It is easy to miss the redundancy of neon in daylight. But maybe, now and then, we pick up on the futility of these bright things, their bent letters competing with the sun and failing. Leaving a bar at sunrise, entering a bar midday, loitering outside a bodega proclaiming its perpetual state of openness: in these small moments, New York neon rears its feeble, faded head, and our city gives time the finger.
Hermione Hoby’s aptly named debut novel Neon in Daylight examines the roles we assign ourselves to play and how our performances are received or simply ignored. Under Hoby’s purview, we do not fare much better at communicating than neon signs. We perform—we flare, we fizzle out—hoping to illuminate the darkness, which we achieve slightly, clumsily, if at all.
Those familiar with Hoby’s beat articles in publications from the New York Times to the Guardian know her fresh wit. It flickers hot in the novel, in moments that shine pale, wry light on the particular things that New Yorkers of certain ilks find pleasing, from frozen yogurt to MFA degrees. This wit is that of the newly landed; Hoby moved to New York from south London in 2010 and has made her name as a voice that mediates a host of other voices, interviewing heavy-hitting figures from Taylor Swift to Toni Morrison with a mix of cool observation and warm-hearted humor.
In her review of The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, Hoby argues that “Every piece of writing is autobiographical. It evinces the concerns, personality and insecurities of the writer herself.” Hoby's move from London to New York is an arc that cannily parallels her main character Kate’s. It would be tempting to perhaps read the novel as autofiction, and yet there is such generous room for the reader that we can pour ourselves into the story and into our own New York, real or imagined; it’s our story too. In true Sleepless City form, there is room for us to have our own opinion on all the nutty events that unfold, and plenty do. Parul Seghal writes in the New York Times that she remains “agnostic” about the book’s climax, and that’s right: in these pages, the reader can take her own line, even as skeptic.
Neon in Daylight follows three characters in an intimate third person perspective. A stranger comes to town in the form of Kate. She is twenty-five and has taken an undefined leave of absence from her life in London, her boyfriend, and her PhD, having determined that, “the world truly did not give one single shit whether you’d done your homework.” She has dispatched herself to New York to cat sit for a friend of her mother’s whom she has never met, save for a quick Skype meeting about logistics and the need to really live, whatever that means. Kate is in New York alone against the wishes of her boyfriend George who remains throughout the novel a sad man caged in frequently interrupted or altogether ignored Skype sessions.
The formerly dutiful Kate is loose in New York, the least of threats to anyone on earth, but no small threat to herself now free of obligations and experimenting with carelessness. She blushes and winces constantly. She feels embarrassed in front of Joni Mitchell, the cat she is supposed to be sitting but which mostly keeps an eye on Kate’s sanity. Flashbacks from her life in London contrast with the present. In London, she was accounted for. She was watched. A recurring memory sees a glass of red wine seeping across the dinner table while her boyfriend George shoots her a critical look. In New York, no one’s watching the wine run, and Kate will sink into hangovers for days on end.
The wine spill carries slippery weight throughout the novel, as the symbol of the wine slowly turns to blood. When George mentions the infamous dinner party that haunts Kate, it is called “that dinner party,” and we are reminded: “He didn’t say ‘the one where you spilled the red wine all over that white cloth,’ or ‘the one where you suggested some women might like to be fucked like animals,’ but he couldn’t keep a little darkness out of the words.” Kate not only spilled the wine but offended her friends at the party by casually suggesting that some women may like to be “fucked like animals.” One might wonder for a second—because she’s unusual—but Kate is no radical. This is not a portrait of the artist as a young woman. It is Hoby's portrait of ambivalence and of the awkward and often hollow shapes we bend ourselves in.
