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Choire Sicha’s new book, Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City (Harper Collins) bills itself as being about “New York, the Great Recession, and youth itself—as seen through the lens of broke 20-somethings and their affairs and bar crawls.” If you’re thinking “Bright Lights, Big City for the gay millennial set,” you wouldn’t be too far off the mark. It’s a fun read, but more interestingly, it’s also a tome that purports to capture a specific moment in history, and because of this, its true value may not be apparent until some time in the future.
That the author is adept at encapsulating the cultural zeitgeist should come as no surprise. Sicha is best known for being a Gawker alum and co-founder of The Awl. No doubt these experiences contributed in no small way to the book’s unique structure: The narrative alternates between almost blog-post-like sections describing the character’s present lives, and passages in which the author explains the current political, financial, and social conditions in the “large city” as if speaking to aliens or to very small children.
It’s these latter sections that I found to be the most engaging and revelatory. You know how a familiar word starts to lose all meaning after you repeat it over and over and over again? Sicha’s prose has a similarly jarring effect in that he takes institutions and aspects of everyday life that we have come to accept as completely normal and breaks them down for us in such a way that they become totally bizarre.
Notable examples of this include the roots of the financial crisis, the absurdity of crushing student loan debt, and Grindr (“It was like in a popular movie from a while back called Aliens, where people on this other planet built a tracking device and attached it to their guns so that they could track the movement of terrifying monsters. But this was for sex.”). What makes it work so well is that Sicha tackles these topics with the detachment of a seasoned journalist, allowing his readers to come to realization that basically everything about modern life is inherently farcical without actually having to say it himself.
The rest of the book is about the author’s personal and work life, which he describes in minute detail. This is fun to follow to a certain extent (the entire experience is akin to reading a Kerouac novel, or—in more modern terms—perusing a long series of blind items in which real people’s names have been just barely disguised and it’s up to us to put the pieces together). But they can occasionally be tedious, especially for other gay men living in big cities leading similar lives—although I will freely admit that, despite Sicha and I probably being roughly the same age, just reading about his social calendar made me want to take a nap.
Rosecrans Baldwin said of the work, “The book would start a revolution if we knew better,” and yet I struggle to see it. The way Sicha describes the big systems in our society leaves me feeling like they’re too massive and ingrained to be overturned, and his depictions of everyday life are too familiar to be particularly shocking. But, ultimately, it may be these very aspects of the book that make it hold up as an enduring literary time capsule. With Very Recent Event, Sicha seems to be playing a long game—and I, for one, can’t want to return to it one day to find out if he’s won.
Very Recent History
By Choire Sicha
Hardcover, 9780061914300, 256 pp.