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Choire Sicha is a twenty-first century version of the classical man of letters. He tweets expertly to his almost twenty-thousand followers, has blogged for Gawker (twice), written for The New York Observer, and recently founded his own online magazine, The Awl. A Very Recent History (HarperCollins) represents Sicha’s first attempt at a book-length project and, unlike most of what he has written, you can actually purchase a hard copy. Neither novel nor micro-history, A Very Recent History is difficult to classify using traditional genres. Sicha charts the personal and professional travails of a group of gay twenty-something New Yorkers with restrained empathy and a sociologist’s commitment to telling it like it is. In doing so, he situates the resonant stories of these men in the larger context of economic inequality, rapid technological innovation, and the political and social milieu of New York.
A Very Recent History isn’t very easy to classify. You say it is entirely true, except that the names have been changed. If it is nonfiction in this sense, then it closely resembles a kind of memoir, simply because you write about such an intimate network of men. And yet, it doesn’t quite resemble a memoir. Your explanations of everything from the history of money, the state of “the City,” and the mayor situate the story of these men in a specific historical context, and the narrative reads like an intimate social history (historians might call it a “micro history”). I checked the NYC library, and they classified it with “urban sociology.” Did they get it right?
Oh yes, it’s correct! But seems odd, right? It feels weird to say that it’s a work of sociology, though—like I’m auditioning for a Masters program or something, and of course I’m sure any real sociologists would be incredibly frustrated by the book. (Or would they! Sociologists are fun and funny people.) There’s something about the book that makes people want to believe it’s not true, in one way or another. Like as if it couldn’t be true. But it’s just a true story about some people and where they live! There’s nothing false about it, even if it’s dreamy or strange or what-have-you.
So if we think about it as a kind of history, what makes being part of a group of young gay men living in NYC different in 2009, say, from 1999 or even earlier?
Definitely the set of gay men who are now under 30 are distinctly different from those of us who are older. Many of the young people I’ve met who were born in the 90s don’t, for instance, give a damn about being gay. For some of them, it’s really almost a non-issue, and they don’t care. Some love it, or are into it, of course. There’s also less of a pressure to be a certain kind of woman or man, I think. For instance, a lot of the young gay boys in New York City are not at all hung up on macho-ness. It’s a great new era for the femme-boys among us! Overall they’re allowed a more diverse experience. They can exist primarily in straight worlds, or weave in and out of gay, mixed and straight worlds at will. In cities, at least, many of them have not had very many experiences with being treated badly for being gay. That’s good!
The book is, of course, set in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, and I enjoyed how it documented the intimate, social repercussions of job losses and growing employment precarity. At least according to the book, having a full-time job is better than being unemployed, but it’s hardly an enviable position for most people. In some cases, freelance writing or tutoring seem more profitable, or at least more enjoyable, than full-time work. Did the recession change the way you or your friends viewed employment?
For me, that period really cemented the idea that working for someone else is a fool’s game at this point. In the years since 2009, too, I think the evidence gets clearer and clearer that few employers have any loyalty to their workers. What does one do about that? In some cases, not much! For me, I had to create a sustainable business that wasn’t dependent on the whims of people hiring me for freelance or keeping me employed. For younger people, I think the ones I know have become slightly more mercenary and maybe less loyal to their employers—in a very reasonable way! If they aren’t being treated right, they have no reason to stay.
The situation of John appears so familiar–makes around 20k/year–his rent consumes half his income, he is in so much debt it is hard to see how he will ever pay it off–and yet he leaves that problem for his desk drawer. The debt problem does not seem to motivate any particular ambition–whether it is collective social change à la Occupy Wall Street or desiring a better job. Why is the reaction to the larger economic forces so muted?
That’s a very good question that’s been plaguing America for the past…couple decades, at least. (Centuries?) Well, one thing is that keeping it all together on a daily basis takes up a lot of time and energy. Another thing is that people organize around smaller issues to make them happen, which accrues to the larger good—organizing locally. And that’s important!
I do think that people tend towards fixing the personal. Almost all the guys in the book are doing pretty well right now—for now! I mean not to jinx them. They have interesting jobs and mostly happy lives that allow them to pursue things they care about, for the most part, and they’re good at them. They work very hard and they know the stakes. But how long will they have these jobs? That’s the question….
At the same time as there is growing precarity in our public, employed lives, it is matched by instability in our personal lives. Few people are in–and even fewer can manage to stay in–a dyadic monogamous relationship. This might not be a new phenomenon in the gay community, but it seems like social media applications like Grindr might have made the quest for sex almost more consuming than the sex itself. Aside from serving as a new way to meet people, how has social media affected our intimate relationships?
