Hernán Díaz, In the Distance (2017) and Trust (2022)
Hernán Díaz’s latest novel, Trust, is the May selection for the NYPL/WNYC Virtual Book Club, which aims to get New Yorkers reading (and, obviously, discussing) new books. I heard an interview with the author, and Trust‘s structure (4 novellas within one novel, a sort of Rashomon in book form) intrigued me. The NYPL has multiple copies available, so there was no wait to check it out, download it, and start reading.
As soon as I finished it, I moved on to Díaz’s earlier novel, In the Distance, which was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize.
Within a week, I had finished both. Yes, they’re that good. Incredible stories and beautiful writing. Who could ask for more?
Trust is the story of a Gilded Age financier and his wife, told and retold through the 4 novellas. Each version is different enough to make you doubt the earlier narrator/s, so each version raises questions about trust. How do the characters in this novel learn to trust one another? Should they? Whose purposes are served by each of the varying narratives? Do we all tell our own stories as a means to justify questionable behavior?
Underneath the obvious trust issues are others, about the sources of vast wealth (trace any wealth to its origins, and you’ll find theft and enslavement, rapine and pillage, human trafficking and environmental destruction), and how it’s so easy to hide this, to lie to ourselves, as we (and here I mean the ‘wealthy’, which I’m not, but I’m close enough) go about our lives in our bubbles within only slightly larger other bubbles.
The most admirable character in Trust is the anarchist, a printer who, as the Great Depression inflicts misery throughout the land, interrupts his usual anti-capitalist lectures to his daughter, to scoff at the lazy ‘modern’ printers who have never handled metal type and composing sticks.
In the Distance, Díaz’s first novel, is his version of the Great American Western. And it is brutal. Set in (approximately, for Díaz provides no exact dates) the 1840s to 1870s, the action ranges across the western side of the country, from San Francisco to the Great Plains and back, encompassing salt flats, desert, mountains, canyons, and forests. Díaz makes oblique references to the California gold rush, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Civil War, but for the most part his hero, Håkan Söderström, a Swedish immigrant, wanders a seemingly empty land that rockets between hell and paradise and back again each time he meets other people.
Håkan and his brother, both barely old enough to travel alone, must emigrate to America, but at the wharf in Sweden, they’re separated, and Håkan lands in San Francisco instead of New York. Years and years of lonely wandering follow, filled with violence, kindness, beauty and horror for Håkan. Each encounter with others ends in tragedy, usually violent, bringing physical and mental anguish to Håkan and killing others; I came to find relief in the months and years when he was on his own, wandering, or holed up in a canyon or cave. Meanwhile, his reputation as a violent and unstoppable monster grows, and he’s eventually known throughout the West as the Hawk. His size (he’s abnormally tall and strong), red hair, and outfit (hand-sewn cloak that includes a cougar’s skin) make him immediately recognizable and thus a threat whenever he’s seen.
Díaz is quoted in an interview for The New York Times, reacting to his own amazement about how there are plenty of popular novels in the Western genre (Zane Grey) and plenty of anti-Western novels (Larry McMurtry), but no literary Western novels:
“It’s weird,” he said. Weird that the western novel was so underachieving, given how tightly the genre embraces America’s most potent myths about itself. Westerns, he said, glamorize “the worst aspects of the imperial drive of the United States” — brutality against nature, genocidal racism, “the whole macho thing, the place of women, the frivolous violence, it goes on.”Lawrence Downes, “A Debut Novel. A Tiny Press. A Pulitzer Finalist.” The New York Times (May 2, 2018).
So, if you’re looking for something different, something challenging, perhaps something to keep you awake at night, either of these books will do.