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‘Idaho’ & ‘Neon in Daylight’
Emily Ruskovich and Hermione Hoby

Everything I know about Idaho I learned from Marilynne Robinson. I suppose that’s not quite true. I have a friend from Coeur d’Alene who feels a complicated love for his state, home both to great beauty and to the Aryan Nations. I know that the rich and famous vacation in Sun Valley. But my Idaho is really Robinson’s Idaho—the place that she has explored in essays and fiction, a place of the literary and theological imagination. In the essay “Psalm 8,” Robinson describes the Idaho of her childhood as “a thriving place…full of intention, a sufficiency awaiting expectation.” Here she is, remembering the lovely excess of it all:

Thousands of florets for which I would never learn names, so tiny even a child had to kneel to see them at all, squandered intricacy and opulence on avid little bees, the bees cherished, the flowers cherished, the light cherished, visibly, audibly, palpably.

In her first novel Housekeeping, Robinson places us in Fingerbone, a slightly fictionalized version of her hometown of Sandpoint. In a novel of many splendors, the descriptions of the sublime beauty of Fingerbone rank among the most precious:

At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogether black. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground. And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains.

Robinson’s Idaho is wild and lonesome, eliciting feelings of sweet smallness: “I seemed to myself a mote of exception, improbable as a flaw in the sun, [and] the very sweetness of the experience lay in that stinging thought—not me, not like me, not mine.” Elsewhere, she writes, “Existence is remarkable, actually incredible.” Idaho’s vastness reminds Robinson and her readers that the world is indeed remarkable, that its sublimity almost beggars belief.

 

Like Robinson, Emily Ruskovich has first-hand knowledge of Idaho. She grew up in the state’s northern mountains, a place she remembers as “beautiful and quiet and secret” but also as “scary…hostile.” She also has deep connections with Robinson. Ruskovich has described her first reading of Housekeeping as transformative; she went on to study with Robinson at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Given all this, it’s perhaps not remarkable that Ruskovich’s debut novel is set in Idaho—in fact, it takes the state name as its title—or that it echoes Robinson’s own work. What is remarkable, though, is that Ruskovich doesn’t pale by the comparison. Idaho is a wondrous novel about the enchanting and terrifying wonders of experience: unexplained and unexplainable actions, the ways in which love can pivot to hate and back again, the strangeness of memory and loss and mercy.

There’s a quiet grace to much of Ruskovich’s language, a decorum that occasionally sounds, in the best way possible, more nineteenth than twenty-first century: “They both simply knew how the other felt: that it was necessary to delay everything, even a declaration of love, until they were legally bound to it”; “There was an intensity inherent in everything until, one day, there wasn’t.” In this way, Idaho departs from the stylistically extravagant Housekeeping, resembling more Robinson’s later, quieter masterpieces, Home and Lila.

Underneath the quiet, dignified surface of Idaho, however, lies an act of almost unfathomable violence. One summer morning in 1995, while taking a break from stacking wood in the back of her family’s truck, Jenny Mitchell—mother to two young daughters, wife to a knife-maker named Wade—takes an axe to her youngest daughter May. May is killed instantly; the older daughter, June, runs away into the Idahoan wilderness and is never seen or heard from again. Jenny pleads guilty and is sentenced to prison, not explaining her actions but simply telling the judge, “I wish that you would kill me. But I should never again be granted anything close to what I wish.” Wade is left alone with his grief.

What could motivate such an act—especially from Jenny, a woman who, until that horrific moment, was a loving and patient mother? The rest of the novel explores this question, primarily through the perspective of Ann, a local music teacher who marries the bereaved Wade just about a year after “his unthinkable loss.” Ann’s love arises, suddenly and almost as inexplicably as Jenny’s heinous crime, from a desire to comfort: “‘I could take care of you,’ she said softly. She was very surprised to hear herself say this, but even so her voice was calm, as if she had been intending to say it all along.”

In trying to think about Wade’s unthinkable loss, Ann becomes interested in figuring out Jenny’s motivation. She imagines her way into May’s last moments before death, June’s last moments before fleeing, Jenny’s last moments as an innocent woman. She pores over the small signs Jenny’s life has left behind—a family polaroid, the interior of the long-abandoned truck—constructing memories of events she wasn’t present for: May and June playing in the field right before the killing; a song May might have been singing in the truck before the axe fell.

Wade doesn’t concern himself with such detective work. He is a sad and loving and good man, possessed of a tragic vision of life that helps him to understand why Jenny’s violence can never be understood: “It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a thing that she did on purpose. It was a thing that happened. To her and by her, and that’s it.” This stoicism has been hard won, a response not just to the horrific act at the heart of the novel but to a longer familial education in life’s injustices. When Wade was a young man, his father, who suffered from early-onset dementia, wandered off into the Idaho winter one night and froze to death. “It was like that with my father’s father, too,” Wade says. “Only with him it wasn’t freezing.” Shortly after he marries Ann, Wade also begins to show signs of dementia. First, it’s small things: he forgets how to play the piano; he puts a hairbrush in the freezer. Then it’s larger things. He forgets why it is that the family truck remains at a distance from the house. Eventually, he forgets how, even that, he lost his two daughters.

