Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Hernan Diaz InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Morgan Talty’s Night of the Living Rez; a debut collection of stories that Brandon Hobson calls “beautifully crafted, raw and intimate.” Set in a Native community in Maine, Night of the Living Rez is about what it means to be Penobscot in the twenty-first century and what it means to live, to survive, and to persevere after tragedy. In twelve striking, luminescent stories, Talty breathes life into tales of family and a community as they struggle with a painful past and an uncertain future. Says Laura van den Berg, “I loved these sharply atmospheric, daring, and intensely moving stories, each one dense with peril and tenderness. Morgan Talty is a thrilling new talent.” Night of the Living Rez is out on July 5th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Today’s guest, Hernan Diaz, in talking about his new book Trust, has sometimes called the entire book a spoiler, which in some ways is true. But reviewers and Hernan himself seem to have come to a similar strategy with regards to what to mention or not to mention when talking about it. I wanted to speak to that for a moment before today’s conversation and say that I too, follow these conventions that have been set up; conventions that allow a discourse about Trust and yet preserve the pleasures of discovery. I never go farther than what is commonly out there, and for the most part, speak of less than you’d regularly find reading about the book. That said, in the last 25 minutes, we dwell on an aspect of the book that while frequently mentioned elsewhere, if you yourself are particularly concerned about spoilers, you could listen to the vast majority of this conversation, one that is largely about form and about voice, and save the last 25 minutes until after you read the book. We talk about form and voice because in a strange way, form and voice are so important to this book that they are almost characters unto themselves. Certainly, they are each very present forces that are continually shaping and reshaping, building up and tearing down the story you were reading. While it sometimes might seem like we aren’t talking about the book but circling it, we are somewhat paradoxically doing both. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, and perhaps even past conversations with everyone from Jenny Erpenbeck and Alejandro Zambra, to Teju Cole, and Natalie Diaz, consider joining the Between The Covers community by becoming a listener-supporter. Every listener gets a resource-rich email with each episode and can join the ongoing brainstorm of which writers to invite into the future, and there are a ton of other things available to choose from: from access to the bonus audio with readings and sometimes even craft talks or literary analysis and long-form conversations with translators, to various collectibles from everyone from Ursula K. Le Guin to Nikky Finney, you can check it all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Hernan Diaz.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, the novelist writer Hernan Diaz, was born in Argentina but grew up in Sweden, speaking Swedish out in the world until his family moved back to Argentina again at the age of nine. Diaz pursued a bachelor’s of arts in literature at the University of Buenos Aires, moved to London in his 20s, and went to King’s College there for his master’s degree, and then finally moved to New York, which he has called home for over 20 years, and where he pursued a doctorate in philosophy from New York University, taught at State University of New York, and where he is now associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University and managing editor of Revista Hispánica Moderna, a semi-annual peer-reviewed journal devoted to research in Hispanic literature and cultural studies. In 2012, he published the book Borges, Between History and Eternity that explores among other things the very different way Borges is seen and situated within Latin America versus the rest of the world, how the Borges engaged with literary history and the Borges abstracted from history the conceptual and universal Borges of metaphysical puzzles can each be found in the opposite. But Hernan Diaz first became well known for his debut novel despite its humble origins in the slush pile at Coffee House Press. This book In the Distance received starred reviews from Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, had its praises sung by everyone from Roxane Gay to Lauren Groff, was long listed for the International Dublin Literary Award, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the winner of the Saroyan International Prize and the Cabell Award for Best First Novel, and it was picked as a best book of 2017 by Feminist Press, and one of the 20 best novels of the decade by Lithub. Diaz went on to win a Whiting Award in 2019 and the Guggenheim in 2022. In the Whiting Awards Citation they say, “Hernan Diaz explores two kinds of wilderness: the immensely taxing newness of the American West and the still-forming interiority of Håkan, a Swedish immigrant desperate to find a way back home. It’s the second that makes the first feel new. He does this in language that can be plainspoken and wildly, even cosmically, evocative. Håkan’s epic journey reminds us how the self is often hammered into existence by pain and longing. In the end the reader understands the country’s twin potential for horror and hope.” It’s with no small amount of anticipation that we’ve awaited Hernan Diaz’s follow-up to this tremendous entry into the world of novel writing. Despite the high expectations, he has dazzled us once again with a book entitled Trust; that like his last novel engages with the mythology of America, this time, not that of the American frontier but of American finance. But unlike his last book, this polyvocal book, you could say, is a master class in voice as well as being a formal and narrative puzzle; one that enlists the reader as a sort of textual detective. With starred reviews from BookPage, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist, the latter says in its review, “For all its elegant complexity and brilliant construction, Diaz’s novel is compulsively readable, and despite taking place in the early 1900s, the plot reads like an indictment of the start of the twenty-first century with its obsession with obscure financial instruments and unhinged capital accumulation. A captivating tour de force that will astound readers with its formal invention and contemporary relevance.” Rachel Kushner adds, “Trust glints with wonder and knowledge and mystery. Its plotlines are as etched and surreal as Art Deco geometry, while inside that architecture are people who feel appallingly real. This novel is very classical and very original: Balzac would be proud, but so would Borges.” Finally, Maureen Corrigan for NPR says, “Literary fiction…is a fantastic commodity in which our best writers become criminals of the imagination, stealing our attention and our very desires. Diaz makes an artistic fortune in Trust. And we readers make out like bandits, too.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Hernan Diaz.
Hernan Diaz: Hi, David. It’s such a pleasure to be here and thank you for that generous introduction. It was a beautiful and humbling essay almost. Thank you.
DN: [laughs] Well, I think there are many ways we could connect your last book In the Distance, a western or anti-western, and your latest book about capital, and the American mythology around it, but it feels like most people seem to be talking about the ways they’re different. I do think the reading experience, what you ask of the reader, and the reader’s relationship to the book as a book is very different. I wanted to start here with that difference and see whether there is a relationship between subject and form, if something about switching from the American frontier to a question of the accumulation of capital prompts you to move from a book told from one point of view to a book that is not only polyvocal but one that is a nested puzzle of sorts. Talk to us about money; how money has or hasn’t shaped the form of the book Trust.
HD: Starting with the beginning of your question about the differences, the formal differences between these two books, for me each project begins with an emotional texture that is almost abstract. It’s vaporous and misty and not cohesive at all. It’s just that, it’s a feeling. There’s no other word for it. With In the Distance, it was a combination of solitude and disorientation. Later on, this all coalesced into the narrative that became the book and it turned out that this radical solitude is essential also to a certain version of the American dream; one that presents the hero as an Adam-like figure that is almost beginning history anew. Individualism, I think, it would become a common denominator also with Trust but understood in a very different way, but this glorification of the individual I find to be very American. Of course, In the Distance was a critique of that and hopefully subverted it in productive ways. But now speaking directly to form, I was very interested in hovering very closely around this body and this consciousness that is the protagonist. I was striving to create a sense of almost claustrophobia and suffocation that would be dissonant with the vastness and the openness of the landscape in which the protagonist finds himself. I was very interested in this friction between an almost solipsistic confinement and then this vast sublime expansion of the American territory. That was a formal drive for the book, and reading it, you may also see how the book pendulates, oscillates between this very suffocating introspection and then the more expensive passages. That is part of the economy of the book, to start introducing that term. Trust, likewise, began with a feeling. I knew I wanted to write about wealth because it’s such a constitutive part of the American imagination. I didn’t know how to do it. I also was interested in the emotional texture of what I imagined came with extreme wealth. I should make a footnote here and say I’m not just talking about a privileged man here or a privileged family, I’m talking about the richest man in America and therefore probably the richest man in the world. This is the kind of excess that I was interested in imagining. Of course, I have no direct access to this experience. The emotional texture that I was referring to, not unlike In the Distance come to think of it, was the sense of extreme confinement and removal that I imagine must come with that fortune on the one hand, and on the other hand, the total and absolute reach that comes with wealth. This opposition was very productive to me. Then I started thinking about money and reading about money. As you pointed out in your generous introduction, I have a background in academia, in theory, and in philosophy so I started thinking about this almost in theoretical terms. The first thing which almost threw me off the whole project was that I realized that money and a fortune is made up of many mediations. There’s nothing monolithic about it. It’s the multitude of laboring people that goes into it, a number of institutions, a number of social contracts and different forms of—I’m not trying to be a punster here—but different forms of trust too, of confidence that go into a fortune. It became very clear to me that it couldn’t be narrated in the same way as In the Distance which was this very focused-centered point of view. It had to contain a modest multitude. There had to be a multiplicity here. Also, because in the myths that go into narrating the origin stories of—every great fortune is ill-begotten, there’s no doubt in my mind about that, every fortune is criminal, therefore, every fortune needs to surround itself by this legitimizing narrative and here’s where voice comes in. I thought I wanted to play with the expectations that come with these very established voices that provide legitimacy to a fortune and that cleanse or clean its foundational myths.
