The hardest part was figuring out the brand. Like, what kind of cigarettes could I ask for that would make me seem like I was old enough to buy them, as if I weren't just a 14-year-old kid who definitely deserved to be carded and summarily denied the opportunity to look as cool as I was intent on looking. I settled on American Spirits, the baby blue pack. I did this for a couple of reasons: (1) even though this was still the late '90s and long before all-natural anything was a thing I cared about, the fact that American Spirits were "all-natural" gave them an inherent cachet and (2) I had seen someone else buy them, and this person looked like someone I wanted to be.
It's been years and years since I last bought a pack of cigarettes. I used to know exactly the price each bodega within a 10-block radius of my apartment charged for a pack; now, I don't even know what a pack costs at all. (But I am in New York, so... probably, one million dollars.) And yet while reading Neon in Daylight, Hermione Hoby's lyrical debut novel, I was transported to that time once again, a time when I had yet to figure out exactly who I was or even wanted to be, so I looked around me for signifiers, for answers, for guides. The problem, though, of looking for those things in New York is that they're all around you in ways both obvious and elusive, and before you know it, you've found exactly the life you've been looking for, only it's never quite as you'd thought it would be. That's where the real work begins, then, in figuring out what's real and what's artificial, and whether or not that distinction matters. And it all starts that first time you find yourself copying someone's request for a pack of American Spirits, the baby blue ones. Or, in the case of Kate, Neon in Daylight's protagonist, the yellows.
Kate is at the center of Neon in Daylight. Or, rather, a sweltering New York City summer, the one before Hurricane Sandy, is at the center of Neon in Daylight, and Kate is at the center of that. In her mid-20s, Kate is a British doctoral candidate who has come to New York to house-sit for the kind of woman who has a cat named Joni Mitchell, but also Kate has come to have some time alone, away from her boyfriend. Is there a better place to escape boyfriends than New York in the summer? Probably not, even if that kind of escape just leads you into making new connections, the kinds that find you in yet another consuming relationship.
For Kate, new connections come in the form of Inez, a beautiful, heedless teenager (whose request for yellow American Spirits is the one Kate apes), and Bill, a middle-aged writer whose one big hit is years behind him. Inez also happens to be Bill's daughter, but Kate doesn't know that, and neither Inez nor Bill is aware of the other's connection to Kate. It's a neat, nasty little triangle, the kind whose lines will inevitably slacken into a spinning circle, one that picks up speed far more rapidly than you'd thought possible. It's doomed, this triangle. The devastation looms as ominously as a superstorm in the not too distant future, and yet it doesn't feel purely scary. There's a real excitement to knowing that disaster will come and that you're bringing on your own destruction. You have agency over your own ending. You get to experience what it is to live a life of extremes.
"A friend said to me the other day that it’s sort of appropriate that it’s coming out in January, because a snowstorm can have that same effect, where it’s a sort of sense of all bets are off," Hoby told me over coffee, on a day just before Christmas, day so cold it was hard to remember that New York ever experienced the kind of heat that makes your blood move slower than honey. "The extremity of it and the hysterity of that, you know? I think people get together in snowstorms a lot in the same way that they get together in the heights of summer. It’s that same heady, intense state of abnormality that I think, then, induces a state of abnormality in the people living through it."
What Hoby captures so beautifully in Neon in Daylight is the peculiar urgency of summer, one that masks itself in a seeming laziness, a languorousness, a stasis. The thing that's tricky about summer, is that it seems like a time of life, of static abundance, but really, everything is quietly, if beautifully, dying. What a time to be alive! But also, what a time to get busy dying.
And, of course, summer in the city wouldn't be summer without sex. Hoby spoke to me about how the book was, in a way that "might be most obvious to a reader" inspired by "New York itself, and the intoxication of this place. I mean, it’s lovely to come to Manhattan, because I still feel that it does that thing to you, that heightening." And it is impossible to think of Neon in Daylight being set in any other city on earth (its title is a reference to one of Frank O'Hara's "Lunch Poems," themselves some of the finest New York-centered writing ever), so charged is it with the city's almost palpable energy, revolving around constant exchange—of money, of sex, and of power.