In a terrible, beautiful moment late in the novel, Wade quietly asks Ann if she wants to have a child. She is surprised, and then moved, as she realizes that “he wants to know what it’s like to be a father. What it is like, not what it was.” He hasn’t just forgotten the murder; he’s also forgotten that he ever was a father. Yet even if he can’t identify the source of his grief, he still feels it. As Ruskovich puts it, “He has lost his daughters, but he has also lost the memory of losing them. But he has not lost the loss.”

 

If intention diminishes to nothing, then what rises to take its place? How do we respond to an unthinkable evil?

Two questions nagged me while reading Idaho. The first is the most obvious, mentioned earlier: Why did Jenny do it? Ann has her speculations. Wade has his resignations. But what does the novel itself posit? Taken as a whole, Idaho suggests that this is the wrong sort of question to ask. Like Marilynne Robinson’s work, this novel wants us to remember that action and motivation are both cloaked in mystery, and that to reduce this mystery to a simple causal explanation is to do violence to human experience.

While Ann is, in many ways, the center of the novel, Ruskovich nimbly shifts perspectives throughout, giving us stretches in the minds of Wade, Jenny, Jenny’s cellmate Elizabeth, and others. (She also moves back and forth in time, jumping from 1985, when Jenny and Wade first met, to 2025, when Jenny is released from prison, and to points in between.) But Jenny’s actions remain a mystery, both to those around her and to herself. The novel doesn’t want to offer a Rosebud moment that will explain all: “Why would anyone believe a thing so ugly as an equal sign?… When compared to all that blood, when compared to that new, swimming dimension ripped into the world by her act, intention is nothing. It is diminished to the point of nonexistence.”

If intention diminishes to nothing, then what rises to take its place? How do we respond to an unthinkable evil? The novel’s answer is, with care. Idaho calls for rejecting the equal sign, for giving not what we deserve but what we need. When Wade, confused by dementia, unthinkingly harms Ann, she forgives him and their love continues to grow. When Elizabeth, Jenny’s fellow prisoner, angrily responds to an act of kindness by yelling, “Why don’t you go get a hatchet and we’ll make believe I’m your daughter,” Jenny responds with renewed kindness and a friendship develops. When Jenny is freed from prison, Ann helps set her up with an apartment and a bank account. I don’t know if Ruskovich is, like Robinson, a believer in God’s grace. But Idaho surprises in part by its consistent and unsentimental choice of unmerited grace over justified punishment. This isn’t to say that it denies the evil of Jenny’s act. But it does suggest that even such acts be met with forgiveness and love.

The second question that kept at me was “Why Idaho?” The obvious answer would appeal to Ruskovich’s roots, and it’s true, the years she spent in Idaho make themselves felt in the novel’s many superb descriptions of the landscape. There’s the almost extraterrestrial strangeness of the Snake River Plain, “a flat and vast place, carved by volcanic eruptions” and dotted with farms that “are straight lines against the reddish, cratered land they have been coaxed from.” There’s the wild vegetation of the mountains, with “the giant fans of the thimbleberry leaves…wrinkled in their centers, browned at the edges as if touched by fire.” There’s the excitement, and horror, of Wade and Jenny moving from the prairies to the mountains, finding themselves marooned there during the winter, looking at “the valley shimmer[ing] in the frost” and knowing that, until the spring thaw, there’s no way of getting there.

But we could also take a moral or theological view of Idaho’s grandeur. Looking at that shimmering valley in the distance, seeing those craters on the plains, we’re reminded that we are, in Robinson’s words, “a mote of exception.” To live in such a world is to be reminded of our own smallness and vulnerability, and to be reminded of this is to be asked to forgive one another. The world is so vast, so beautiful and terrifying. What else can we do?

 

Neon in Daylight lacks the narrative and moral heft of Idaho. But it still makes beautiful music.