DN: What you hinted at here, and you’ve talked about elsewhere, you’re attracted to what you call highly fossilized narratives and a desire to engage with fossilized narratives and subvert them. Both of these books are looking at the stories that America tells about itself. But it seems contrary to your debut where there are innumerable stories told about the west and the frontier, there’s just a vast number of narratives about the west in all sorts of art forms and American expansion. You said that what piqued your interest about Trust was actually the absence of stories about capital, and I was hoping you could talk about that because I can think of a lot of books about class, about wealth, about poverty, but you’re talking about something different I think. I would be interested to hear about this absence you’re seeing; why story isn’t being made. You’ve mentioned that the industrialists themselves might be making stories, but why books aren’t making stories the way they do in westerns and anti-westerns?
HD: I also saw a void in the western as a genre too. I think, again, maybe there is a common denominator here. We think there are a lot of stories about the west. We think there are, but can you name off the top of your head five relevant western novels before the 50s? It’s hard. It’s really hard. We think of film, of course, which is immensely important, but even the gestation of the western as a genre is extremely late, it starts in 1902 or 1903 with The Virginian by Owen Wister, that is the acknowledged starting point. Think of 1903, the Civil War is over, the conquest of the west itself is over, native peoples have been decimated thoroughly, extensive agriculture has been introduced, the landscape has been effectively tamed, it’s over in short. It’s over. It’s only then when the western is properly codified and structured as a genre. This to me is already very interesting. Then you have the anti-westerns, but the novels against which those anti-westerns are written are not really relevant, they’re not part of the conversation. It was only last year, or the year before last actually, that the Library of America, this venerable collection that canonizes different American authors, it was only two years ago that they came out with The Western collection. It ultimately doesn’t matter but I think it’s an eloquent example of what I’m trying to say. It seems that only by adopting the prefix anti, by negating itself that the western can become legit and become part of the “highbrow” conversation. This to me is an interesting phenomenon in itself because we would expect that the western would be the American national genre, and it just simply isn’t, not in literature at all. With money, there is something similar. Just as the western is there to glamorize some of the darkest aspects of American history including genocide, one would also think that since money occupies this almost transcendental place in American culture that there would be a vast canon, a vast corpus of literature fiction that revolves around money and money-making. Again, we would all be hard-pressed to come up with that list. We would have to rack our brains and maybe make some concessions. It’s not immediately obvious and apparent what those books are. I found very few that to me are satisfactory. As you said on the other hand, of course, American literature has been obsessed with class and the corseted manners that come with it; we have even almost a genre about the novel of manners and that’s very important in American literary history. There is also a very rich, let’s call it American social realism, and I would group the disparate authors such as Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, which deal with the flip side of the narratives of excess, the mystery brought about by inequality. Then there’s also I would say a third set of novels that deal with conspicuous consumption, let’s call it that to quote Veblen. They present themselves as critiques of this world of excess but I feel all of them, or most of these books, end up bedazzled by the very thing that they set out to critique. I think there’s a whole arc that goes maybe from Scott Fitzgerald to Bret Easton Ellis for example. Everyone in between but that’s almost like the full century right there. In none of these three groups that I just made up as I went, in none of these groups there are novels that are about money making. They all deal with the effects of money with the symptoms of affluence or with the tragedy of exploitation, but money is never made in these novels, money is already there. This is a massive distinction. I wanted to write a novel about money making and how, once that astronomical amount of money is made, how its density, how its mass affects the reality around it. This became the project.
DN: I love this distinction, this idea that money is just around and all these novels about wealth and the questions that raises, like what won’t be spoken about and why and what culture is created in order to preserve a silence around how the money arrives. As maybe one last moment of staying with your two books together, I wonder if this could be a spectral connection between the two books that the accumulation of wealth by the wealthy people in Trust is predicated on, as you’ve just mentioned, the erasure and the hiding of labor, whether that labor be literal slavery, wage slavery, or the exploitation of the working poor in some fashion. But it is also very much connected, I would imagine, to the conquest and the settlement of the west; stolen land, resource extraction, and then the accumulation of wealth in centers of commerce where the people who have it then live within a culture that doesn’t just erase the means but disdains work and disdains the notion of labor, so you don’t speak about it because it’s gauche on aesthetic terms, but maybe it isn’t a coincidence that in your first book that the immigrant is walking west to east in your anti-western, that he’s walking toward New York quite visibly but also that the west perhaps is also possibly an unspoken ghost that’s haunting the New York of Trust, and I wondered if that’s a too much of a stretch to suggest that there’s a western ghost unspoken in the latest book of commerce in America’s biggest city.
HD: I don’t think it’s a stretch at all. I didn’t set out to write a book that would be an ideological continuation at all, that’s not the way I work. It just really happened and maybe it speaks to hidden interests that are a form of continuum in my mind but it wasn’t intentional. I have very little to add to what you said because I think it’s all correct and I agree. I think, although romanticized, the push west was not just an adventure, it was an extractivist endeavor that utterly commodified nature and brutalized it in order specifically to fuel the machinery of capital that had started with the Industrial Revolution. That’s what it was. Gold is slightly a different story because gold is such a weird commodity and I think it’s above my pay grade to really discuss the specificity of gold because it’s really super complex and its entanglement with monetary policy in the United States is fascinating. I would leave gold slightly aside for a moment, but the rest, from water to pastures, to other minerals, to human labor, that was the purpose of the push to the west absolutely, it wasn’t out of some curiosity or it wasn’t well intended naturalists and poets who went out there, it was all about money obviously. Now we see this machinery running full steam ahead in Trust. In that regard, there is without a question a continuity between those two things. I think labor in both of those cases has been, you used the word gauche which I think is amazing in this context because also when I said that money is there, it’s never made in most of American literature, I think it has to do with almost like a puritanical prudishness which is very strange because on the one hand, there is this Calvinistic sense that a material fulfillment in this world is a sign of your redemption in the next one, so there is that which gives wealth, this literally transcendental dimension, but at the same time, it’s just not something that’s talked about because yes, because it’s almost impolite so there is a priggishness there around it as well. We see this going back to manners, since we were talking about priggishness, you see this very clearly in Edith Wharton and also in Henry James. There really isn’t labor for the most part. We could think of a few exceptions in some of their stories, artists are one of those exceptions, there are a lot of working artists in their stories, but for the most part, yeah, money is simply not talked about and Wharton, in her autobiography A Backward Glance, says this in so many words, in her set, to use a word from the time, in her set in her world, you just don’t work, it’s frowned upon. You certainly also, by the way, even more so if you’re a woman, you don’t make art, you don’t write, she was discouraged from writing.
DN: Eventually, I want to make an argument that the book isn’t about money at all, that it could have been set in a very different climate, one without money and many of its central animating questions could still exist but I’m not ready to make the argument yet. But first I want to talk about the non-financial meaning of the title Trust. When people think of the term today financially, they probably think of putting money in a trust or a trust fund, but in the context of your book—which does span a century from 1880 to the 1980s but whose lifeblood is the 20s and 30s—in that context, the trust would be a monopoly and that we might have anti-trust laws, which we used to have, which would break up companies to restore competition. But let’s talk about trust in the emotional sense, and how you call into question the contract between the reader and the writer, the same contract most writers try to foster and nurture.
HD: [laughter] That was a good ending to that setup. You’re basically calling me a con man in a very elegant way. [laughter]
DN: Not really. Most of my favorite books actually do what you do. I’ll say one thing before you answer this that I really love and I just want to stress this because we’re going to talk a lot about form. I think of your book, when I think of Alice Monroe or Philip Roth, not that your writing is anything like either one of them, but they’re rarely ever considered experimental writers but they’re wildly experimental writers. I think part of the reason why we don’t think of them as experimental writers is because they’re also really immersive writers, you go inside of their books and so you might not be entirely aware when Monroe does this crazy thing with time or the entire story’s backstory, all these violations of the typical rules. But I feel like reading your book, even though we’re going to go in the structure of it, that each of the four sections is super immersive on its own. Even though we’re going to talk about the strange ways they’re related to each other, you could read Trust as an enjoyable ride without being the textual detective that you suggest you could be if you wanted to. I love that sweet spot personally where I feel like the reading experience is very inviting, and at the same time, you’re rewarded if you’re willing to go farther than just the reading of it.
