Very Recent History (and its perfect subtitle) is an incredibly detailed year-long study of a real-life, names-mostly-changed group of gay men in “the Capital,” a.k.a. New York. Among them: John, the main guy, “very young and very thin”; Chad, “trim and pale”; Diego, “this brown-eyed, brown-haired man, with pale skin”; Ralph, “thin, and gorgeous.” They are all twentysomething, and variously in debt and un-, under- and semi-employed in economically punishing 2009; they make out at bars and have sex on couches and pay off student loans incrementally and buy cheap drinks and take Adderall indiscriminately and text-message passive-aggressively and buy fast-fashion jeans on sale and play tennis and get fired and leave town and come back and nap, exhausted by trying.
The stories about John et al. are wreathed in a sci-fi-style or ethnographical narrative conceit of explaining “a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City” as if to someone unfamiliar with its particularities, and with contemporary life in general.
At first, it feels like a good-weird idea. It opens, “There was, for a while, a very large and very famous city. For an even shorter while, the richest man in town was its mayor. This seemed, for the time that it was true, like a very improbable coincidence.”
Later, because Choire Sicha really commits to this choice, it feels entirely necessary in making sense of the time when the understanding and experience of work, jobs and prospects fell apart for so many people, like there was no other way it could be told than this way, this almost mystified distance. The men are both of the city – with access to fashion parties and beach houses afforded while they’re young, attractive, and interesting – and not, as part of a generation that was, very suddenly, economically and socially marooned.
Last year, on Julie Klausner’s podcast How Was Your Week, Sicha said, of that time in New York, “Everyone was losing their jobs; it was crazy here. … But in the meantime, people were busy falling in love and having sex and being mean to their friends, and that’s interesting too, that we go on like that.”
He writes, of a bad party night, “It was a common nightmare in which you did something you never wanted to do, but then you woke up, and you hadn’t actually done it, and you were relieved. But when it wasn’t a nightmare, there was no relief.”
Very Recent History’s immersive reporting is so detailed (and, despite the boundaries of the narrative convention, naturalistic) that it reads like fiction. It’s also so intimate, and intentional about its context – the texts and chats are especially familiar – that it is not subject to the trend-specter of “instant nostalgia” around HBO’s The Newsroom and Facebook’s Timeline.
There are, in fact, similarities in theme to HBO’s Girls, and in form to Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, but a closer comparison is to Joan Didion, especially in her essay Goodbye To All That, both of them so right up close and hot and there in the explicating details and daily trivialities, and yet so coolly offered; both of them made rapt and somewhat betrayed by different New York Cities. (History could also be called the Grindr-era’s The Waste Land, if you want to go that far.)
This is Sicha’s first book; in addition to writing, he also happens to be a new kind of media daddy. He is the co-editor of The Awl website (founded c. AD 2009, when there were no jobs), and previously, he freelanced, worked for Radar magazine, the website Gawker, and The New York Observer, which a lot of Very Recent History is pretty obviously about, but never named as such. In the stratum of Internet publishing, Sicha is not so far removed from the Observer’s owner Jared Kushner – whose History proxy is a rich kid who “got married to a princess, of sorts, though technically she was becoming her own king” – except the power Sicha wields, online and in this book, is more about a self-effacing, self-assured sensibility, and what seems like real concern for what is good and right and fun.
Everyone who has come of age to find the world either much more difficult or just acid-trippingly different than what they were promised it would be has to find a way to still be there, and to stay in love with it all; one way – seen here – is to find your people, and keep going and sometimes give in a little bit. “[T]hey went and danced, with everyone they knew around them in this magnificent hideout all tucked away in this City of limitless strangeness.”
Kate Carraway is a columnist and writer based in Toronto.