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I hope you like vultures and long digressions on capital in literature.
This morning I woke up much earlier than usual and found in the backyard the flight feather of a vulture. It’s not out of the ordinary for there to be several feathers scattered around the grass at the Canton house where my parents live; three years ago the vultures started roosting in the tree tops in large numbers, making the ground white with their ammoniac droppings and sailing dramatic parabolas in the evenings. But this feather is the largest I’ve found—longer than my forearm from my elbow to the top of my middle finger, with a quill the girth of my pinky. Looking closely, there are tiny notches in the quill made, I would guess, by the beak during preenings past. The tip of the feather is ragged, like a small animal has chewed it, worn out from catching thermals miles into the sky.
I admire the apparent nonchalance with which the vulture sheds a tool that has so long supported it. What it must take to constantly say goodbye to one’s flight feathers, to be confident that new ones will grow in its place. And then the light relief when you no longer feel the itch of it, when the hole in your skin where it grew closes over.
Some won’t touch the vulture’s feather due to its associations with death, predation, and irrationally, disease. Their behavior as scavengers has also led them to be unfairly cast as metaphors for ruthless buying and selling of wealth. Circling vultures means something or someone is dying. The vultures wait patiently for the carcass. It’s the waiting, I think, that puts people off. The assurance that time, like air, is inexhaustible for the scavenger.
Before I had the chance to set down my thoughts about Trust, Hernan Diaz’s new novel, the author’s longform interview with David Naimon was released, and I had to listen immediately. It’s a stupendous interview, and while I think it’s wise to read the book first so as to fully appreciate how its structure slowly unfolds (agonizingly slowly, at times, and all the more impressive for it), I would recommend listening to the interview the moment you finish. As usual, David’s interviews are a class on craft, writing and reading all on their own (no one reads like David), and this one in particular got me thinking about window narratives, literature versus history in portraying certain truths about the world, and how literature purports to construct (a) reality.
And still, it’s the measure of a great book that there is more to say.
What struck me most forcefully in Trust is its relative lack of scenes. Relative because the scene is considered the building block of most contemporary literary fiction; at least, it’s a central building block in how fiction writing gets taught (for example, I recall an injunction that a novel can have twelve pivotal scenes max. Why twelve? Who knows!). But the first section of Trust is almost sceneless, relaying character, action, and time in dense and exquisite Mann-ish description. Of the four sections in the book, the third section told from the point of view of Ida Partenza, a journalist and daughter of an Italian anarchist, has the biggest appetite for scene—the other three are told or written from the POV of characters too occupied with portraying reality on their own terms to be interested in the person-to-person jockeying for dominance that a scene allows.
I was intrigued by what this scenelessness meant for the person at the center of the novel: not Andrew Bevel, the financier, but the company and vested interests he represents. In his interview, Diaz is straightforward about having wanted with Trust to explore the very American but very undertold story of money and capital accumulation at the highest level. And in doing so, he’s also taken a step toward examining the literary consequences of decades, if not centuries, of American law bent on defining companies as people and giving companies rights in the courts, if not always personhood and character. The man at the heart of Trust is not a middle class “company man” like Willy Loman, but as he recounts his life in an unfinished memoir, it appears that he may be more company than man by the end. Or, put a different way, the company has its own way of shaping stories about people, of manipulating relationships and history that it eclipses Bevel and any human-scaled scene, much like the heyday of early American skyscrapers in Manhattan in the twenties and thirties sought to eclipse the scale of a man walking down the street with their towering facades. If he wanted to see the company, he’d have to look up.
Diaz is right that there is a dearth of literary exploration of capital in literature. And I’m not saying that Trust makes the reader look up like a skyscraper. Only that it woke me up to a way of looking at large companies in fiction in an era when fiction is published almost exclusively by large multinational conglomerate companies. I think it will be very interesting to see how (if) this thread that Diaz has picked up will be continued by others, or if Trust is a fascinating one-off due to American literature’s aversion to looking at itself and its conditions of production.
There is one place in contemporary fiction where wealth, if not the details of its accumulation, lives today. On a recent flight a woman sat next to me reading Heart of A Stone from The Stone Series: A Billionaire Romance by Dakota Willink on her kindle (sorry eReaders: no title secrets are safe from my eyes on a plane). Romance as a genre is no stranger to the upper echelons of the 1% as both plot device and romantic interest—as far as I can tell, the main difference between romance novel billionaires and their literary counterparts is six-pack abs. I’m not a reader of romance, so I can’t do much more than point out that there does exist a tradition of literature about billionaires written mainly by women. Someone else will need to write that analysis. But I’ll leave you with this tidbit from the Amazon description of Heart of A Stone, which gives a sense of the heroine’s main conflict in the novel: “When he’s blackmailed about a secret he’s kept since childhood, everything we fought to overcome is threatened, rocking the fragile foundation our relationship is built upon—trust.”
What I’m Reading
Pitch Dark by Renata Adler was waiting for me in a Barnes & Noble bargain bin for $1 on a recent cart trip, and I’ve been devouring it. I never have a clue what she’s writing about, but it doesn’t matter when she describes an encounter with an ill raccoon like this:
When I came home, long after dark, it was snowing, and he was there—sitting, this time, on the stove, slouched and leaning against the stovepipe, head lowered, great dark-circled eyes blinking, swaying a little, I thought, like a drunk. He left through his crawl space almost as soon as he saw me. But because, on every subsequent evening, he stayed longer and left less abruptly; because he returned most nights, and slouched, on the stove, leaning against the stovepipe, all night, until morning; because he sometimes touched, though rarely, the water I left in a dish beside the stove for him; because he was, after all, a wild thing, growing ever more docile, we arrived at our misunderstanding. I thought he was growing to trust me, when in fact he was dying. So are we all, of course. But we do not normally mistake progressions of weakness, the loss of the simple capacity to escape, for the onset of love.
I am, however, devastated that the cover of my copy doesn’t look like this.
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