HD: That’s great. There’s so many things to address in what you just said. I don’t think it’s a question, I think it’s a great intervention with which I fully agree. As you were talking about experimental fiction that we don’t realize is experimental—I can think of other authors who I would put in that category too which now I love, I hadn’t thought of it—and this is totally off the cuff, I would say we don’t think of them as experimental because the experiment has succeeded. [laughs] A lot of the experimental fiction that I love that is ostensibly experimental is because the experiment is still, in a way, in progress. That’s the nature of experimentation. Experimentation is based on repetition. It’s the term that I quibble with in fiction because experimental that is, that adjective, I take issue with it. Although, again, I understand what it refers to and I align myself mostly with writers whom you would call, without flinching, experimental. But if we think about the word itself, it’s a word that comes from science. That already, to me, puts me on high alert because there are epistemological problems that you immediately inherit when you take on a scientific term without caution. The first problem is the idea of repetition that I just meant. What defines an experiment is that you should be able to perform it over and over again. This already goes against the nature of experimental fiction. It’s always one of a kind and it’s like a weird bird that cannot be repeated literally. [laughter] That would be my first objection. The second objection, which is much more substantial, is that experiment is a derivative of experience. It’s not a proper experience, it’s a controlled experience. It’s a fake experience. It’s an artificial experience. That is what an experiment is because you need to be able to measure everything that’s going on within that artificial experiment so you set the parameters for that experience. I feel that, again, (with many air quotes) “experimental literature”, what it does is it gives us an experience. The more successful those pieces of writing are, the more intense the experience is. There’s nothing fake or controlled about it. It’s almost the opposite. They’re almost always out of control. The third objection I would raise to the notion of experimental literature is that experiment in science tends toward some measurable truth, quantifiable truth, some kind of final assertion. I think you’re trying to establish an empirical fact, that’s why you make the experiment to begin with. I think experimental literature does just the opposite, it just keeps opening the realm of the imaginable instead of narrowing it down. I prefaced this by saying it was a bit of a quibble, it became a bit of a rant. [laughs]
DN: Oh not at all. But I’ll just add, this makes me think of a conversation many years ago with Thalia Field who wrote the book Experimental Animals, where she looks at the rise of vivisection in France and the influence it had on Zola’s Experimental, what he considered experimental, though I super love this idea that the analogy breaks down because of the non-reproducibility of the experimental art. Let me take this question further. Part of this book is this examination of this contract between the reader and the writer.
HD: Oh, yeah that’s where we were. Sorry.
DN: Yeah, that’s okay. But you explore not only the relationship of history and fiction, but also fiction’s effect on history. That’s the way you structure Trust. Trust is four books by four different authors, begins with a novel, followed by a memoir draft of the “real person” who was portrayed in the novel but wants to set the record straight, and then a memoir, and finally a diary. This isn’t exactly a book of framed narratives but because some of these four books live inside, or partially inside the other books that they’re partially nested, and also because we have four different authors, we are always aware of the book as a whole, as a constructed thing even though you’re not a voice, there’s no authorial narrative voice, we’re very aware of you, the creator I think in your absence. I would like to spend some time with this.
HD: I’m sad to hear that. I wanted to vanish. [laughter]
DN: But you do, and this is paradox because I feel like each of the book is immersive, but thinking of the books together, the four books, you can’t help but think of the questions of why are these four books next to each other the way they are. That’s where I wanted to talk about frames and your interest in frames because I think they create a lot of generative paradoxes like the one we’ve just discussed or touched on just now. For instance, people may notice that we haven’t really talked about the plot of your book yet. In fact, I want to spend time actually setting up frames outside the book first, some psychological frames but also some historical and philosophical frames. I want to move farther and farther away from your book in a certain sense but I also think weirdly by framing your book and then framing that frame, that in a way we will be moving closer to what your book is about. In the most abstract sense, talk to us about narrative frames, either in relationship to this question of Trust or not, but frames are very present in your writing in both of your books and also in some of your writing outside of your books.
HD: Thank you for inviting me to speak about frames in an abstract sense. That’s always a good way for me to start. [laughs] I’m very fascinated with frames because it’s a way that literature has to construct its own referential context and free itself from the supposed obligation to interact, mimic, or reflect a referential reality. This is what draws me to framed narratives, and again, it’s not that I set out to, “Oh, I’m going to write a frame,” it happens to me, it’s just the way the literary part of my brain works is just drawn to that device to call it somehow. What I like about it then is that it emphasizes the autonomy of literature, how it can become a self-contained, self-sufficient realm, even to the point of creating its own outside. This is what to me is so wondrous about framed narratives, that it’s literature creating a reality for itself. How? With more literature.
DN: It’s also interesting in connection to what you said about experimental. If we think of Don Quixote as one place you could point to for the first novel, it is also very postmodern for lack of a better word, it’s very aware of itself and framed. We’re reading the translation of something from another, like it’s an Arabic translation. The second book purportedly he wrote when someone else, in after the first book, was continuing the story and so he wanted to go back and continue the story. Quixote becomes aware of his own reputation in the second book. The first book he’s trying to create the dream and the second book he’s confronted with people who have a notion of his mythos when he didn’t know the first–
HD: Not only that, in the second part Don Quixote also holds the first part, like he reads the first part about himself. This is prompted because I think in 1610, there was an apocryphal continuation of the novel penned by one I think Avellaneda. To this day, it’s not known who that was so then Cervantes went and wrote the second part, part two, which is not unlike Trust in a way, just to undo this apocryphal continuation of his book, and yes, indeed you have the main character reading about himself in what potentially could become like a Möbius strip like if he keeps reading long enough, he will get to the point where he is reading that he’s reading that he’s reading. [laughs] Don Quixote is a big presence in my life and a very important book to me. But in this case, I feel that the framed narratives—and perhaps now we can go back to the question you asked about Trust and the emotional dimension of Trust—the framed narratives serve not only just a plot purpose because I feel some of the big reveals in the book have to do with who is speaking and when we thought that maybe perhaps someone else was speaking and how these four parts, as you said, interact with each other. I hope part of the reward of reading this book has to do with playing with those shifting frames. It’s not strictly speaking a framed narrative but it plays with reference and in ways that resembles framed narratives. But what I was saying, circling back, is that I feel that in this case, this device serves not only a diegetical purpose of moving the story forward but if it’s not too excessive, also almost like an ethical purpose because this is at the core of what the project was who has a voice and who is denied a voice. This is why voice is not just an exercise in ventriloquism, it’s not, hopefully, like a vaudeville act, like see how many impersonations I can do, it has to do rather with questioning who in history has been given a megaphone and who in history has been gagged, and what do we hear when we hear those amplified voices, what trust—and here we’ve finally arrived—what trust do we place in these voices just by mere virtue of their being amplified? It seems almost that we’re preconditioned to trust a voice just because it’s loud. We all do this all the time with authority, whether we want or not, or whether we feel foolish after we’ve done it. It’s a deep, deep response that we humans have to respond to this rhetorical loudness and be subdued by it. This is something that I wanted to explore and this megaphone or this loudness, it’s not something that we experience obviously in terms of volume but it’s a loudness that I see in history, like history relies on this self-assuredness of the voice that presents these narratives as matters of historical record when they are very often—historians tell us this all the time—when they are indeed very often simply that narratives competing with other narratives. Hence, the voices, hence, the emphasis on Trust. As you were pointing out, I do firmly believe that we, as readers, engage, enter into very specific contracts when we read any kind of text. We expect a level of truth from the label on a prescription bottle that we don’t expect from a fairy tale. We assume something we find in a history book to be more robustly anchored in referential accuracy than a science fiction story. All of this was very interesting to me and I was hoping, I was aiming to invite the reader to question those assumptions that they have upon entering any kind of text. To do so, it was of course vital to shift the frame, it was also vital to shift the voice just to show you what kind of expectations do you walk into a novel, which is how the book begins, it begins with a novel within the novel. Then you have a real life powerful man telling his own story. How do you interact with that keeping in mind you just emerged from a novel? What are the differences you find? So on and so forth. It sounds a little didactical when I put it this way but it’s hopefully not the experience when you read it.
DN: No, not at all, very far from it. But I’m going to stubbornly keep us in the abstract for another couple moments. You have this incredible lecture you gave last year, the Finzi-Contini Lecture at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale that you can watch online and it’s also available to read as an essay called The Heart of Fiction: Storytelling, experience, and truth. There are many things I’d love to touch on that you address in this talk. But to begin with, I was hoping we could spend a moment with the three ways you categorize narratives: the field, the window, and the watcher. The field being the most common, I think, books that try to get you to forget that there is a frame where you’re on the field of action. Then the window being books that make you very conscious of the frame, of engaging with its own form where you’re always aware that you’re reading words on a page. Then you have this third one, the watcher, which you call a hybrid form of being, of being outside the frame and inside the frame as a character, of being a textual being and an extra literary being at the same time. I don’t know if the watcher relates to Trust but I would love to hear a little bit more about the watcher because it’s the one that seems the hardest to grasp I guess.
