The Secrets of an American Fortune, Told in Four Ways


Rask would become a money virtuoso, but he never connected the tunes he played to the effect they might have on the outside world. Instead, he sees “capital as an antiseptic living thing. It moves, eats, grows, reproduces, gets sick and can die. But it’s clean. … The larger the operation, the further he strayed from its concrete details. Diaz’s own prose maintains an antiseptic distance all its own, regardless of its narrator. Her superb debut novel, Pulitzer Prize-winning In the Distance, is set in the American West during the Gold Rush, and its language creates a world in which physical and psychic space seem stretched. Some writers capture their characters’ thoughts through what creative writing teachers call a close third person. Diaz, on the other hand, relies on a distance, and his sentences are at once cold, deliberate and impartial. In both books, he reflects the interiority of his characters instead of dramatizing them, and in the hands of Vanner especially, the result resembles more a biography than a novel: a story without dialogue, in which the Rask’s life is given to us more often in summary than in scenes.

It’s a disorienting but effective way to present a character who seems almost entirely without an inner life of his own, whose entire being resides in the anticipation of the click-click of a ticker tape. However, the rich man ends up discovering that he needs a wife. His choice falls on a young woman named Helen Brevoort, an American from an old Knickerbocker family who was raised in Europe. She is interested in the arts and philanthropy, and she also has some strange talents of her own, including a memory so flawless that after a brief glance, she can recite two randomly chosen books at once. , alternating them phrase by phrase. But no talent is priceless, and hers will eventually land her in a Swiss sanatorium.

So add Henry James to Wharton, and Thomas Mann too. Diaz’s first book was a study of Jorge Luis Borges, and like the Argentine master, he has all the literary past at his fingertips. “Bonds” sets the tone on which the other three sections of the novel play variations, and I’ve focused on it to avoid any spoilers; for much of the novel’s enjoyment comes from its unpredictability, its section-by-section series of formal surprises.

Yet I can say that Part Two purports to be a memoir by another financier, its pages full of notes intended for later development, and also full of self-exculpatory. This man claims he only ever wanted what was good and right for his country, and that includes his attempt to short the entire stock market before the Great Depression. The third and longest part of the book is interpreted by the voice of an Italian-American novelist, Ida Partenza, daughter of an anarchist printer, born in Brooklyn: an old woman now, in the 1990s, telling a story of his youth which will make us wary of the entirety of the first two sections of the novel. I won’t say anything about the brief fourth story, except that it also revises everything that came before.

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