Deep Read | 9 May 2024

Week 3: The Fiction of a Fiction


Welcome to Week 3 of the Deep Read! Catch up on Weeks 1 and 2.

Our Faculty Salon on Monday was a thought-provoking and compelling evening. Thank you to our panelists and the Deep Readers who joined in person and online. The video for that event can be found here.

Today, we are focusing on Trust’s third section, A Memoir, Remembered, by Ida Partenza, the ghostwriter hired by Andrew Bevel to write his autobiography, My Life. A memoir and another book-within-the novel, this section is unique in that it speaks directly about the previous two books, Bonds by Harold Vanner and My Life by Andrew Bevel, clarifying how they are connected.

You’ll notice a difference in the tone, style, and voice of this section. We finally have what we expect from a literary text—sensory detail, complex interiority, descriptive scenes, dialogue, and dynamic narration that moves back and forth from the memoir’s present in the 1980s to the past. All of these literary techniques help to make this section more believable, which is also something the genre of memoir does. As novelist and Professor of Literature, Micah Perks, explains, “a memoir is a contractual genre in which the writer makes an ‘autobiographical pact’ with the reader to tell the truth. For a memoir to be successful, then, the reader must trust the writer.”

We trust Ida because she is writing a memoir but also because she illustrates the link between the previous two books; things start to click for us when Ida appears. A Memoir, Remembered reveals the web of capital that joins Bonds and My Life and underlies all of Trust. It establishes capital as a common thread throughout each section—the capital that enriches Rask and Bevel is the same capital that animates the creation of Vanner’s novel and Bevel’s autobiography; the capital that employs Ida to write Bevel’s story is the same capital that underwrites her own story and erases Vanner from the historical and literary record. Capital has the capacity to make or break an author, to establish fictions as fact, and, as Ida quotes Bevel, “to bend and align reality.”

To help us understand the nuances of this vast web of capital and its power that arises in this section, we talk with two UC Santa Cruz Professors, Madhavi Murty, Associate Professor of Feminist Studies, and Chris Connery, Professor of Literature.

Capitalism and its Discontents

UC Santa Cruz Professor of Literature, Chris Connery, explains how A Memoir, Remembered introduces historical complexity to the novel, presenting an anarchist and Marxist working-class and immigrant counterpoint to the dominant, seemingly unimpeded perspective of elite financial capitalism that we’ve seen so far in Trust:

Book III is an abrupt change of scene in many ways. We are introduced to Ida Partenza: author, typist, secretary, and daughter, and though she has much to do with the lives of the great financiers of Books I and II, she emerges out of an altogether different milieu. Ida lives across the river, in Brooklyn, and is the child of Italian immigrants—or “exiles,” as her anarchist father prefers to refer to himself. Writing in the nineteenth century, Karl Marx, who is quoted repeatedly in Book III, predicted that capitalism would produce its own grave-diggers: the working class. The anarchist current of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included many of those for whom capitalism was neither natural nor eternal, but a system of oppression and exploitation that benefited the few, a system they wanted to bring to an end. 

In Ida’s memoir, the web of capitalism expands to include activists and workers who agitate against the system and critique its exploitative and unequal character. Finally, we hear from the people on the street, and across the river, who Rask and Bevel float above in the previous two books. In particular, we hear from Ida’s father who represents the critical take on the fictitious nature of finance capitalism in the book. Ida recounts this scene with her father, which is one among many: “Above all, he detested finance capital, which he viewed as the source of every social injustice. Whenever we found ourselves walking along the waterfront, he would point at lower Manhattan, tracing the skyline with his finger while explaining that none of it really existed. ‘A mirage,’ he called it. Despite all those tall buildings–despite all that steel and concrete–Wall Street was, he said, a fiction.”

As Madhavi Murty, Professor of Feminist Studies at UC Santa Cruz, explains “Money is the ultimate fiction on which other fictions are built. To maintain its reality, we have to keep telling fictions. These fictions build and build. And this is why we have all of these different fictions in the book.” Once again, we can turn to Ida’s father for an explanation: “Stocks, shares, bonds. Do you think any of these things those bandits across the river buy and sell represent any real, concrete value? No. No, they don’t. Stocks, shares and all that garbage are just claims to future value. So if money is fiction, finance capital is the fiction of a fiction. That’s what all those criminals trade in: fictions.”

Ida’s father, while speaking to our historical moment, is also from another time when people thought about capitalism in a more antagonistic way. Professor Connery explains the difference between Ida’s father’s critique, situated in the 1920s and 30s, and our own period in which capitalism is less contested:

In our time, when to most people capitalism seems as natural as the air we breathe, as unchanging as the sun, it wouldn’t occur to many to pose the question “who’s running this thing?”  It wasn’t always thus. As capitalism grew into its globality, many saw it as oppressive, hostile, or irrational. Many fought to stay out of it. It was also far from faceless. Toward the end of the nineteenth century and well into our own, the masters of the universe had names and faces: Carnegie, Mellon, Morgan, Gould, Astor, Vanderbilt, Ford, Guggenheim, Rockefeller…the robber barons and their epigones. Benjamin Rask and Andrew Bevel, whom we met in Books One and Two of Trust—characters who we probably suspect are versions of the same person—could have been on that list as well. And like some but not all of them, they took pains to deny that they exercised any control over the workings of the whole, particularly with regard to the Great Depression, for which, we are told in Trust, some had blamed them. 