HD: It is hard to grasp. I should preface this by saying it’s from a preface, this tree partheid distinction comes from, I mentioned here Henry James’s preface to the New York Edition I think in 1912 to The Portrait of a Lady where he famously speaks about the house of fiction as a way to exemplify what point of view is. He says that the house of fiction has many windows, and outside it, there’s this field or a garden, and what viewer X sees from window A is not what viewer Y may see from window B. I took this distinction. To me, what was interesting about it was that there are these three main points of reference when you think about point of view, and I’m very fascinated by the conundrum of point of view in fiction. It’s something I think about a lot and it shapes my writing in decisive ways. I feel that sometimes, my projects take shape around certain point of view questions. I care a lot about it. I think it’s a profoundly moral question for literature because it has to do with knowledge and how it’s administered. It has to do with power, your power as a narrator, what do you let the reader know and when and how. This is what I feel like an enormous sense of betrayal when I had a certain restricted point of view that then leaps into an omniscient narrator just to create some coup, as some kind of cool reveal. That angers me very much. But going back to James, I should also say very, very quickly, I don’t believe in typologies, not even this little one that I made up for this lecture. I don’t think literature or art works that way. I think it’s all a very happy mess. I think there aren’t any rules, there shouldn’t be any rules. I think taxonomies are ultimately not productive. Having undermined myself thoroughly in this fashion, I would proceed to say that I thought of three categories. First are those novels that take place on Henry James’s garden, and we as readers are in the garden with the characters and we forget that we are at home reading at the famous suspension of disbelief. We are there in the scene, we are with Napoleon’s army in war and peace, whatever it is. This is the realist novel or what the realist novel aspires to be, and of course, there’s a wide spectrum of variations and exceptions. It’s just a typology to try to think of formal issues, it’s not an exhaustive classification. But then, if you take a step back, you may see the frame that contains the garden. That means already that there are two different levels of reality, whether it’s a framed narrative or not, you have the people out having tea in the garden, as The Portrait of a Lady begins, it begins with tea time. You have the people having tea but then you also have the frame, you have maybe even the window, maybe even the window treatments, the curtains. If you extend the simile or this metaphor, we could say that this is also language, it’s through which we see the scene is through words, through language, through syntax, through form. That, to me, is the window. I think that there is also a robust canon of literature that engages with that certain sense of opacity. It’s like when you’re looking out the window and you look more at the glass than what is outside and you see maybe even the little bubbles or the condensation on the glass, or maybe just the glass but the field will be out of focus because you’re looking at the glass, that to me is something beautiful when it happens in literature. It’s form pausing and reflecting on itself, and ultimately, the awareness of this being a verbal artifice and encouraging that awareness, not trying to do away with it or to conceal it, which the garden narrative does its best to do, to not allow you to remember that this is–so here we see the strings, the puppet strings. Then the third instance, as you say, is the hardest to define which is the watcher because James says that there’s a watcher, there’s the window, there’s the field. He doesn’t phrase it this way but these are the elements of his image. The strange thing here is that if the field is completely the realm of fiction in a way that aspires to be completely immediate—I don’t think it ever is but that’s the aspiration—and if the frame or the window is the awareness that this is artifice and almost relishing in that awareness, the third instance has to do with almost literature turning around and facing you the reader, looking outside the realm of literature itself. If the second instance means looking farther into literature, the second instance is that viewer almost turning around and looking outside literature. There are very specific instances where this happens and it’s weird when it happens. I’m thinking for instance of Clarice Lispector in The Hour of the Star or Muriel Spark’s first novel, David Markson, who is a favorite of mine, does it a lot when suddenly, let’s pick Markson, he mentions himself as the author is tired now, for example, the author hasn’t really had a proper meal in a long time. If I say it’s a hybrid presence, it’s because it’s clearly a textual being, David Markson after all is dead, for example. But there is a magnetic force, for lack of a better comparison, that pulls those words toward the outside of the text. They can never leave the text, I understand this fully. But there is something in this whole maneuver, if you like, of this voice turning away from the text and back onto you who are reading. There is something there, there’s a gesture there that aims impossibly, hopelessly, to bridge literature and life. That to me is when it works, it’s incredible.
DN: You’ve made me understand it. You made me understand the watcher in a way that I didn’t understand, but in preparing for today, I tried to make meaning. I think I went down a wrong alley but I’m still curious about it not because it’s correct, but knowing that you’d studied with Derrida, I was just looking into his writing about frames, and he in the book The Truth in Painting writes about literal physical frames, this is how I tried to make sense of the watcher and I just was curious what you think. But in The Truth in Painting, he says that if you’re standing in one position, the frame around a painting might seem like it’s more part of the wall, part of the room, or part of the furniture, and in another position where you’re standing, it might feel like it’s part of the art. But when some people describe deconstruction, they describe it as seeking neither to reframe art with a more truthful frame, nor to suggest an absence of a frame, but almost that the frame is in the painting because the painting couldn’t be a painting, maybe as you suggested earlier, it’s creating the object of art, the painting is produced by the frame. But I guess I wondered of this sense of moving from place to place and then the status of the frame changing with the movement, that was my way of trying to figure out the watcher but it sounds like that’s entirely different than what you’re talking about.
HD: I haven’t read that Derrida in a long time, I haven’t read any Derrida in a long time, and I think it’s because I had to teach myself also how to write more lucidly in order to really become a proper fiction writer. I think I got so enmeshed in that intentional abstruseness that comes with certain theory talk, when I was done I was done because I found it, and I think Derrida would love this rhetorically, poisonous, he has this whole thing about the pharmakon, so he would be okay with my saying this, [laughter] not that I care or not that he would care either to be honest, but I did find that kind of register poisonous to me. I still do. As you were talking about the frame, I was thinking that the classic example here would be Las Meninas by Velázquez where you have him painting the scene but there is also a mirror that looks at the onlooker “you”, the person looking at the painting but you can’t see what’s on Velázquez’s canvas within the painting. There is this whole bizarre—and Foucault, everyone has written about this. What I fear is that this conversation is taking the whole image of the watcher or the onlooker. I’m a little concerned that it could all be mistaken with a literary trompe l’oeil, sort of a trick, a sleight of hand. It’s not a gimmick what I’m hinting at, it’s not that at all. It has more to do ultimately with what we think of mimesis and representation as a whole and what we think literature should do in regards to these matters and its relationship to reality. This is at the core of Trust I think. For too long, we have been wondering about how literature can adequately imitate reality. This is the question, at least, since Plato. This is why he expelled the poets from his ideal republic because if we’re in a world in which every object that you see is a flawed replica of an idea, so the chair or the table is just a fake of the ideal tableness or chairedness. Then Socrates says, “Why would you add yet another layer–” and look how interesting we’re back into layers and tears, “Why would you add another layer of fakeness to the already existing fakeness?” You have the ideal table which is inaccessible, then you have the tangible table which is fake because it’s a derivative realization of that idea, and then on addition to that, you have the poets or the painter’s table. He speaks specifically of poets which is the fake of a fake. For too long, again, I think we’ve been wondering about these things; about how literature can adequately represent reality. I think it’s obviously a massively important question and we’re not done, we will never be done asking ourselves that, but with Trust in particular, I tried to flip the question and try to think about how literature may affect reality, how literature may shape the reality around us because I think it does. I think going back to framed narratives, I think that is a very graspable example of literature creating a reality for itself. That is what a framed narrative is; it’s literature creating a reality for itself. I think this can easily be extrapolated to a much larger sense and with deeper implications and to our experience out in the world. I think it’s a truism to say that our world view is shaped by narratives. It’s totally obvious. I don’t think it demands proof or evidence of any kind. Yet I think there is more work to be done in that regard, not to conceive of literature as some mere epiphenomenal froth of this real substance, but rather the reverse; how is what we have come to call reality really shaped by the stories we tell daily and that we choose to trust? (not to plug the book in any way but it’s the pertinent way to say it) [laughter]
DN: Yeah. I feel like we’re right on the edge of, I want to spend some time with the way fiction affects reality. But just before we do, you’ve already talked about what you talked about and also in the essay that I reference about what you call the referential fetish of fiction, and its insecurity about itself, it’s either all imagination and thus, useless and irrelevant, or it is relevant because of its utility. But you suggest that it has a very significant and enduring relationship to the truth but that it’s just an entirely different one. It’s not like you’re saying, “Well, fiction isn’t related to the truth,” you’re saying it has a different one. I wondered if you could speak to that just for a moment before we get into the details of Trust, the novel. You quote other people who touch on this too, you quote Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness introduction, but you’re suggesting that there is something that fiction does.
HD: Let me put it this way and let’s think of history again because I think it’s a pertinent example here. As we said a while ago, we’ve been shown and we are shown repeatedly that history is very often an ideological construct. We have been taught to have a productive distrust or to revise it constantly, which I think is a very necessary exercise that we should all engage in. Yet when you put history and fiction together, it seems that obviously most of us would say, “Well, history is the one that is closer to truth or has a tighter relationship to it.” Whereas fiction is make-believe harmless play. Yet as we just said, history is the object of constant revision. Literature, on the other hand, over the last almost three millennia in the west, which is the only thing I can speak to more or less, I think has provided a pretty solid record of what it means to be a human being on planet earth. It has come pretty close to at least the sliver of truth of what the human experience is. Regardless of our definition of truth, it changes all the time, it shifts, but I for one, if I were to look for that, I would go first to fiction and second to other supposedly more fact-based discourses. I think this is one way in which fiction is tied to truth and often overlooked, shunned, and pushed aside as some sort of mere entertainment or perhaps fables with some pedagogical purpose. But I think that, again, over and over, literature has been able to show us, to some extent, what love, what loss, what grief and rage, disorientation, and guilt feel like and I stress also feel which is the emotional dimension is usually excluded from the pursuit of truth. I think that’s a terrible mistake. Again, I think that literature has a pretty decent track record of showing what our experience on earth is like. That’s why we go back to these texts. It’s paired, and I should say this because it’s also important just as emotion is important, I think the aesthetic dimension, the sheer pleasure, the aesthetic experience we get from reading is something we can’t obtain from any other form of experience. I think therein lies the value of literature in that it provides us with an experience itself of truth, of beauty, and I don’t think any other art form can do that in the way that literature does it because I think the prime material of literature—and this is something that I mentioned in that essay that you reference—the prime material of literature is meaning. If you’re a painter you have color, if you’re a musician you have sound, if you’re a filmmaker you have light and you have costumes. In literature, what you’re ultimately working with is meaning. This is why I feel that literature is, strictly speaking, so meaningful.
