Hermione Hoby Takes on Virtue-Signaling

VIRTUEBy Hermione HobyAfter enduring a global pandemic, it’s easy to forget the insanity of the not-too-distant past. I’m referring to the months following the presidential election on Nov. 8, 2016, when, for Donald Trump’s detractors, the state of the nation felt a note short of apocalyptic. Or as a character in Hermione Hoby’s intense and addictive new novel, “Virtue,” puts it, when America “reached a heretofore unglimpsed apex 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 self-described as someone who “knew nothing about anything,” 23-year-old Luca Lewis struggles with his “artsy fat kid” past. A year at Oxford has imbued his voice with “the rounded vowels of moneyed English youth,” stomping out any trace of his strip-mall Colorado upbringing, but he still feels inferior to the intellectual elites in his new urban circle at The New Old World, a literary magazine that rarely publishes women or writers of color. There is the poised and principled Zara, the only Black intern; Paula, a rich, generous and casually cruel artist who occasionally designs the magazine’s covers; and Jason, Paula’s filmmaker husband, who both resents and enjoys 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, summoned by one of the magazine’s editors and held in the office at night, to discuss “what was to be done,” and marches alongside a pussy-hatted white intern who declares, “Hey guys, it’s time to RESIST!!!!”No one ever specifies what exactly needs resisting, or what exactly needs to be done. But do those details matter as long as there’s a picture online of your fist in the air?No one ever specifies what exactly needs resisting, or what exactly needs to be done. But do those details matter as long as there’s a picture online of your fist in the air?[ Read an excerpt from “Virtue.” ]With a touch as light as a single match, Hoby scorches the earth beneath hollow social activism and performative outrage among young, coastal liberals. “That was just what you did on weekends — brunch and protest — then you’d put it all on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or all of the above to prove you were doing your part,” Luca says, and Hoby doesn’t spare him either. When Luca is drawn into Paula and Jason’s exclusive world and invited to join them at their summer home in Maine, he is all too eager to drop allyship for creaky floorboards and beachside picnics.At the Maine house, the narrative and pace of life slow down, but soon the outside world intrudes via news alerts. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., spurs a bitter debate between Paula and Jason over whether to return to Manhattan and do something as “fascism flourishes,” or to continue on with their picnics. Soon afterward, Zara engages in an act of protest with dire consequences, sending Luca reeling, and eventually hurtling toward an inevitable reckoning with his loyalties and principles; who he has become and what he has lost.The novel is steeped throughout with Hoby’s penetrating observations on the moral underpinnings, absurdities and truths of contemporary social activism. The author is also just as much an artist, transforming words into stunning visuals (“her lipstick, faded and smudged on her lips, half-transferred to his, giving both of them the red-tainted air of predators looking up from a fresh carcass”).When we engage in social activism, are we less virtuous if we signal it? What is our motive for engaging in the first place? “Virtue” considers such questions, but is too smart a novel to answer them. Instead, we are left with this insight from Luca: “We didn’t know what we were doing. We felt bad and we wanted to feel good, and that was all.”

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