New York Moments
Neon in Daylight finds a story for the directionless
Neon in Daylight
I’ve long been a fan of Hermione Hoby—her luminous writing has appeared for years in The Guardian, and has popped up in the Paris Review and The New Yorker now and again. Evinced in each reported piece was something smart and precise. Needless to say, I was thrilled to get my hands on her debut novel out now from Catapult Press. Without bothering to read the dust cover, no idea where the story might land me, I dove in.
Neon in Daylight is a New York story, and the city inserts itself into the story as though it were a character as vital as any human one. Moreover, it is the ever-lurking, but not always apparent, edgy side of the city that shadows our main characters—Kate, Inez and Bill—as they move through their Brooklyn borough. It is in writing the city that Hoby is at her strongest. A mood blankets the landscape here—one of late summer listlessness, and a pulsing something other that stays awake long after the sun sinks during those long days.
You see, animals have been showing up in city parks decapitated, or elsewise mutilated, but it is usually the head that goes first. This violence underscores the improbability of the story, making it read more as happenstance instead of purely a piece of fiction. Further highlighting a sense of danger, it is the summer of 2012, and we as readers know that Hurricane Sandy lurks on the other side of the season.
How do you end up where you do at a precise moment? How do those moments, stacking up, direct and comprise your life? Neon in Daylight is full of those magical meetings or “New York moments.” That is exactly how Kate, a Londoner on a tenure in the city taking care of the cat of her “mom’s ex-best friend,” Joni Mitchell (that’s the cat), meets Inez, a bored teenager with her own shadowy life. Separately, Kate befriends and has an affair with Bill, Inez’ father, a former novelist who is now an existential flop.
While chapters are alternatively given to each character, it is the outsider, Kate, who is most definitely the protagonist of this story. And she herself is adrift. With no job and no need for one, she wanders around the city, directionless. In some sense this is a quality that undermines all the characters—they want nothing, they don’t need to work, their survival in the city seems a given. They aren’t driven by desire or even necessity, but they are galvanized by the search for something to desire. In fact, it is Kate’s crumbling relationship with a bland, barely mentioned Englishmen named George and dwindling interest in her PhD program that has, in part, driven her away from London for the summer. Her lack of desire for the life she was living provide a starting point for the story.
Through nearly 300 pages, Neon in Daylight never lags. We can credit that, in part, to the novel's structure of alternating viewpoints. Yet, what really compels readers to keep turning pages is the near misses, the gulfs in understanding and the explanations that omit so much that Kate, Inez and Bill choose to share with one another. In that way, they each remain remote and out-of-reach for one another. The difficulty in pinning down their own desires and understanding one another makes the characters ring true, even if the search for reinvention is thematically a bit rote.
What dazzles and adds life to the scenery are Hoby's deft observations. For example, as Kate stands in a crowded art gallery, she muses, “there's something religious-looking about iPhones raised en masse.” The wit of these asides translates—as it ever have in Hoby's writing—to everything else, and the ending of this novel delightfully sidesteps the confrontation one expects, and instead, resolves with more uncertainty. Given the dilemmas that the characters are tasked with throughout the novel, that unresolved resolution seems perfectly fitting.