DN: Yeah. Thank you for your patience with me in staying and circling around trust for so long, because I want to spend some time now with Trust itself. If we think of this question that you’ve mentioned about how fiction influences history, how fiction influences life, that’s not just the subject of Trust, it’s also enacted in Trust because the first book in the four book set is the only ostensibly fictional book of the four, the standalone novel called Bonds that as your novel progresses greatly–
HD: I would quibble with that.
DN: No, so would I. It’s the book that calls itself. Let’s say it is the book that calls itself fiction. That fiction greatly influences the so-called non-fictional three books that follow it even though that author is never in the book. Talk to us about this novel Bonds in its own right, but also in light of your interest in fiction as an actor in the world at large, how Bonds, in a way, creates “real” narrative inside of your book.
HD: Yeah. Bonds was a joy to write. It’s the first book of the four books that composed the entire novel that I wrote. It contains the whole story, albeit in a very distorted fashion and full of gaps, lacunae, and inaccuracies which I would take note of in order to correct them or fill the blanks in later sections of the novel. It is written in this slightly decadent tone. It’s a novel written in the mid-30s but it sounds a little bit earlier, it sounds like a turn-of-the-century voice and I wanted this outdatedness. I wanted it because to my mind at work that the author would be slightly decadent. I just felt like writing like that. A lot of it happens that way too. You rightly said that the author, the fictional author of this novel whose name is Harold Vanner, I looked for names forever and I couldn’t find a good name, part of it I was in New England when I was writing this and I would go to these little cemeteries and these small towns and look at tombstones looking for good New England names. [laughter] I couldn’t find any so I just made it up, Harold Vanner, Vanner is not a real name but it sounded right. What I love about Harold Vanner is that he never appears in the book as you just said. The whole book happens because of him, because he writes this novel called Bonds and people in “real life” react to it and it sets the whole plot in motion. In notes that I took toward the novel, I had him appear, I had Ida, the secretary who is the narrator of the third part, look him up, he would live in Long Island someplace and she would go and find him and they would meet. But then I really liked the idea of him being one of the great protagonists of the book and not having a body in the book. Speaking of bodies, I think that this first part, Bonds, is very disembodied as a narrative, and that is very intentional, the tone is very hovering, it’s very removed, it’s at an arm’s length most of the time. Sometimes it closes in a little bit but there are no physical descriptions in that part. That was a conversation with my editor like, “Hey, no physical descriptions.” I’m well aware of that. There’s no dialogue except for one line because I wanted to create this utter sense of removal and a world, again, that almost had no bodies that were just the ideas of these characters. The novel makes a very pronounced progression, in the end we are very much inside a body that is furthermore in pain and we’re inside a mind. We start from a great height in a way and then we really descend into physicality and selfhood in a way that we are intentionally deprived of in the first book.
DN: So when you say the novel progresses, you mean your novel, not Harold Vanner’s novel?
HD: No, thank you for the distinction. No, Trust, not Bonds. Bonds, the Harold Vanner novel, remains in this hovering place very much intentionally.
DN: One of the things I really enjoyed when you were touring for your debut was how you wanted to place yourself in a long tradition of writers who wrote about the west but actually didn’t know anything about it or very little about it. You were citing like Puccini’s western opera and Brecht’s opera and Borges’s stories about American outlaws and also, of course, Spaghetti Westerns in film, and none of them are really going for representational reality, the facts are often wrong but it’s beside the point as long as they get a little bit of the decorative aspect correct. But you also note that America welcomed these stories and worked them into the myth of the west, that even America itself, it was beside the point to America, the representational aspect as long as it could be used in a way to self-valorize. You suggest that this foreignness is part of the western genre in this weird way. You even point to where the first western might actually be foreign, that it was embedded in an early Sherlock Holmes crime procedural.
HD: My pet theory.
DN: Yeah, that the first western might not actually be an American narrative, which weirdly might make it more of an American narrative.
DN: But I guess I wanted to talk about foreignness as it plays a role in the American myth of capital, or whether it plays a role because there’s definitely foreignness in the book; we have the wife of the industrialist’s mental health deterioration and they go to a Swiss sanatorium, the ghostwriter comes from a family of Italian immigrant anarchists, immigration and otherness are always at the margins of this story no matter how hermetic the narrative around capital tries to be. I wondered if you could talk about foreignness in Trust and whether it has a similar paradoxical relationship to the real as you suggested with the western; that to engage with the myth of capital, you need to know a little about it in an embodied way on the ground the way that you don’t need to know much about the west to write about the west. Is that element of foreignness to you essential to what you’re writing about as you write about America in New York and this family of one of the wealthiest families in the world?
HD: I believe your question was somewhat two phased in a way. First, you mentioned how I made it a point to single out the writers who had addressed the American west without ever having been there. I put myself in that little tradition myself because I made it a point not to go to these places when I was writing about it because looping back to our previous conversation, I think that literature is free from those or ought to be free from those constraints. There’s the work of the imagination that I’m very protective of. I don’t want to straight jacket it with factual overload. I think that kind of removal from the topic also applied to Trust because, as you said, I come from a PhD in the humanities, I don’t have any background in finance at all, so I had to teach myself how this world worked. Actually, come to think of it now speaking with you, it wasn’t as different as the western in as much as so many writers create the illusion of the west just by dropping certain kind of lexical charge keys or by resorting to certain contextual cliches, just as easily, you can do that with money if you know which terms to mention that seem to be written in some financial lingo. It’s easy enough I think to create a superficial illusion of the fact that you’re representing somewhat accurately this world. I didn’t do exactly that with Trust. What I did discover though was as I read about monetary policy, financial instruments, history of the markets, and so on and so forth, was that this discourse was intentionally abstruse. There’s this American economist called Paul Romer, he’s a Nobel laureate in economics, and one of his papers is about this term he coined that is called mathiness. What he points out in this paper, which I could follow only up to a point because it does get very technical very fast, but the main premise is that of course there are certain aspects of economics that are deeply embedded in mathematics, nobody can deny that, that would be absurd, but it’s equally true that some aspects of finance and economic theory are a matter of consensus of politics, policy, and debate. There are certain economists who envelop their arguments in this mathiness in this fake mathematical tone to give it the aura of objectivity, thus bypassing the consensus moment and presenting this as an idea that can only be legitimate after a discussion. You can bypass this by suggesting or pretending that all of this is framed by some kind of mathematical argument. I learned about this term mathiness after writing my novel, but I experienced mathiness as I was reading for the novel all the time. That to me was a very interesting thing because it’s so obviously a power play. By design, the effect is to make people, like you or me, think that this is all beyond our grasp, that we couldn’t possibly understand it and we should leave it in the hands of the specialists. This is what I tried to do with the second book in the novel, the autobiography of the tycoon. It’s a short section, it’s one of the shortest sections in the book that I really wanted to try the reader’s patience a little bit with this because this is what is done to us on a daily basis with financial reports, with the stuff we get from our credit cards down to if you read the financial section of the New York Times, anything that involves money is meant to be incomprehensible and we’ve all experienced this, I don’t need to dwell on this. I wanted to explore this rhetoric a little bit and what it does to the reader, how you’re supposed to feel a little bit worn down by it.
DN: But there’s also this other element I think too, which I loved, the tone just feels really off. [laughter] The sense of the person speaking is really, I don’t want to use a word like icky.
HD: It is icky.
DN: But there’s something really off about this personality that you can’t put your finger on and yet he’s delivering this information. There is another thing happening other than just trying the patience around the lexicon. There’s this other emotional valence where you’re like, “What? Where is this coming from?”
HD: Many other things happen and it also implies a reveal, you sort of gave it away a moment ago, but if it went by unnoticed, I won’t highlight it again, but there is a reason why all this feels the way that it does, like so overblown, so icky to quote you, [laughter] almost trumpianly over the top. He’s so manspreading in his tone in a way that of course is completely intentional. I had the happy idea, I think it was a happy idea to, because I was writing this section and it was hard because yeah, it’s this voice, but I took this section and shattered it, literally the section is shattered. When you read it, it becomes fragmentary, it’s full of what seemingly are notes to self and they’re blank pages. I think that I was hoping to give that section a formal edge, going back to experimental literature, I was trying to give it a formal edge and there’s a jolt that I’m just ruining now by saying it, like the first time you encounter this, like I sent the novel to my agent and my agent was laughing, of course, he said, “I got to the second part and was like, ‘I thought you had left a note to yourself in the manuscript.’” I was like, “Oh, of course, no,” very quickly, it becomes obvious what’s going on. That is what I was trying to do. Also, I feel that I was hoping to amass this capital with a reader in the first section and then blow through it in the second part and then rebuild it in the third and fourth part.
DN: Yeah. I think you really do it. It feels like this grand success, Hernan, to me. [laughter] They do feel like you build up something and then you pull the rug out but then build it up again, but not with the same person building it up.
HD: That was the plan, and it’s a gamble. I don’t know if it will work for everyone but what does, so that’s okay.
