By Hermione Hoby
After enduring a global pandemic, it’s easy to forget the madness of the not-so-distant past. I’m referring to the months following the presidential election of November 8, 2016, when, for detractors of Donald Trump, the state of the nation was a bit apocalyptic. Or as the character in Hermione Hoby’s intense and addicting new novel “Virtue” says it, when America “reached a hitherto unsuspected peak of vulgarity.” It is here, in this era of marches, contested inaugural crowd sizes, Muslim travel bans, alternative facts and rage, that the story of “Virtue” begins.
New to Manhattan and describing himself as someone who “knew nothing about nothing,” 23-year-old Luca Lewis struggles with his past as a “fat, artistic kid.” A year at Oxford has imbued his voice with the “rounded vowels of well-to-do English youth,” crushing all traces of his upbringing in Colorado Mall, but he still feels inferior to the intellectual elites of his new urban circle in the New Old World. , a literary magazine that rarely publishes women or writers of color. There is Zara, full of balance and principle, the only black intern; Paula, a wealthy, generous and casually cruel artist who occasionally designs the covers of the magazine; and Jason, Paula’s filmmaker husband, who both resents and appreciates his wife’s wealth.
Luca observes Zara’s growing influence within the racial justice movement and wants to be an ally, both to impress her and to feel virtuous as a white person. He dutifully attends “emergency” meetings of the city’s cultural class, called by one of the magazine’s editors and held at the office at night, to discuss “what to do”, and walks alongside. of a white trainee in a pussy hat who says, “Hey guys, time to RESIST !!!!”
No one ever specifies exactly what to resist, or exactly what to do. But do those details matter as long as there is a photo online of your fist in the air?
[ Read an excerpt from “Virtue.” ]
With a touch as light as a single match, Hoby burns the earth under hollow social activism and performative outrage among young coastal liberals. “It was exactly what you did on the weekends – brunch and protest – then you put it all on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or all of the above to prove you were doing your part,” Luca says, and Hoby spares no expense. not him either. When Luca is drawn into the exclusive world of Paula and Jason and invited to join them at their summer home in Maine, he’s too eager to let down the ally for the creaky floors and seaside picnics. beach.
Back home in Maine, the narrative and pace of life slows down, but soon the outside world creeps in via news alerts. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia sparks a bitter debate between Paula and Jason over whether to return to Manhattan and do something as “fascism blossoms” or continue their picnics. Soon after, Zara engages in an act of protest with disastrous consequences, sending Luca to waver and ultimately rush to an inevitable account with her loyalty and principles; who he became and what he lost.
The novel is steeped in Hoby’s insightful observations on the moral foundations, absurdities, and truths of contemporary social activism. The author is equally as much an artist, transforming the words into stunning visuals (“her lipstick, faded and stained on her lips, half transferred to hers, making them both look red-tinted predators looking at a fresh carcass ”).
When we engage in social activism, are we less virtuous if we point it out? What is our motivation for getting involved in the first place? “Virtue” considers such questions, but is too intelligent a novel to answer them. Instead, we end up with this idea from Luca: “We didn’t know what we were doing. We felt bad and we wanted to feel good, and that’s it.