Hermione Hoby’s debut novel, Neon in Daylight, couldn’t be further from Ruskovich’s Idaho. For one thing, there’s a large geographical gap between the two. We’ve moved from Idaho to New York City, from the cool plains and even cooler mountains to the sweaty environs of bodegas and house parties and city parks “that smelled of scorched grass and dust and hot air threaded through with notes of marijuana.” We’ve moved even further in terms of mental geography. Natural light and dark have largely been replaced by the garishness of neon and all it stands for. We’re in a city of artifice, where the absurd characters we meet in bars and at parties—the bitchy artist, the hipster barista—“seemed like CGI figures.” Here selfhood is a performance, “a mess of so many fictions,” and the only way out of irony is through it: “If she performed the performance, if she acted it out while laughing to herself, didn’t that exempt her, in some way?” If Ruskovich’s Idaho is a place of rusted trucks and economic hardship, Hoby’s New York is a world of privilege: PhD students, anhedonic middle-aged novelists drinking and drugging their way through the nights, high-school students getting paid to act out men’s fetishes not because they have to but because they want to. We’re not in Robinson territory anymore; we’re in Joan Didion, or Frank O’Hara, country. (The novel’s title comes from an O’Hara poem.)

The protagonist of Neon in Daylight is a listless grad student named Kate who doesn’t know what she wants. She leaves her studies and boyfriend in London, going to New York City for the summer to house- and cat-sit for a family friend. Maybe, she thinks, the sheer fact of moving, of inhabiting a different place, will allow her to inhabit a different self, to have a self in the first place: “She’d buy a pack of cigarettes. That’d be a thing to do, a new prop to hold…some kind of shortcut to poise or personality. This was a thing the living did—smoked.” While in the sweltering city—it’s 2012, right before Hurricane Sandy—Kate tries to do other things that the living do. She takes drugs, sleeps on the rooftops of friends’ apartment buildings, and starts up an affair with a similarly listless but older novelist. Most of all, she allows herself to fall into the frenetic flow of New York, “all the quick currents and charges, synapse flares, unmappable.”

It’s a relatively simple plot: girl comes to New York, finds herself seduced and betrayed by the city, with all of this leading to a dramatic climax. (In this case, the climax involves a crazy party, the public suicide of a former Warhol Factory superstar, and the arrival of Sandy in the form of “a darkening sky and a mean wind whipping down.”) But in another way the plot is also a bit convoluted. Kate serendipitously meets a high-school student named Inez, who has gone to Washington Square to sell Adderall to a different girl named Kate. Kate the PhD student and Inez the high-school student become friends. (In many ways, Inez seems far older than her nineteen years; more on this later.) That novelist with whom Kate strikes up an affair? It’s Inez’s father. This secret will be revealed unintentionally at the climactic party, which is also where the suicide happens, which is also the night before the arrival of Sandy. It’s all a little too messy—do we need a romantic revelation and a death and a natural catastrophe all at once?—and a little too neat, with everything pointing to this one clinching moment.

 

Part of the problem with Neon in Daylight is that nothing much seems to matter. Take Inez. She makes party money by playacting men’s fantasies, advertising her services online. One guy pays her to stay locked in a closet for an hour, another to put on makeup while he watches, yet another to yell at him while he buys her expensive clothes online. Each encounter, with “its lurid, porny shades,” seems menacing. We, like Inez, find ourselves “swallow[ing] a small lump of dread.”

And then…nothing much happens. Inez has an encounter that becomes violent—after she breaks the fourth wall of her performance, one of her paying customers slaps her—and so she stops this little sideline. But her thoughts on desire and performance don’t appear to change much. She just continues with her second job as a barista, until she quits that, too. Again, the consequences are minimal. She gives her boss a high five—“Later, Heather. Thanks for being a chill boss”—and calls up Kate to hang out. Inez’s father is rich; his one novel was adapted into a successful movie. We get the sense that she’ll be fine.

So if all the action is largely without consequence, either for the plot or for the novel’s moral vision, why did I find myself enjoying Neon in Daylight? Because despite its plot weaknesses, it contains sentences like this: “Central Park was bleak, the lake the same murk as a paintbrush jar, hot rain and wind blistering whitecaps across it.” And this: “The attraction, she decided, wasn’t in having dinner with him, it was in having had dinner with him. As with losing her virginity, all her focus had been on the situation’s pluperfect.” And this description of walking into a movie theater on a hot day: “Delicious darkness, calibrated with artificial cool. Plus a massive Diet Coke, packed with ice, sibilant with effervescence.” Neon in Daylight bubbles just like that Diet Coke. It’s frequently smart and almost always stylish. Pauline Kael’s description of early Joan Didion could apply just as easily to Hoby: “The smoke of creation rises from those dry-ice sentences.” Note the crisp coolness with which Hoby renders a New York summer day: “A low-slung sun burned all the day’s dirt into gold.” The control of sound and syntax is exquisite here and throughout. Neon in Daylight lacks the narrative and moral heft of Idaho. But it still makes beautiful music.

 

Idaho
Emily Ruskovich
Random House, 336 pp., $17.00

Neon in Daylight
Hermione Hoby
Catapult, 288 pp., $16.95

Published in the September 21, 2018 issue: 
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Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period was published last fall by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Also by this author
Poems Against Paralysis

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