DN: Before I ask another question, why don’t you just touch on the relevance or irrelevance of these foreign things on the margins of the story?
HD: I think foreignness is essential both to me. I’m a foreigner wherever I go and I have a bit of an accent in whichever language I speak, so foreignness is important to me and it’s essential to what people call the American experience obviously. I don’t think you can talk about any kind of historical moment in the United States, whether it be the west or the consolidation of the United States as a financial empire without also touching upon immigration. The way in which I try to write about this is, at least, threefold, and you mentioned this before. One is I try to highlight that the protagonist himself, or the male protagonist I should say, this tycoon, is an immigrant. His parents had this whole itinerary in Europe, from Scandinavia to Scotland to the United States. Early on, they come here in the 18th Century. But we have a tendency to forget that those people were immigrants as well. We have a tendency to forget that Vanderbilt was an immigrant. He was. It’s just a term we reserve for other people. That to me was important and that’s actually how the book begins by stressing that. That’s one of the ways in which immigration appears. The second way, you alluded to it and I’m grateful because nobody up till now had picked up on this, is just the Americans abroad which is, of course, a very Jamesian thing, but I think it’s something that has marked the literature of this country so deeply that I wanted to do something with that as well, with the Americans abroad, and in this case, most of the action takes place in Switzerland but there are some scenes that I really like in the book that take place in Italy, for example. That’s the second, a reverse or an emigration, if you like. The third and most important aspect is that the longest section in the book, which is the third section written by a woman called Ida Partenza, very much hinges on immigration. Ida Partenza is the daughter of an Italian anarchist who migrated to Brooklyn before the Great War. It was shocking, the more I read for this book, the more I discovered the disparity on either side of the East River. On one side, you had a world of complete excess and luxury, and on the other side, there was blood traction, literally, there are these beautiful photographs taken by Berenice Abbott, a photographer I love from the 30s, and you see these, same year, different side of the river and it’s in one, you’re in a jazz age extravaganza and in the other one, you’re in the small town in Sicily with malnourished children. It’s all in New York minutes away from each other. This is something I really wanted to think about. Also, I’m half Italian so that is a meaningful thing to me. My family just as easily could have ended up in New York, my great-grandparents, they just happened to go to Argentina. Within that, the history of Italian-American anarchists of the time is also fascinating to me. I think the most fascinating thing is the degree to which there are almost no records of their presence during those almost three or four decades in New York and that rose a lot of questions for me. Yes, definitely foreignness is a crucial aspect. I should also point out as I was writing this, it was during the Trump administration, the bulk of the book was written during the Trump administration and I was learning about the Republican administrations of the 20s, mostly Harding and Coolidge. Harding who ran under the slogan “America first” and Coolidge, who in 1924, enacted the immigration quota act that restricted immigration from very specific regions, like if you were a German, everything was okay, but if you were Asian or Italian, you couldn’t get in anymore. This was at the time where very similar things were happening in the United States. Every day I could see them in the newspapers. It was really eye-opening to me to see how steadfast and absolutely coherent and cohesive the Republican agenda has been for over a century. They haven’t moved an inch. They stand for exactly the same things they did 100 years ago, exactly the same things. You can see this very clearly in their immigration policies, not to talk about their economic policies as well which are also seemingly impervious to reality, change.
DN: Yeah. The anarchist father in this book, is he connected at all to your own father in some way? I know that your family left Argentina for Sweden partially, or maybe fully because of their leftist activity when the coup happened.
HD: Yeah, no, fully. For sure, I grew up in a very political household and my father mainly was active in his youth, then he became a little more comfortable and bourgeois as time went on. [laughs] But yes, I thought about him a lot as I was writing this part of the book.
DN: One other way I wanted to connect the way fiction affects history, and perhaps your history, is with Borges, and not the Borges that I think most Americans know, the Borges of nested realities and fractal structures, but the Borges that you juxtapose with him, that examines and engages with literary history. That’s mostly the Borges that gets erased when he travels as a figure in the world. When I was reading your book, I had no idea, until I read it, just how much he’s engaged with the United States, the literature of the United States, the mythology of the United States.
HD: Isn’t it crazy? I don’t think it’s a known fact at all.
DN: You say that it’s hard to think of two writers that shape Borges more than Poe and Whitman, and that for Borges modern literature stems from these two and in his own words he says, “Undeniably, all that is specifically modern in contemporary poetry comes from two North Americans of genius: Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman. From Edgar A. Poe derive Baudelaire, symbolism, Valéry, and, in a way, Joyce — and one might add that Poe’s theory is perhaps more important and more productive than its practice. From Whitman derives the civil poetry of humanity, often called engaged.” His particular interest in Whitman is interesting to me because of just how much Whitman is engaged in extending the myth of America through art making. But when I think about how you’ve described how, when you’re in Sweden, Argentina was this mythological place. Then you move back to Argentina and Sweden takes on the lost childhood mythology.
HD: Where did you find all this stuff? I’m freaking out. [laughter]
DN: Well, we have your house miked. But you’ve also said that if it wasn’t for Borges, you wouldn’t be in the United States. I don’t know how much of that is an exaggeration but it sounds to me like you’re suggesting that Borges, in one regard, points you there. He points you to the United States just as much as you uncover in your book on him, how much he himself is facing towards it.
HD: Yeah. It’s a good question how hyperbolic I may have been in this obscure document that you extracted from who knows where. I’m very impressed by your archival work here. It’s terrifying but impressive. [laughter] It may be hyperbole but it may also be totally accurate. I got to know American literature through Borges. This is not a made-up thing. This is totally true. I can show you, I still have the same copy of his collected works and I would read it and understand a very small percentage of what I was reading, I was a teenager and trying to figure it out. But I was very intrigued and interested by, especially, his take on these north American authors, many of whom I didn’t know. It’s a little embarrassing to admit that this phase pre-exists Google, it really dates me in a very sad way but it’s true. This is also a true story so I would jot down the names that I was interested in and then go to the National Library and look them up. To my embarrassment, a good percentage of those names were totally made up and weren’t available. That was also an education, talk about frames and literature bleeding into reality. That was a very beautiful way of experiencing that as a kid. But yes, I feel I read Poe, thanks to him, first in the Julio Cortázar translation, so that is a nice trifecta right there. I definitely read Henry James for the first time, thanks to him. I can say the same thing about Hawthorne and Emerson. Borges I think was very conservative when it came to American literature. Nabokov famously despised everyone, remember that when they asked him about what’s your view of contemporary literature? He said, “The view is great from up here.”
DN: Oh, wow.
HD: [laughs] Yeah. He hated everyone but he loved Borges. But Borges hated everyone including Nabokov. He loved detective fiction but he didn’t like hard-boiled, he was not into Chandler, Hammett, Ross Macdonald, any of that was not his thing. I think for him, American literature stops maybe between the wars. But yes, definitely Borges was my entryway into American literature but also his fingerprints are all over Trust in the sense that I think it’s ultimately from him that I learned how to play, say, with genre. It’s from him that I learned how to think about shifting frames and play with different invented contexts. I’m thinking now as I speak of this beautiful story called Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius where there is this false encyclopedia circulating around the world in the very limited edition about this made-up planet, but toward the end of the story, objects from this planet that are not like in the periodic table of elements,definitely alien objects, start popping up in the real world, fiction effectively invading and taking over the real world just as that famous parable that he wrote about the society of cartographers who in their attempt of making a totally accurate map made a map the size of the empire that covered the empire inch by inch. These are notions that I think the Trust engages with.
DN: Forgive me for asking one last terrifyingly archival question about you.
HD: Oh no.
DN: When I had the poet Rae Armantrout on, she talked about how she’s often trying to create a “truth effect”; an effect that with further thought is discovered to have a false bottom; and that there are certain patterns of syntax or ways to match sound with rhythm that can create the effect that a statement is true. She isn’t just doing this as a linguistic device or as a form of play but as a way to examine the ways language can manipulate us. You’ve also talked about how frames can create a truth effect; that we are predisposed to think of the outer frame, the one that’s closest to us as being real or more real; that when Håkan in In the Distance begins the story around a fire and then we don’t return to the fire until the end of the book. We’re returning to a place that we confer a sense of greater authenticity to. You describe this as surrounding narrative, as you’ve mentioned also here, surrounding narrative with narrative, of cutting off the isthmus between a story and us and creating an island. I guess I wanted to ask you about this because I’m really curious about you and islands, I guess, as you have academic work with titles like Figures of Confinement: Literature and Claustrophilia, and Archipelago: Figures of Isolation in Modern Transatlantic Literature. You have an essay from 2010 on islands Topical Paradise, or even when you were celebrating at an event, Tove Jansson’s work, you said that isolation was a formal component of her work and that her work was more like an archipelago rather than most novels which are more like continents. I guess I wondered about islands and archipelagos. [laughter] You’ve persuasively talked about them in relationship to truth and truth effects by creating this framing, but I also think of the main character in your first book who has no one to speak to. He is an island moving across America. You mentioned at the beginning, you open this conversation with me about isolation and the way capital accumulation paradoxically might imprison people through its accumulation, but what is this what seems like a through line, academic, literary, perhaps emotional about archipelagos and islands versus continents?
