Class and privilege; morality and identity. These are all themes that have fueled novelists and storytellers over the years. But it’s difficult to think of a novel that’s used them in quite the same combination as Virtue, Hermione Hoby‘s new novel. At its center is a young man named Luca, who works as an intern at a prestigious literary magazine and falls into the orbit of two successful artists, Paula and Jason, who are several years his senior. Hoby’s novel offers a stunning take on recent history and a haunting look at interpersonal connections. I spoke with Hoby via email to learn more about how Virtue came to be.
Much of Virtue focuses on Luca’s interpersonal dynamics with two very different groups: his fellow interns on one hand, and Paula and Jason on the other. Was it a challenge to evoke each of these?
I suppose I didn’t think of them so much as two groups, more as a series of individuals but yep, you’re right – they’re certainly two distinct generations. Jason and Paula announced themselves to me very early on, potently. Conjuring Luca’s fellow interns came later and just seemed more fun, and more of my own making.
Luca is a narrator who can be both candid and coy, and the fact that his mother is largely left out of the book seemed significant as well. How did you go about figuring out what he would leave in and what he would omit?
Our boy Henry James has a nice line about this: “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw . . . the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.” As in, the framing and the necessary constraints are part of the pleasure of trying to create a consonant narrative which – a writer hopes! – becomes greater than the sum of its parts. So yep, everything is significant in that everything is intentional! The major character in almost every person’s life is their mother, but I made his own a minor character because I wanted a sense of how Jason and Paula, in all their glamor and charisma, have eclipsed everyone else in his life. She also functions as a contrast to Paula: they are from different worlds, plus there’s some vaguely Oedipal thing going on with his desire for Paula, so it seemed important to have his real mother as some kind of presence, albeit a limited one.
That Luca is looking back on these events from the near future seems significant as well. I’m curious – how did you come up with the framing narrative for Virtue?
It’s probably unseemly to psychoanalyze oneself in public, but here I go: there was some wishfulness, I think, in writing a novel set during the T***p administration from the vantage of the future: as in, I wanted to hold onto a hope that there would come a time when these recent years took on the softened category of history rather than the tyrannizing, prepossessing and brutalizing present that they were at the time of writing. And, from more of a craft perspective: the retrospective narration seemed like a way of having my cake and eating it too, in that the voice of his younger, awed self of the past as well his older, more circumspect self of the ‘present’ (our future) could run in and out of eachother, one hot, one cool, in what hopefully makes for a kind of dynamism. I wanted one of the book’s engines to be that inward negotiation between who he was then, and who he is now. In other words, it also seemed a way of inflecting the first person with the some of the malleability of the third person. Cheating, basically, but that’s so much of what writing fiction is.
Virtue is a novel about politics, race, and privilege — but it’s also about how all of these things are perceived. Was it difficult to find the right balance between having them as elements of the novel while simultaneously having them discussed by the characters within the novel?
I’d say that perception itself inheres, if not largely constitutes politics, race, and privilege! They’re human creations rather than fixed and empirical categories. I always shudder a bit at the notion of themes, specifically the idea that something has been grafted onto a story, rather than arising from it and driving it. What I love about novels is the way in which a web of refracted perceptions constitute meaning. Novels are vehicles for ideas, but I think they must also deliver pleasure and beauty. The way they do this is through character. In other words, the only way these things you mention are elements of the novel is through the novel’s characters. (I greatly admire DeLillo and co, but I have not written a systems novel!)
As the author of a book on political signs, I’m obligated to ask — was it hard evoking protests and protest signs from a fictional context?
I want to read your book! I didn’t so much evoke as steal in that I think most of the signs mentioned at the Women’s March are ones I actually saw. While writing, I take a lot pleasure in tossing that salad of the thieved-from-the-real and the wholly fabricated – so often the former produces the latter.
In the second half of Virtue, the text grows to include short sections from Paula and Zara. Did you know from the outset that you’d feature narrative voices other than Luca’s in the novel?
No, I didn’t, actually. (I sometimes feel a bit ashamed of how formally conventional I am.) But with Zara in particular it seemed urgent to grant her her own voice for two reasons. One, Luca’s perceptions are of course limited and fallible, so I wanted her to be able to speak for herself, or at least ‘speak’ through her email. Second, in terms of the plot, she’s necessarily absent for a long middle section of the novel, so the message from her struck me as a way of mitigating this problem, as in, a way to keep her present even as she was physically absent.
From the pandemic to the protests following Donald Trump’s election, Virtue abounds with recent history. Did any events that took place as you were writing it prompt you to have to revise it?
The ground didn’t stop moving beneath my feet. Writing a realist, contemporary novel right now feels like trying to tap dance on a rolling log. So this was just going to have to be part of it, my only choice was to try and instrumentalize this – you know, the ol ‘write into the problem’ maxim. Hence the passage in which Luca frets about there being no time for history, or about being in warp speed, or something. Sally Rooney has a brilliant passage about this in her new novel: “The present has become discontinuous. Each day, even each hour of each day, replaces and makes irrelevant the time before, and the events of our lives make sense only in relation to a perpetually updating timeline of news content. […] There is no longer a neutral setting. There is only the timeline.” (Lines, incidentally, which made me think of Annie Ernaux’s magnificent The Years.) Anyway, writing this book felt like a way to bear things. By alchemizing what was going on into fiction I had a sense of redeeming reality. That sounds grandiose: I certainly don’t mean that my novel did anything, I just mean it did something for me – it was my companion through these politically terrible years.
Photo: Benjamin Kunkel