Diaz doing here? I kept wondering. Why this vocabulary? Why this arch, almost stilted writing style? Won’t this put off many of the readers at Camp TOB?

But I loved it.

Eventually I figured out that this first part is a novel within the novel–Bonds by Harold Vanner. Had this been the entire book, I would still sing its praises. In my opinion, this section succeeds as an authentic early 20th century American novel. The writing style certainly seemed to fit. Here’s a sample paragraph from the later part of the story. Benjamin Rask, the hero of the novel, has sent his with Helen to a sanitarium in Switzerland, the same one her father ended up in before he disappeared forever.

Helen seemed calmer in German. Although she spoke it with remarkable ease, she also had vast lacunae, as is usually the case with those who have somewhat haphazardly taught themselves a language. Because she often had to pause and find circumlocutions to bypass grammatical voids and lexical gaps, she gave the impression of having slowed down, of having mastered, in some measure, her anxiety. But her German, like all her foreign languages, had come from unusual sources, detached from everyday speech–outmoded books and the affected chatter of dispossessed aristocrats and drawing room diplomats. This gave her words a baroque, theatrical quality that, to some extent, undid the illusion of sanity created by her slower pace, because, despite her innate elegance, she could sound like a bad actress in too much makeup.

The effect of reading 120 pages of this prose made me constantly aware that I was reading. I did get as lost in the story as I like to get, but I was always actively reading a book, concentrating on the words themselves. What does lacunae mean in the above paragraph? I have to slow down and really read a sentence with five commas like the last one above. This author, Harold Vanner, is showing off. He is not just telling a story he is writing. I was not just hearing a tale told, I was reading. His main character even speaks in a language she learned from reading outdated books. That’s what lacunae means, or can mean. I looked it up. The second definition is “a missing portion in a book or manuscript.”

Then the novel with a novel has its tragic end and part two throws the whole thing for a loop.

So does part three and part four.

Each is a different take on this opening story. Part two is an extensive outline for an autobiography. It soon becomes clear that this is possibly the source material for Vanner’s novel Bonds, but it’s a very different story from the one Harold Vannar told. In part three we learn that this outline is the story of Andrew Bevel, who feels greatly offended by Vanners version of his life. He wants to write an autobiography to correct this, largely because, he says, Vanner did his wife a great injustice. While she did die in a Swiss sanitarium just before World War II, she died of cancer. In part four, we learn that nearly everyone has been wrong about everything. This this entire project is really the story of Helen/Mildred the great man’s wife. That the whole project is an attempt to fill in the lacunae of her life.

I loved it.

I also loved that the narrator of the third part, loved Harold Vanner’s novel for the same reasons I did. Here is her description of his Bonds.

As I read on, however, the prose itself rather than the content became the center of my attention. It was unlike the books they had made me read at school and had nothing to do with the mysteries I used to check out of the library. Later when I finally went to college, I would be able to trace Vanner’s literary influences and consider his novel from a formal point of view (even if he was never assigned reading for any of the courses I took, since his work was out of print and already quite unavailable). Yet back then I had never experienced anything like that language. And it spoke to me. It was my first time reading something that existed in a vague space between the intellectual and the emotional. Since that moment I have identified that ambiguous territory as the exclusive domain of literature. I also understood at some point that his ambiguity could only work in conjunction with extreme discipline–the calm precision of Vanner’s sentences, his unfussy vocabulary, his reluctance to deploy the rhetorical devices we identify with “artistic prose” while still retained a distinctive style. Lucidity he seems to suggest, is the best hiding place for deeper meaning–much like a transparent thing staked in between others. My literary taste has changed since then, and Bonds has been displaced by other books. But Vanner gave me my first glimpse of that elusive region between reason and feeling and made me want to chart it in my own writing.

At this point in Trust, I had read a novel I greatly admired, read the distanct source material for that novel, and was now reading a nearly pitch perfect description of what I admired in the novel.

A few pages later there was an accurate description of the one nagging issue I was having with both Bonds and Trust so far in my reading, that they both ignore the role slavery paid in the growth of wealth in America. Was Diaz reading my mind? Was I reading his?

Though this new blog advertises the spoilers it contains, I’ll leave the last part alone here except to say that it deepens both our understanding of the story and our essential critique of it. One hint, though, it’s all about the lacunae.