HD: Yeah. I’m now genuinely paranoid about the extent of how did you fish all this up, I don’t know, but thank you and I’m sorry that you had to spend the time doing it. [laughs] But it’s true, it’s true. I developed, when I was in grad school and how appalling all those titles are should give you a notion of how dreadful those pieces are as well, but I developed this interest for islands and the way they’re represented in literature. I think at the time maybe I didn’t know exactly why and only now over a decade later can I see why this was so interesting to me. Let’s do it this way, I think the most famous island narrative there is is utopia even if relatively few people may have read it but it’s such a part of our vocabulary, this utopia which means literally a no place but as an idyllic ideal configuration. I was interested in how literature itself could become a utopian configuration by, again, quoting you quoting me by severing the isthmus that connects it to the mainland of referential reality. We have been circling around this topic since the beginning of our conversation. I’m interested in how literature can become completely autonomous. Since we’re talking about my academic years, I should also mention here, I was heavily invested in Adorno who is someone I keep rereading now and then and remains very relevant to me, especially in his aesthetic theory, he makes a very strong case for aesthetic autonomy and the autonomy of the artistic sphere which is something that interests me because it ultimately leads to artistic freedom which is what I’m looking for and any lack of restraints and dogmas or ideological kind of determinations and a self-reliance in self-imposed yet necessary rules. I found all of this to be enacted and literalized in literature about islands. I read a bunch of these narratives, it’s no sheer coincidence. Also Campanella has his utopia on an island, so does Francis Bacon, Perkins Gilman in Herland, I think it’s an island as well. I’m not sure about that one. Samuel Butler has a utopic island. The list goes on and on and on. There is something about isolation and this Eden-like setting that go hand in hand. I guess I was interested in this simultaneously negative and affirmative gesture that goes into isolation. Negative because, of course, you’re severing yourself away from a larger set, but affirmative because in that negation, you’re also creating this other space. I very much doubt that any of what I just said made sense as I was talking. [laughter] You know when you’re talking and you’re saying the words but your brain is also scanning your brain, thinking, “What is it that I wrote about this? What is it that I have to say about it now?” It was a very meta thing going on in my head as I spoke so please delete all of this, it’s most likely garbage. [laughter] But thank you for fishing it up and making me think about it again.
DN: I picked two really brief excerpts that I was hoping you’d read that just are examples of the ways you drop in some of these questions, say, around framing in the story. One is the opening paragraph of the second book about New York City. I was hoping you’d read that for us because I love that one. This is the beginning of the second book which is written by the industrialist who feels like he was unfairly portrayed in the first book.
[Hernan Diaz reads an excerpt from his latest book Trust]
DN: I was hoping maybe we could follow that with the first two paragraphs on page 83 which is from the first book. This is the fictionalized wife of the industrialist. In this book she’s called Helen and she’s discussing the deterioration of her mental state, but it also feels like it evokes this fractal framing in a different way.
HD: Oh, beautiful selection. I’ve never read this out loud except for when I was working on it because I read stuff to myself.
[Hernan Diaz reads an excerpt from his latest book Trust]
DN: We’ve been listening to Hernan Diaz read from his latest book Trust. I’d like to spend the rest of the time with voice. To me, the heart of the book, even though we’ve spent so much time on form, is really voice. Also I think voice is what’s most miraculous to me about Trust, that we start in the style of Edith Wharton or Henry James, and by the end of your novel we’re in something that’s more like Jean Rhys or Virginia Woolf, that your syntax changes from chapter to chapter and that you actually developed the style guide that sat along each of these chapters. I’d be curious to hear about any specific constraints you might have set yourself in each of those chapters. But before we hear that, I know you were recently in conversation with two past Between The Covers guests: Alejandro Zambra and Mark Haber, who both have new books out: Chilean Poet and Saint Sebastian’s Abyss respectively. When I had Mark on for his debut book, we talked a lot about voice because people were marveling at how Reinhardt’s Garden felt like it was written by a Latin-American writer; that he had somehow inhabited the terms of that literary universe in some way while also remaining very much Mark Haber at the same time. Also as an aside, his enthusiasm for the work of Fernanda Melchor is largely the reason she came on the show. But in the spirit of voice, I wanted to play a question from Mark to you thinking about the ways, at least, I’m thinking about the ways you’ve created these style guides, you’ve I think convincingly moved from book to book and inhabited these different voices so well. This is Mark’s question for you.
Mark Haber: Hi, David. Hey, Hernan. This is Mark Haber. Congratulations, Hernan, on all your success with the Trust. It’s so well deserved. It’s a feat. It’s a magnificent novel. I had a question that occurred to me after you’ve left Houston, being a monolingual writer as I am, I only know English, does your rich background in different languages—Spanish and Swedish and English—does that inform your writing in any way? Thanks a lot.
HD: What a lovely question and how lovely to hear Mark’s voice. I love Mark Haber so much and his work is so beautiful. That’s a lovely question. At home we spoke Spanish but out in the world, my first social tongue was Swedish. I never studied English formally. I feel like I got it almost as a gift only by virtue of knowing Swedish. It’s not uncommon that people who have Swedish will somewhat spontaneously get English. I feel I was one of them. I just started reading novels with a dictionary. That’s really how I taught myself, and then of course, I moved to English-speaking countries. Except for my childhood forays into terrible short story writing, and even worse, poetry, I’ve never seriously written fiction in any other language than English. To respond directly to Mark’s question, yes, coming from other languages and having other languages has definitely informed my writing in English. The reason why I write in English is love. I love this language and it’s unexplainable as love. I feel I can do and say things that I can’t in other languages. It’s like asking a sculptor, “Why do you work with wood instead of with marble?” I don’t know the first thing about sculpture but I would imagine, it’s some sort of connection between the material and the hand. That’s very much how I feel about the English language and I can’t explain it any better than this. What I can say with just a smidge more of eloquence is that there are several things that intellectually I like about English. I like what English syntax is able to do, which is very specific and it would take probably a bit of time. I like how prepositions can change the meaning of words in ways that they can’t say in Romance languages. That is very beautiful to me. I love that it has a Germanic Saxon keyboard register and then a Romance Latin register, how you can express both of those things. That is actually something that I thought about for Trust. Andrew Bevel doesn’t use many latinate words, that was something that I was thinking about as I was writing it. That’s a quick example. I suppose also because it is an acquired language, there is a degree of attention that to me is very productive. There is a certain distance that to me is very productive as well. There is a velocity to it in my head that I also find very productive. I think these are some of the reasons why I write in English and how it, being a foreign language, has shaped my style. I can’t imagine myself, nor do I want to, writing in any other language. Going back to that Borges story that you quoted me saying in some obscure source, that he was the reason why I had moved to the United States, this may or may not be true but what is 100% true is that I moved to the United States and England because I wanted to live in English. I didn’t have a penny so it was the way in which I could make it happen through grants and such. But the primary reason was that I wanted to live a life in English and that’s why I’m still here.
DN: In contrast to you saying you are not interested in mimesis or the referential aspects of fiction, you do seem very interested in it when it comes to non-fiction; of pulling back the curtain on just how much non-fiction has far less of a representational relationship to the truth or to reality than it claims to have. For instance, as you mentioned earlier, you revive an era when anarchism was robust in the United States as a movement in the sense that there were over 500 anarchist periodicals that existed between 1870 and 1940. That history has been erased in real life, not because it wasn’t true but because it was either an inconvenient truth or incompatible with the myth-making that was happening around America. But you also do this on the level of language. The second book and Trust called My Life immediately is taking a claim with that title to a certain truth, and the “my” in it is suggesting that in contrast to the novel that precedes it, that this is coming from an authority. As I mentioned earlier, the second book feels the most off and it’s also this book with this draft, for instance, where instead of a short dignified account of Mildred’s rapid mental decline, we find the placeholder words “short, dignified account.” We already know that there’s a certain agenda to what the scene is going to be created, or they’re more concerned about the effect of the scene than the truth of the scene perhaps; that we’re seeing hear how voice is constructed. But because the memoirist has hired a ghostwriter and when the ghost writer records how he speaks in a faithful way and then reads it back to him and he’s very dissatisfied because he doesn’t feel like there’s enough gravitas or grandeur in the portrayal, he isn’t self-aware enough to see that he lacks those qualities, that she’s actually showing him himself, but instead is asking for her to create a better voice or a voice of how he would imagine himself. She does this by reading and collecting other voices, kind of the way you’re doing that. She creates this Frankenstein voice though, a unified voice coming from many voices. But even if there weren’t a ghost writer, I think you’re pointing at something about non-fiction and also about history. I think any memoirist wants to be seen in a certain way or see themselves, or can only see themselves in a certain limited way that they can’t see around, let alone questions of memory and its fallibility. I wonder if we could just spend a moment around this question of the Frankenstein voice or, more generally, of the fictional nature of non-fiction, the inevitable fictional nature of non-fiction as you construct Ida’s voice, which is Bevel’s voice.