Now is an interesting time to think about those exchanges in relation to two young women and a middle-aged man. At the time when Hoby and I met, men were being removed from positions of power in all sorts of industries and "Cat Person," a short story from The New Yorker about a bad relationship between a man and a woman, had gone viral. It was, then, the perfect time to talk about men and their... flaws, yes, but also the ways in which the ramifications of living under a patriarchal system are more complicated than many would like to think. Hoby said:
I’ve been trying to have the discipline, just the mental discipline, to keep distinguishing from men and patriarchy, you know what I mean? I don’t want to let anyone off the hook by any way, by any means, and I really welcome this painful moment. I hope I can have some understanding of it. Since the election, I’ve been trying to apply that to most things. To be like, there is a difference between the terrible acts and the person. And I think for our own sake, just for everyone’s sake, it’s almost a good spiritual practice to try and remember that. Which isn't to say I don’t also feel enormous inarticulate rage. [But] if you are aspiring to be a principled and decent and self-interrogating person, how do you live in this profoundly compromised world? What do you let slide? What lies do you have to tell yourself, what compromises do you make, and what regrets will you end up having?
Hoby was speaking to our collective instinct to see things in black-and-white, to reduce complex situations into something easily digestible, all the better to dispose of discreetly, to lessen our own discomfort. Hoby explained, "Because it's exhausting to keep thinking about." And yet, exhausting these trains of thoughts is essential in order to fully process them, and to approach something resembling rehabilitation and then progress. It's too early to make up our minds about how things ought to be because we're still too much living within the problem of how things are. And this is why good storytelling right now refuses to allow the reader an easy out, a simple way of determining who is good or who is bad; it traffics in the same kind of ambiguity and inherent contradiction as one of those extra-long summer days, when nothing is happening and yet your life is changing in the most profound ways. And so even a character like Bill, a man who has plenty of qualities that will make many women recoil a bit in recognition, could never be written off as being merely a "bad guy." Hoby said to me, "I do have a huge amount of affection for Bill. I think he’s a loving father and I think he’s bewildered by this world that he can’t quite catch up with. And he’s had his moment, and what is that to keep living after you’ve had your moment? When you know that was it, it doesn’t get better?"
Hoby's compassion for Bill is something that she feels for all her characters, and yet she never seems to be holding their hands; they lead their lives on the page and within their world, never does it feel like judgment is being passed down from some authorial guide. In Neon in Daylight, no woman is punished for wanting sex, or for doing the kind of things long condemned as being dangerous for a woman to do. Hoby told me that she resisted this "tawdry" writerly trope, saying that kind of punishment "is just so cheesy and unsophisticated."
It’s like, that’s not your job as an author; you don’t have moral authority with your characters as an author. You’re kind of in service to them, almost. And if you’re punishing them, then you’re just a child playing with Legos and toppling towers down. To me, that’s not what fiction is... That’s just the punishment of our woman-hating culture.
And it's precisely this culture that Neon in Daylight stands up against. As in many other acclaimed novels recently (Made for Love by Alissa Nutting, The Answers by Catherine Lacey), this one centers around a woman who is not specifically ambitious, she is not specifically anything—even herself. She's still trying to figure out who she even is. In her New York Times review of Neon in Daylight, Parul Sehgal identified this type of character as being "a woman, more usually than not, who doesn’t know how or what to want." But though this effect often makes women seem like ciphers, empty vessels, I think what Neon in Daylight makes clear is that these women are anything but. Rather, they are creatures of abundance, their scrutiny of the world around them fills them up. There is so much out there, so much to love, from the sight of the dirty-soled bare feet of a magnetic young woman to the feeling that prickles up the back of your neck right before an electrical storm descends. It's a love that springs from attention, from being an observer. Hoby referenced the movie Lady Bird, in which paying attention is noted as a form of love, and the author Jeffrey Eugenides, who once said, Hoby tells me, "he wanted to be a writer because that seemed like a way to pay attention to the world."
Hoby continued, "It sounds so corny, but that’s what I want to do, I just want to pay attention and make it be a loving sort of attention, which I hope then becomes the opposite of self-indulgent. Like, hopefully, it’s something generous." And, in fact, that's exactly what it feels like, reading Neon in Daylight. There's a sense of being given a gift, something you're not quite sure you're ready to receive, something that feels like it's already a part of you, or has been buried deep inside. Yes, there is much within its pages that I found myself recognizing as being something I'd once thought or felt or experienced, but the appeal of the novel wasn't because I saw myself in it, but rather, because I saw so much I didn't recognize, things I hadn't known I wanted to see, to spend time with, to unravel. There's a quiet chaos within its pages, the same kind of pulse that exists within our bodies, and under the city's streets. It speaks to the feeling we all have on summer Fridays or in the days before Christmas; it's about anticipation and longing and climax and anticlimax all at once. Hoby said to me, about the feeling she was having leading up to her book's launch, "There’s probably a terror, I think, to getting what you want, you know? It’s overwhelming." I do know. And it's this overwhelming terror and pleasure and everything all at once that she captures so beautifully in her book, where you feel like you're drowning while standing on dry land, but you wouldn't have it any other way.
Neon in Daylight is available for purchase January 9.