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Hernan Diaz's anticipated novel 'Trust' probes the illusion of money — and the truth

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hernan Diaz's new novel "Trust" may move you to look differently at, say, a $5 bill. Why are we so confident it can buy a cup of coffee and a muffin? Because it has a story - a narrative, you might say - that money can buy what we need and perhaps what we want and eventually what we may dream about. But what is money, really? "Trust" is a book spun from four narratives - a novel wrought from the tale of the life of Andrew Bevel, a financial baron during the 1929 stock market crash, then his attempt to write his own story, then his secretary's memoir, and finally, the journal left by his deceased wife, Mildred. Let's ask the novelist to read from the secretary's memoir when she applies for her job.

HERNAN DIAZ: (Reading) Why work at a place that makes one thing when I could work at a company that makes all things? Because that's what money is - all things. Or at least it can become all things. It's the universal commodity by which we measure all other commodities. And if money is the God among commodities, this - with my upturned palm, I drew an arc that encompassed the office and suggested the building beyond it is its high temple.

SIMON: Hernan Diaz joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

DIAZ: Thank you for having me - an enormous pleasure.

SIMON: What do the four narratives help us see that, let's say, the omniscient voice that includes four viewpoints wouldn't?

DIAZ: Well, the novel is concerned, to a large extent, with the distinction between history and fiction. The idea was to present a novel within the novel, a historical document, a memoir and a personal journal, and recruit the reader as a textual detective of sorts, have them ask themselves how reality itself may be the effect of a textual construction, may be the effect of different narratives.

SIMON: Bevel is not flattered to see his life become the stuff of fiction and a novel written by a man named Harold Vanner any more than William Randolph Hearst liked "Citizen Kane"...

DIAZ: Right.

SIMON: ...The Orson Welles film. But in a sense, can you understand that?

DIAZ: I can understand that, and I tried to be very sympathetic to this character. I tried at all times to avoid creating a straw man. I tried to give him humanity. I tried to give him certain dignity, despite his actions being so despicable. And I think this comes to light in his private life, in his marriage, because this is not just a sweeping picture of American politics or American finance at the time. It is also very, very much a story about intimacy, a story about marriage with his wife, who is, I would say, the central character of this book.

SIMON: And let us talk, then, about Mildred, who dies young and beloved. Did she win a lottery in life to become part of such wealth and be a patron of the arts and a philanthropist, or was she squelched somehow?

DIAZ: Hmm. Well, look; I find reading about wealth in America - both in history and in fiction - women have been completely and utterly erased from those narratives. If they appear in narratives of wealth, it is with mostly three preassigned roles - either as wives, as secretaries, or as victims. And I was interested in taking all these three positions - these stereotypical positions - and subverting them.

SIMON: Yes. I made a note of something she writes. She says, I discovered a deep well of ambition within. From it, I extracted a dark fuel. Oh, my word. Those are chilling words.

DIAZ: Well, I wanted to make sure that at no point Mildred was not a victim, was not a sacrificial lamb. And I think the passage that you just quoted shows her agency. And with agency comes responsibility, mistake or the possibility of making mistakes. And I wanted to give her that as well.

SIMON: So many characters believe in a market that, in, time sets values - and I mean it in both senses, in all senses - that sets values aright. Not just Bevel, the financial baron, but, in fact, his secretary's father is an anarchist. And he, in a way, believes in a marketplace of ideas, that the world will eventually cast off capitalism. In a sense, do novelists have to trust in that, too, that people will understand and find what they have to say?

DIAZ: I'm always a little terrified to assign intention to readers, and I have to leave this open to be received as it may. And I think actually, now that you mentioned this, Scott, the book is about this. The book is, to an enormous extent, about this man who's trying to control a narrative. And this is something that I found about wealth in general and wealth in America in particular. Great fortunes have the ability to distort and warp the reality around themselves. Furthermore, they have the power to align, to bend reality according to their own designs. I think, in fact, the greatest luxury good today out there is not, you know, mansions or yachts. It is reality itself.

SIMON: I mean, this week in particular, I'm sure it's occurred to you, the richest people in the world - they all happen to be men, by the way - Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos - all own major media platforms.

DIAZ: Of course, there was an intimate and immediate conversation between the book as I was writing it and reality as it unfolded on the newspapers. And I think those men - let's again use that word with great deliberation - that you mentioned are prime examples of this impulse of bending and aligning reality around a great fortune. And I think we could also tentatively define power as that ability to impose reality onto others.

SIMON: Hernan Diaz - his new novel, "Trust." Thank you so much for being with us.

DIAZ: Thank you, Scott - a pleasure and a great honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.