HD: Yeah. I should preface this by saying there are so many colleagues who are non-fiction writers who have thought about this form of writing very seriously and intelligently. I am purely a fiction writer and my non-fiction is imagined. Whatever I say comes from this place of enunciation. I am not a non-fiction writer. I am just toying here with the border between non and fiction. That is what interests me. I’m not questioning or indicting non-fiction as a genre for which I have an enormous respect. I feel it’s important to clarify this. Perhaps one of the crucial purposes of the novel, or one of the reasons that drove me to write the book to begin with, was to explore how movable and evanescent the border between fact and fiction is in the realm of writing. As we discussed before, how writing can actually, in a weird feedback, have an effect on reality and almost to eternity if you like. This is something that concerns me a lot and I think it also ties in with the watcher whom we were talking about who is this liminal textual presence who is on the border, inhabits the border between literature and life. This is something that concerns me and even ties back to the islands perhaps. What I was trying to do in this second section is first—and this is a massive spoiler so maybe skip ahead for two minutes if you haven’t read the book right now—but what I was trying to do is first to present this extremely almost intolerable voice because it’s so masculine, it’s so blustery, it’s so aggressive, it has no self-doubt whatsoever, only an absolute certainty that it deserves to be heard, this is the kind of voice that we’re given, and not to worry, it’s only just 30 pages or so, but that is the voice. I wanted, hopefully, to elicit certain feelings from the reader and then the reveal—and this is the spoiler—is that it was indeed a woman impersonating or assuming this voice. This goes to show both how, again, the voice of women so often are squashed underneath these heavy masculine voices that take up all the space, literally in this case, Ida’s voice vanishes under this masculine voice she has created for her employer. I also wanted to highlight the fact, and I think we’ve discussed this before, how this sense of authority and gravitas, to use the word that you just used a moment ago, are fictive, are the results of rhetorical operations. It occurred to me that it would be a nice idea to have Ida, she’s a young woman from Brooklyn, self-taught, she has had no access to this world of privilege ever until she got this job, so to me it was a good idea which I then gave Ida herself. A lot of my research and a lot of my process I gave to Ida. For instance, all the stuff that you see her doing at libraries is stuff that I did at archives, or sources that I consulted, I have her consulting, and so on and so forth. There is a very meta thing there where I gave her my actual research. But I thought it would be a good idea for a character like this who, as I was saying, is self-taught from “wrong side” of the river to look to history in order to complete this task. What she does effectively—and this is what the novel says—she creates this monster with body parts sourced from other “great men” of American history. To do this, I read mostly memoirs. I started with Benjamin Franklin and I ended with Calvin Coolidge-ish, that era, just to get a sense of that tone. I didn’t want anything anachronistic. I tried to distill whatever made these men authoritative, whatever gave these men the luster that they hope they will have. There aren’t any direct quotes or anything but I think I got a better sense of how history is actually made by these people or how they hope it will be made.
DN: Yeah. As I alluded to at the beginning, to me if I were to put forth what I think the book is about, I don’t think the book is at its heart about money. At least I want to assert that it isn’t. Because I think about Ida, she’s not happy with how the novelist portrays the industrialist’s wife and she’s not happy about how the memoirist is portraying the industrialist’s wife and yet the two documents that are going to be in the world ultimately are going to be those portrayals of the industrialist’s wife, the novel and the memoir. The things in the book that will disappear are her views essentially. To me this novel is, more than anything, about canon formation and the erasure of women; that ultimately this is a novel with a feminist ethos. I think of the lines of Le Guin, “To keep women’s words, women’s works, alive and powerful – that’s what I see as our job as writers and readers for the next fifteen years, and the next fifty.” I feel like you’ve done something really amazing by dramatizing the erasure itself, revealing the mechanics of how it happens, but also peeling back and revealing the voices that will never surface as if we’re discovering a long lost recording, like a rescue from something that shouldn’t even be in the archive. Because of this I could imagine the book being set in any number of non-money settings. You could put this at the conference that’s deciding what books are going to be in the Bible or what books are not going to be in the Bible, or at a sci-fi award nomination committee. I think you could set it in a number of places and still enact a nested narrative that would be about the falsehood of the self-made man but really about telling the story of women.
HD: Yes, and to a small extent, no to a lot of what you said. [laughter] First, thank you for what you said about this book having a feminist ethos and being mostly about the erasure of women. It’s not lost in me that here we are, two dudes, talking about that. That’s something also that I grappled with during the writing of the novel itself with issues of appropriation, with issues of voice, again. I thought if someone asked Colson Whitehead about this and he said, “You can write about anything you like, just don’t f*ck it up.” I think that’s quite true. But all this to say, I think we should pause and acknowledge that fact that it happens to be two men talking about this. I think that’s an important thing to state although it’s abundantly obvious. But when I was, again, thinking of all of these issues, I also thought this is what literature ought to do, it should be able to expand beyond my little circumstances. Otherwise, literature becomes a selfie, which it kind of has to a large extent. We’re not going down that rabbit hole but I think the writing I am interested in takes this chance of trying to imagine other lives and other positions and other experiences. That’s what I try to do. It’s not just imagining any other life and any other experience. I’m particularly interested in lives and experiences that have been, to some extent, deleted from certain kinds of narratives. Here’s my partial no to what you said, which is I think it is important that it is about money in the United States and not a sci-fi convention, [laughter] because money is the all-organizing force in American society, in modern society as a whole, I say this without hesitation more than any other institution, I think money is an institution, more than any other institution it’s money, but in the United States in particular, the place that money occupies is unparalleled if you think of other countries. Again, circling back to the very beginning of our conversation, narratives around money or of money making are completely devoid of women. Here you have the all-defining instance of the American dream because, let’s not fool ourselves, that’s what the American dream is about, the ability to make money. Even the notion of freedom, I sometimes fear maybe freedom of enterprise above anything else and freedom to own property. Here we have what is at the core of, again, the American dream, the American experience, however you want to phrase it, and somehow it’s a world without women, literally without women both in history and in fiction. Perhaps we can find a few exceptions but I think overwhelmingly, we can agree that this is the case. This is why money matters in that sense. I think also money matters because money has been an important instrument in the segregation of women from social life, their inability to earn it, their inability to own private property until relatively very recently in the United States. Money has been effectively a very important tool in the subjugation of women in the world and in this country in particular. I do think it matters. Lastly, it matters because money, to circle back to the title of the book, money has everything to do with trust, very much like language, there is a contractual dimension to money. We have all agreed that money has a certain value that is not inherent to it, there is no purchase power inherent to a $10 bill other than the one that is bestowed on it by virtue of her trust in a system that supports it.
DN: I just want to hear a little bit more about this. You’ve talked about how money here, and other places, is a fiction. Here’s an example of something with real effects in the world that is a fiction, that there’s nothing material or tangible about it, its value is the result of a long series of conventions, it’s make believe. You say, “All money is, at heart, play money. And all of us have gathered, voluntarily or not, around the board.” This reminded me of the line in the Borges’s The Sect of the Phoenix that goes “The world is mirror to the game” which you’ve written about, how he enacts this and the chess sonnets, where the board of the game—which ought to be a representation of reality—in Borges’s story, the board is reality, and the battle in the story is subordinated to the board. We have a reversed hierarchy of representation. The smallest frame somehow becomes the outer frame that contains all the frames. As you say in your book on Borges, he literalizes the notion that we are all being played, or as I might say, we’ve all been framed. I was going to say I wonder if words are similar to money in this way, which I think you do think it’s similar to money this way, going back to the title Trust, they, like money, depend upon the collective agreement, the collective make-believe that this particular sound with our tongue and our palate and our lips and throat, or this scribble with your now legendary 20-year-old fountain pen—which you talk about on Seth Meyers—that scribble means this and not this other thing; that maybe words are the first fiction that create reality, that words are the first fiction that create history. I was going to ask you if this was the forced analogy but this is my long-winded explication of what I think you’ve already suggested.
HD: Yeah. No, I can only ascend and confirm. If I was drawn to money, it’s precisely for the reasons you just pointed out. It is a sign, it is a semiotic event, it’s highly conventional as all signs are, and yet it’s able to touch the world. It has mass, it has weight, and it’s able to make a dent in reality. This to me was amazing just to pause and think about it, which we take for granted because we live in a modern society, but the fact that we have this sign, this conventional symbol that is able to alter life itself, that has a material effect on our surrounding conditions, was mind-blowing. I decided actually that was the germ of the project. I decided to extend that, well, if a five dollar bill can do that, surely a novel can do that as well, make a dent in reality and off we go.
DN: Yeah, no, and I’m confident that your book has and will. I really appreciate you being on the show today, Hernan.
HD: David, I have to say I feel I’ve been with a scholar on me. I don’t understand why such a person would exist, [laughter] but here you are. This is one of the most engaging conversations I’ve had not just on the book but on literature. I’m very impressed with all your erudition and everything that went into it and I’m very grateful to you for having had me on your legendary show. [laughter] Thank you so much. It is. It is a legendary show.
DN: That’s sweet of you to say. We’ve been talking today to the novelist, Hernan Diaz, about his latest book Trust. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers, I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Hernan Diaz’s work at hernandiaz.net. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, help ensure the future of conversations just like this by joining the community of Between The Covers listener supporters at patreon.com/betweenthecovers where you can check out a wide variety of potential benefits of doing so. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.