Hermione Hoby Takes Virtue-Signaling


by Hermione Hoby

After enduring a global pandemic, it’s easy to forget the madness of the not-so-distant past. I’m talking about the months following the presidential election of November 8, 2016, according to the critics of Donald Trump, the situation of the country was far from apocalyptic. Or as a character in Hermione Hoby’s intense and addictive new novel “Virtue,” he says, when America “reaches an unprecedented height of vulgarity.” In an age of marches, controversial Opening crowds, Muslim travel bans, alternative realities and anger, this is where the story of “Virtue” begins.

Luca Lewis, 23, who is new to Manhattan and describes himself as a “know-it-all”, struggles with his “pretentious fat kid” past. His year at Oxford filled his voice with “round celebrities of mercenary British youth,” removing any trace of his Colorado strip mall upbringing, but still feels inferior to the intellectual elite in the new urban environment at The New Old World. , a literary magazine that rarely publishes women or writers of color. There’s the poised and principled Zara, the only Black trainee; Paula, a wealthy, generous, and haphazardly cruel artist who occasionally designs magazine covers; and Paula’s filmmaker husband, Jason, 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 in order to both impress her and feel virtuous as a white person. He dutifully attends “urgent” meetings of the city’s cultural class, called by one of the magazine’s editors, to discuss “what to do” in the office at night and walks by a white intern in a cat hat and says: “Hey guys, it’s time to RESIST!!!!”

No one specifies exactly what should be resisted or exactly what should be done. But do these details matter as long as a picture of your fist is in the air online?

[ Read an excerpt from “Virtue.” ]

With a touch as light as a match, Hoby lights up the world under the hollow social activism and performative anger among young, coastal liberals. “You’ve been doing just that on the weekends – brunch and protest – and then you’d put it all on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, or all of the above, to prove you did your part,” says Luca, and Hoby does nothing. him too. When Luca is drawn into the privileged world of Paula and Jason and is invited to join them at their summer home in Maine, he is all too eager to leave the alliance for creaking floorboards and beach picnics.

At his Maine home, the narrative and pace of life slows, but soon the outside world intervenes via news alerts. A Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. sparks a heated argument between Paula and Jason over whether to return to Manhattan and do something “while fascism develops” or continue their picnic. Soon after, Zara embarks on an act of protest with dire consequences, stunning Luca and eventually heading towards an inevitable showdown with his loyalty and principles; who you have become and what you have lost.

Throughout the novel, Hoby’s deep observations about the moral underpinnings, absurdities, and realities of contemporary social activism are seen. The author is also an artist who transforms words into striking visuals (“the lipstick on his lips faded and blotchy, half smeared, giving them both the red-stained aura of predators gazing from a fresh carcass.”).

When we engage in social activism, are we less virtuous if we signal? What is the reason for our participation in the first place? “Virtue” tackles such questions, but is too clever a novel to answer them. Instead, we were left with Luca’s insight: “We didn’t know what we were doing. We felt bad and we wanted to feel good, that’s all.”


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