How do we know if what we hear is the truth?
In his 2023 novel "Trust," author Hernan Diaz explores this question by telling the same story from four different perspectives. On one level, it is about the ways that the powerful can manipulate money and markets. On a higher level, it is about how much we can rely on others to tell the truth.
"Trust" tells the story of Andrew Vellar and his wife Mildred. Andrew was a wealthy American businessman who became the richest man in the world - first by investing in the stock market during the economic boom of the 1920s; then by selling short just prior to the crash of 1929. Mildred was a quiet patron of the arts who focused on philanthropy. Andrew and Mildred possessed reserved personalities and their marriage was civil, but not passionate. The couple bore no children before Mildred died at a sanitarium in Switzerland. Everyone appears to agree on these facts. But many other "facts" are skewed, omitted, or falsified in the various versions.
The book begins with a novel by Harold Vanner about the life of Andrew and Mildred. He changes their names, but their identities are apparent to anyone who reads the newspapers. This telling suggests that Andrew is the cause of both the 1929 stock market crash and the death of Mildred, who lost her mind before she died.
Next, we read Andrew's unfinished autobiography, in which he persuades the reader that his financial dealings brought about the prosperity of the 1920s and softened the Depression following the 1929 crash. This version contradicts Vanner's tale but would please Ayn Rand.
Section three is told from the perspective of Ida Partenza, the ghostwriter who assisted Andrew with his autobiography. She points out the tycoon's desire to present a positive image of himself and his willingness to make up stories that support his views.
Finally, we read some of Mildred's journals, written during the final months of her life. The writing is clear, suggesting she never lost her mind; and she reveals that she suggested many of Andrew's investment strategies.
Slowly, Diaz peels away layers of the truth. But it is never clear what are facts and what is perception. Each narrator has their own biases. Vanner wants to sell books; Andrew hopes to clear his name; and Partenza is influenced by her upbringing (her father was an anarchist and a Marxist). Mildred's writing seems the most plausible, but we cannot know for sure if she is also an unreliable narrator. Each section calls into doubt the preceding chapter.
As consumers of media, we face the same dilemma. Different media outlets may report the same incident differently - sometimes by adding fabrications or editorial interpretations and sometimes by omitting relevant facts. All we can do is consider the source of the information and try to understand the biases of that source.
"Trust" is one story with four points of view, four voices, and four genres. The inconsistencies remind us that we are sometimes wise to have trust issues.