KATE ARRIVES in New York City alone with nothing to do. A blessing and a curse. She has housing, via her mother’s “onetime best friend,” for the small price of keeping said friend’s cat, Joni Mitchell, alive and well for the duration of her stay. With no need to make money there’s no need to work, which is the liberation many seek, though in Kate’s case it has the ancillary effect of making it difficult to meet people. She’s a student from London with a master’s degree behind her and a PhD in front of her, and she’s taking time stateside to consider whether the path she’s on is the right one. A boyfriend, George, is in the mix, and she’s not all that sure about him either. It’s the summer of 2012, and the city is boiling.
Neon in Daylight, Hermione Hoby’s debut novel, starts ticking, of all places, at a bodega. Kate is thumbing through her pretzel options when a mysterious woman shouts what strikes her as nonsense — “Happyfourth!” — and exits the store, bare feet covered in dirt. It sticks with her. The chapter ends with a grim joke: Kate hears bang after bang after bang and fears she’s arrived in New York City the night of a tragedy.
She lifted the window with fumbling, frightened fingers. First an inch, then two, then all the way, and the heat rushed in, bringing the smell of cordite. On a rooftop, blocks away, she could see figures moving, ecstatically, looping wands of light in the air that left trails and sparks like tiny comets. She stared, stupefied. And then, the word for those things came to her: sparklers. And then this knowledge, slow and steady: that people don’t dance on rooftops in the middle of a terrorist attack.
She comes to realize, of course, that what she perceived to be nonsense had been sense after all — “Happy Fourth!” — but the encounter lingers in her head.
Later, Kate is wandering around when she sees a man lugging a grand piano and decides to follow him to Washington Square Park, where he begins to play Rachmaninov under the arch. She takes in the bizarre majesty of the moment until someone breaks the spell. Kate turns to see the woman from the bodega, who says, “You’re Kate, right?” After some existential confusion, the improbable truth comes out: the woman, Inez, is there to sell Adderall to a different Kate.
Hoby, herself a Londoner-turned-New-Yorker, has conjured a perfect only-in-New-York-City moment. That sentiment — the way unlikelihood fosters a sense of inevitability — is the book’s engine, and when Kate later independently crosses paths with Inez’s father, Bill, the suspense that comes from the accidental concealment of information provides additional fuel. Kate’s coincidental relationship with him, which starts with less fanfare (they meet at an art gallery), is initially only complicated by the gulf in their ages, the lingering fame he’s retained as the author of a celebrated novel-turned-movie, and her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. But when Kate and Inez become friends, and Bill and Kate become something more, the question of when each of them is going to realize what the other two are up to tightens the plot. Kate does not know that Bill is Inez’s father and so has no reason to hide either relationship from the other person, but she does. Inez has no reason to hide her new friendship, nor does Bill have reason, really, to hide his new partner. They conceal it from one another because they’re people and that’s what people do. The novel’s structure — though Kate is irrefutably the protagonist, point-of-view chapters are given in equal measure to Inez and Bill — adds a sense of inevitability and quiet exhilaration to their eventual intersections.
This type of thing would be unbelievable in the hands of a writer with less wit and linguistic power, but Hoby’s descriptive language is spectacular, like that of Elif Batuman with a freer spirit or Eve Babitz if she were writing about the opposite coast. It’s colloquial and verbose, clear and bizarre. Bill, remembering Inez as a child, refers to her as a “portable person.” Inez refers to her mother’s second husband as a “banker nonentity” and, still underage, despairs about the “incredibly boring” prospect of “a nonfake ID.” Ronald Reagan is at one point referred to as “[t]hat cunt.” The force of her sentences is seismic, and they exude a massive confidence. The specificity of the writing creates clarity of character, which creates trust, and that trust is rewarded. Hoby’s control is never in doubt, and it makes the book irresistible.
Since Neon in Daylight is set during the smoldering summer of 2012, readers know that Hurricane Sandy, which set records for its destructiveness, lurks on the other side. Hoby is acutely aware of the way a persistent heat can shape one’s actions. She refers to it consistently but with restraint. A television playing in the background reveals that the temperatures have reached record heights, and the heat is never far from the characters’ minds, as it certainly wasn’t for those living through it at the time. Hoby makes sure to manifest that, and there are moments when the book itself feels hot and humid. Climate change novels will not always be disaster stories or situated in proximity to a disaster, so this type of attention to the manner in which extreme weather, even in its more mundane forms, shapes the lives of millions of people will become increasingly useful and important. The weather just happens, and her characters deal with it. They do not dwell on their powerlessness nor, really, consider it in those terms. They put ice cubes in their mouths or on their necks and they crank the air conditioning, and then they drink and have sex and try to grow all the same.
The knock on this book, and many like it, comes from its handling of privilege. Kate and Bill, for different reasons, do not need full-time work. Bill teaches a creative writing class at a university, though it doesn’t seem to engage his whole heart or his whole mind, and he’s not so worried about being good or bad at it. Inez, the hardest working of the characters, strings together post-high-school cash by working three jobs: drug dealer, barista, and enactor of rich men’s non-sex-based fetishes (one man likes to be shouted at and degraded before purchasing her a litany of luxury goods, another locks her in a closet for an hour). She treats her job at the coffee shop like the afterthought that it is, gaining an oddly positive reputation online for bullying customers. The drug dealing, aside from her attempt to make a sale to Kate, hardly comes up, and the sex-adjacent work never seems to be about the money, either.
Hoby is not interested in the mechanics required to make life in New York City possible for most people, and criticizing her on that front is akin to complaining that she didn’t write a different book. There are, of course, scores of novels written about scores of people in scores of places that take similar tacks. But while eliding the everyday drudgery of urban survival is understandable from a narrative standpoint, it inadvertently serves here as an expression of how privilege functions: those who have it are free of the need to strategize about getting through the day. Some reflection on this fact — counterintuitive because its very nature stifles reflection — would have enriched these characters’ inner lives and set the book apart from works of a similar subject matter.
Inez’s relationship to college is one of the dynamics that would have benefited from deeper examination. The very attainability and affordability of a secondary education seems to devalue it in her eyes, and she doesn’t want to hear about it. Her parents, for their part, appear to push it for rhetorical purposes rather than practical ones. They know that they should want their child to go to college. But why? They never say. The benefits, especially for someone who will not take on debt in the process, are obvious and perhaps don’t require serious mention. But their limp recommendations suggest a lack of commitment to the cause.
There’s a recognition buried in the book’s handling of it that the college route may not be for everyone. It peeks out of Kate’s backstory, too, as she navigates a post-graduate-school, pre-doctoral landscape that doesn’t seem to offer her anything of interest. Still, aside from Inez’s naysaying, it tends to be mentioned in passing without internal or external notation. It’s interesting to contrast her reaction to that of Lady Bird in Greta Gerwig’s recent, highly praised film of the same name. The daughter of working-class parents, Lady Bird struggles to wrap her head around the limitations her financial situation puts on her future. The cruel irony in both cases is that teenagers are woefully ill equipped to make the decisions that only they can. Gerwig’s film achieves a level of self-awareness on this subject that the book does not. Hoby’s novel would have been richer for it.
Despite this, Neon in Daylight is luminous and wonderful. Hoby spins an intricate narrative that careens toward myriad social and emotional collisions. Her style has a delicious, raucous quality, and the way she weaves together her rotating perspectives keeps the book chugging along nicely. Her talent is clear, and her debut is a very good one.