A Memoir, Remembered is distinct in the way that it not only points fingers at the characters “running this thing,” but also levels a sustained critique at finance capital and its fictions, even as it tells the story of finance capital’s power to suppress and control these critiques and capitalism’s discontents.

Gender and Control

On her way to her job interview, Ida Partenza, the aspiring writer, joins a snaking line of working-class women “all wearing our best clothes,” and attempting to gain upward mobility with a coveted secretarial position at Bevel Investments, a position that, mimicking a Remington typewriter ad, Ida explains might allow them to “tap … tap … [their] way into economic independence.”

Commenting on this scene, Professor Murty notes that what we see when we enter the skyscraper is not economic independence for women, but a Taylorized, mechanized female workforce centered not around people but the typewriter: “There’s a rationalization of women’s labor and work, but around knowledge production.” This is Ida recounting the scene: “It is hard to recall the exact figures, but there must have been at least six rows of about eight desks each. And at each desk, a girl roughly my age, her head slightly cocked to better see the page she was copying. In fact the whole trunk was shifted to the right, dissociated from the hands, which remained centered. The center was the typewriter.”

In the world of the memoir, the typewriter is a feminized piece of technology associated with secretarial pools and the stenography of words uttered by powerful men like Andrew Bevel. Bevel’s instrument is not the typewriter but the ticker tape and the counting machine, the latter of which Ida catches a glimpse of in Andrew’s home office. While we see women at counting machines at Bevel Investments, Bevel claims that the “real work” happens among men at his home office after the market closes where “the walls … were covered with blackboards saturated with stock quotes and mathematical formulas, and at the desks about a dozen men behind counting machines waded through binders, books, documents, and reams of paper.” A Memoir, Remembered shows us that part of Bevel’s control is bound up in the gendered division of labor that he projects, with women in supporting roles around feminized technologies and men in leading roles around private and proprietary tools that, according to him, decide and manipulate what happens on the trading floor.

This supporting role is something that Ida is intimately familiar with, as she finds herself caught between supporting her anarchist father and the capitalist financier Bevel, two men with radically different and contentious worldviews. The point of convergence here, though, is their analogous patriarchal control over Ida. Professor Murty sees an equivalence being established in the novel around the patriarchal narratives that Ida must contend with from both men: “there is a kind of easy correlation that seems to be being made about the dogmas that Ida Partenza’s father tells and the dogmas of the financial world. So, just as Andrew Bevel is reeling off all of these quotable lines to her about the free market, her father does the same against it. There is a certain equivalence that’s set up. That story is told through the male patriarchal figure who likes to hear the sound of his own voice and likes to tell these stories.”

But, as Professor Connery says, it is essential to understand the significant social and political differences between Bevel and Ida’s father. And it is precisely the connection to work, and to working-class politics, that connects Ida to her father. Ida, like her father before her, works with her hands and makes things: typing, writing, printing. She works in ways that the Bevels and their avatars never had to. And yet as a ghostwriter, the work she does is deeply connected to the abstract world of financial capital. Ida’s memoir reveals to us that Harold Vanner’s fiction is not a simple lie covering up some hidden truth. On the contrary, by pulling one fiction aside, she simply provides another one, and then another. These layers of fictions accumulate, and the task, as Professor Murty reminds us, is to understand and reveal the work that produces the fiction in the first place. As she elaborates: “In the end, even more so than Partenza’s political theories, it is Ida’s work that enables us, the readers, to learn something about the ways in which fiction and myth work but also about the ways in which capital works.”

As Ida struggles against her father and Bevel’s authority in the flashbacks to her ghostwriting days, she is also narrating the present of her archival work at the Bevel Museum, attempting to discover the truth about Mildred after all of these years by reading and deciphering her papers. We learn that Ida has “found her voice” as a professional writer, and, by the end, we realize that Ida is on a quest to help Mildred posthumously find hers, ending her memoir by stealing her journal and musing on “how lovely it would be to finally hear her voice.”

In Ida’s memoir, we also discover that she is in possession of the only extant copy of Bonds and furthermore that it is her draft of Bevel’s autobiography My Life that we have just read. Is Ida the “real” author of Trust? Has she freed herself from the patriarchal control that she documents with such detail in A Memoir, Remembered?

Community Conversations

Professor Connery asks: “Is patriarchy, in the end, a more powerful force than anarchy, however revolutionary? What do we make of the fact that Hernan Diaz turns at the core of his novel to a woman’s voice in his foregrounding of questions of authority in the epoch of Capital?” Do you think Ida has actually found her voice, or escaped the control of male authority? What is her position vis-a-vis capitalism and patriarchy? What is her position vis-a-vis all of the documents that make up Trust? What is the relationship between male authority, or patriarchy, and capitalism here? Can we contend with one but not the other? What happens to the voices like Ida’s father, or the perspective of capitalism’s discontents, in this section? What do you make of the web of capital that this section clarifies as a key connection between the three books-within-the novel so far? Beyond this web of capital, do you see other things that connect these books?

Feel free to pose other questions, respond to others, and offer your ideas in the comments section below.