One thing that’s intriguing to me now is that, while people still go to bars and clubs and things, places that are local and contained, there’s an extra layer now, either ordered somewhat by geography (like Grindr) or less so (most other websites). So one can exist very locally, in an environment of human-scale interaction, while at the same time participating in something larger. I also think it’s easier to overlook people that you might find amazing. But what do I know, I’m old and married.
Some writers struggle to write in a way that includes social media interactions. Did writing about unsent Facebook messages, passive-aggressive texting, come naturally?
That’s really a function of the blizzard of communication most of us engage in now. It seems like a lie to omit the texts, the calls, the Facebook, the Manhunt, the everything that goes on and on endlessly! It’s pretty amazing. I even find it complicated sometimes to know what channel to use to communicate with friends, coworkers, even my husband! Do I text him? Email him? Call him? Gchat him? I just don’t know some days!
One of the results is that now I often feel like I’m in big trouble if some people take it to phone. Like a phone call can only mean serious business! But some people just prefer phones—and it doesn’t mean you’re getting fired or dumped.
Aside from the first names of the characters (which are pseudonyms anyway), A Very Recent History has very few proper nouns. Why?
Oh gosh do I have a good answer for this? Well…in one way, the book is about trying to remember things, like grabbing onto facts before they’re forgotten. And there are a lot of things that get forgotten, both quickly and in the long term. So there are certain things that escape mention—this is a nonfiction book that doesn’t mention 9/11! Which is pretty weird! And then there are things that we all remember that just aren’t important. So one thing I wanted to do was distort history intentionally, a little, instead of distorting it accidentally or due to bias, as we all do naturally. Does that make sense?
The New Yorker recently ran an essay on Bloomberg’s twelve years in office that basically excoriated his influence on growing inequality, among other things. How will your friend group remember Bloomberg–a mayor who supported same sex marriage and yet only seemed to care about his rich friends?
Oh, well, I think Bloomberg will be remembered pretty rosily overall! He was in many ways a very good mayor. And a very good force for the city. Definitely we’ll remember this era also as a time when inequity and certain kinds of inequality prospered and cemented. I think! I mean it’s really rather barbaric right now. That’s what I wanted people to remember. I really thought of the book as making a little time capsule that I could launch into the future. The book is really meant to be read in twenty years from now.
Edward doesn’t seem to get what it takes to stay in the City, and yet he also comes off as the most sincere character. What does it take to “make it” in contemporary New York?
Mmm. Without speaking out of school, and obviously this is someone I feel great affection for, I think that he had tendencies towards being a certain character type that I know well: the person who would rather do nothing than do something imperfectly. They find things frustrating, and at worst, nothing can be good enough. But I think he grew out of it a bit, or renounced those tendencies. I think to make it in New York, or in anything, you mostly just need to say YES to things. Yes, I will try that, yes I will take this strange career zig-zag, yes I will do a thing I’m not sure that I can do, YES, I will happily fall flat on my face! I’ve gotten to do the craziest things, and some of them are dead-ends or mistakes, but it was all worth it.
Without using the word gay once, your book can also be read as an introduction to New York’s gay scene. The bars you name, the social media apps—everything connotes gay, and yet the idea of being gay appears totally inconsequential to the narrative. Is this to remain consistent with the anonymity in other parts of the book, or does it show that being gay, at least for the group of people pictured in A Very Recent History, isn’t the linchpin of identity we might think?
In part it’s that they—we?—see ourselves as people. Sure, absolutely! I love gay culture (whatever that means now) and I quite like being gay—it sounds terrible being straight!—but also I find that I want to be a lot of different things as a person. But also, I didn’t want to say “here is a gay book.” Why should it be a gay book? Why can’t there be a book where almost everyone is gay? And there was a good amount of pushback to what I think is a fairly radical project: there’s reviews on Amazon and stuff from people who were mad that they got suckered into reading a gay book. Well you know, fuck you, I read all your stupid books where everyone was straight for no particular reason! Gimme a break!
Is this also why the gay aspect played a minor role in the marketing of the book?
If anything, surely the publisher is taking a cue from me, sitting in my lair, tricking straight people into reading a book populated mostly by gay people. *evil cackle* I really am quite pleased with myself on that one. But it’s also true, so far, that in general people aren’t going to pick up a “gay book,” no matter what the book is really concerned with (love, finance, family, whatever—gay books are pretty diverse in their interests really). That’s fine! I don’t read books about sports. The great thing about the book is that people under 30 apparently, for the most part, really seem to love it—gay and straight and everything else alike. I’m so thrilled with that. Older people are more likely to find it confusing or off-putting, but the young people get the anxiety of what it’s been like to be young recently. Reviews written by younger people have been really amazing, and I’m so happy that they feel like I got it. That’s enough for me!
Photo Credit: Jonathan Snyder