For Bill, a white male, one-hit literary icon, the neon sign of a local bar signifies the nostalgia he feels for his own waning existence. The B in “BAR” flickers, signifying the impermanence not just of a sign but of a time and place that “sputters in and out of existence.” We meet Bill regaining consciousness in a park after a night of heavy drinking. He is barefoot and unsure of how he got there. He then stumbles upon a beheaded baby goat, from which we learn that rumors of a “mutant wildcat” are circulating. From 2010 to 2014, Brooklyn dwellers were alarmed by goat heads and other decapitated animals scattered in and around Prospect Park, which left them debating whether these were amateurish ritual sacrifices, or the work of pranksters who had scored the heads from meat markets. In such a vein, the brief-lived and undeveloped mutant wildcat theory in the novel adds an element of paranoia, plopped into the narrative like something that doesn’t belong in a cocktail.
In contrast to Kate’s repressed dinner-party psychology and to Bill's obsession with maintaining his faded image, Bill’s daughter Inez blazes. Inez is out of every closet. Not only is she infamous at the coffee shop where she works for being a “bitch” who always says exactly what she is thinking, she begins answering Craigslist ads, to the chagrin of her best friend, to fulfill unusual fetishes. She profits from the pleasure and the shame of others, which makes her feel powerful and makes her feel nothing in turn—“she wasn’t doing it for the money, but for something about the money—the alchemy of the thing. The way that some thought tucked all tight and private in a fold of a stranger’s mind could get out into the world, and make dollar bills materialize.” The character of Inez is rather impossible to understand and impossible to moralize, which is part of her charm.
The shame inherent in the daily chore of having desires and a body forms the crux of this novel. At first glance, the story may appear to be about the malaise of the privileged, but it is doing deeper work. In Hoby’s delicately fierce hand, the oppressive heat and endless contradictions of New York in summer come to life. She strikes an improbable balance rendering both the keen, bewildered perspective of an outsider and the-various-shades-of-jade perspectives of characters who have lived in the city all their lives. New York is always new, always a place that must be rediscovered, and Hoby’s characters do so with levels of increasing weariness.
These characters are driven by desires they are not privy to. They frantically follow the emergency exit lights of their own minds, unsure of what it is they are attempting to escape or where they are headed. And all the while Hoby’s radiant language that allows the reader to be absorbed in these restless inner journeys. Her sentences are the sort we would follow anywhere, wiping the linguistic grit and grime off our pristine shoes. The images used to describe what is seen through Kate’s eyes are marvelous in their keen strangeness. Inez’s voice “made Kate think of caves, their smooth, dry walls.” The simplicity of these words highlight the frozen, open-mouthed awe Kate experiences as she eavesdrops on Inez buying a pack of smokes. Kate repeats, she mouths, Inez’s words, only to be mocked by the cashier.
Hoby’s paragraphs contain small, busy worlds. The circuity of the images and actions is tight and impressive, conveying in prose the claustrophobia of New York summer spaces both internal and external. Kate “arrived in a city celebrating its independence from her nation. Fireworks sound the same as bombs. Or as imagined bombs.” She crouches under a table, hiding from the imagined. From this awkward position, her adventure begins.
Hoby’s images pulse brilliantly through the novel like blood through a vein, or neon through a tube. Bare feet, blood, wolfish metaphors—they all perpetuate the looming carnal urges and gore lingering just beneath the surface of everything, beneath every facade. While the occasional shoelessness of the characters can come to feel forced—is Inez really comfortable slapping her bare soles across boroughs?—it certainly gets the message across. As Neko Case puts it so well in her song, “I’m an animal”—a song that would do well on the soundtrack to this novel—“I'm an animal. You’re an animal too.”
And here’s the other thing. I, too, was cat-sitting during Hurricane Sandy, in a sterile apartment the likes of which I will never be able to afford. I rode out the storm with sleeping pills and bottles of rosé the owners had stashed in the fridge after a long-forgotten summer party. I looked out on the same streets that Kate sees: “No one, no people, just a darkening sky and a mean wind whipping down past storefronts, blind and faceless with their shutters down.” Reading this book, I was lurched back to that day. I received text messages until I lost service. I had no one to perform for. The city was in survival mode. Then everything, even the perpetual neon, went dark.
Halley Parrey is a writer living in Nashville. She was a bookseller at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn until she moved south. She now manages social media at Parnassus Books.
Banner photograph by Alexandrea Scotland. She Instagrams @potent_lover