Worst case scenario: you’re stuck somewhere without a book. (Or not enough books.) Often it’s a matter of mere moments — waiting outside a movie theater, early for a dinner reservation, or hiding in the bathroom at your cousin’s wedding. I am a chronic over-packer, bringing separate bags full of books on vacations, stuffing my purse with at least two books on an ordinary day. But every now and then it happens. I come up short.
In 2012, I had been living in New York City for two years. I actively avoided fiction set in contemporary New York. Why? Perhaps because I used fiction as an escape, and reading about an approximation of the landscape around me didn’t always feel like one. When you’re on a plane, it’s best not to read a novel about a plane crash.
Imagine my dismay when after much pre-storm chatter about Hurricane Sandy, it turned out to be worse than everyone thought it would be, and I was stranded, cat-sitting in an apartment with exactly one bookshelf . . . full of art books. It’ll be fine, I thought. I can go buy something to read tomorrow. But I couldn’t go out tomorrow, or the next day.
Manhattan shut down for days. I survived on chia pudding and rosé. I filled every glass and pot with water. And I read one of the only novels tucked between the art books: Open City by Teju Cole – a stunning, though often frustrating, novel of contemporary New York.
And just like that, when New York was pummeling me the hardest, I fell in love with its fiction. Anxiety (and desperation) drew me to a New York that I recognized, rendered on the page. I needed — and found — an escape from the dark, apocalyptic, isolated downtown of the hurricane. After several days, after several reads of Open City, after I had exhausted my flashlight batteries and was forced to walk up and down 12 interior flights of stairs in the pitch black, I was able to hitchhike home to Brooklyn.
Then I read everything set in New York that I could find. Which, as you probably know, is not a small list.
Hermione Hoby’s Neon in Daylight has burst onto the scene as a truly remarkable new addition to the list of essential New York novels. It may seem like a cliché to say, but it’s true: in her book, New York is a character. The ever-present heat and never-ending noise come alive in her words. The story is told in a close third-person perspective and alternates among three characters, ending as the first winds of Hurricane Sandy begin to empty the streets. As the lives of these people become more entwined, the frenzy of New York begins to take hold and drives them to behave in ways even they don’t understand.
Thoughtful, precise prose and haunting images guide the narrative to its inevitable conclusion. The New York Times compared Hoby to Zadie Smith, Joan Didion, and Rachel Kushner. They’re right. She is a great force to be reckoned with, and Neon in Daylight is proof. Hoby took me right back to the streets that I once protected myself from, the ever-buzzing neon. Pick up this slim, unassuming novel, and be dazzled by it, as I was. Then come see Hoby read at Parnassus Books next Thursday evening. – Halley
Hermione Hoby reads from and signs her debut novel
NEON IN DAYLIGHT
Thursday, February 1, 2018
6:30 p.m. at Parnassus Books
Open to the public and free to attend!
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Want to linger in New York? There are more glorious works of fiction that capture contemporary NYC than we can count, but start with these: