by Hermione Hobby
After enduring a global pandemic, it’s easy to forget the madness of the not-too-distant past. I’m referring to the months following the presidential election on November 8, 2016, when, for opponents of Donald Trump, the state of the nation felt less of a note than apocalypse. Or as a character in Hermione Hobby’s intense and addictive new novel, “Virtue,” puts it, when America “reached an unmistakable peak of obscenity.” It is here, in this era of marches, opening crowd sizes, Muslim travel restrictions, alternate facts and fury, that the story of “virtue” begins.
New to Manhattan and self-described as someone who “knew nothing,” 23-year-old Luca Lewis struggles with his “artistic fat kid” past. A year at Oxford has filled his voice with “the round voices of wealthy English youth”, erasing any trace of his strip-mall Colorado upbringing, but he still remains in his newfound sense of humor in The New Old World. Feels inferior to the intellectual elite in urban circles. , a literary magazine that rarely publishes women or writers of color. The only black intern is the elegant and majestic Zara; Paula, a wealthy, eclectic and casually ruthless artist who occasionally designs magazine covers; and Jason, Paula’s filmmaker husband, who is angry with his wife’s wealth and enjoys it.
Luca sees Zara’s growing influence within the racial justice movement and wants to be an ally to influence her and feel virtuous as a white person. He attends “emergency” meetings of the city’s cultural class, called by one of the magazine’s editors and held in the office at night, to discuss “what had to be done” and with a cat. marches with hated white interns who declare, “Hey guys, it’s time to protest!!!!”
No one ever specifies what exactly needs to be opposed, or what exactly needs to be done. But do those details matter as long as there’s a picture of your fist in the air online?
[ Read an excerpt from “Virtue.” ]
With a touch as light as a single match, Hobby scorches the earth under hollow social activism and demonstrative outrage among young, coastal liberals. Says Luca, “It was just what you did on the weekend — brunch and protest — then you would put it all on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or all of the above to prove that you were doing your part.” him either. When Luca is drawn into the exclusive world of Paula and Jason and invited to join them at their summer home in Maine, he is too eager to leave the awkward floorboards and allies for picnics on the beach.
In the Main House, the narrative and pace of life slow down, but soon the outside world sneaks in via news alerts. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., sparks a bitter debate between Paula and Jason over whether to return to Manhattan and “fascism flourishes” or something to continue with their picnic. Soon after, Zara engages in an act of protest with dire consequences, repatriates Luca, and eventually hurts with her loyalty and principles toward an inevitable reckoning; Who has he become and what has he lost.
The novel is steeped with Hobby’s penetrating comments on the moral underpinnings, absurdities and truths of contemporary social activism. The author is equally an artist, turning words into stunning visuals (“Her lipstick, faded and blurry on her lips, half-transferred, giving them both a red-stained air of hunters watching from a fresh carcass is) “).
When we engage in social activism, are we less virtuous if we indicate it? What is our motive for joining in the first place? “Virtue” considers such questions, but a novel is too smart to answer them. Instead, we’re left with this insight from Luca: “We didn’t know what we were doing. We felt bad and wanted to feel good, and that’s all.