This is a strange story told in an unusual way.
Good strange? Bad strange? Or just strange strange?
Well. I’m still not sure.
So Choire Sicha has penned Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City, which is a true-life exploration of the life of John and his group of friends. Described as “an idiosyncratic and elegant narrative” by the publisher, Sicha’s writing style is so unique — like we’re all animals behind glass, analyzed and explained and broken into pieces — that it took me a while to engage with the text. Everything just felt so clinical.
I’m struggling to articulate what this book is about — or even centering on — without assistance, so let’s pop in the publisher’s summary, shall we?
“What will the future make of us?
After the Wall Street crash of 2008, the richest man in town is the mayor. Billionaires shed apartments like last season’s fashions, even as the country’s economy turns inside out. The young and careless go on as they always have, getting laid and getting laid off, falling in and out of love, and trying to navigate the strange world they traffic in: the Internet, complex financial markets, credit cards, pop stars, micro-plane cheese graters, and sex apps.
A true-life fable of money, sex, and politics, Choire Sicha’s Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City turns our focus to a year in the life of a great city.”
Very Recent History assumes we are aliens (or maybe humans?) from a century or so in the future (or longer?), where we’re examining young men in an American economy grappling with the early tentacles of a recession. As we’re not too far removed from economic collapse at the present moment, it was interesting to read a narrative detailing something you just lived through. Though the titular City is never named, it’s clearly New York — and we don’t have to live in New York to feel where Sicha is coming from. His writing is descriptive and very readable.
But before we get any deeper, you have to understand what a unique reading experience this. A Goodreads reviewer described its style as “anthropological,” and it’s such a precise and perfect description that I have to borrow it myself. Sicha lets readers into the world of John and New York as a whole without judgment, merely presenting the facts. The best way to understand what I mean is, I hope, through Sicha’s own snippets:
“The idea of a distinct unit of money was, at that time, a little more than 5,000 years old, as near as could be told. … So for a long time, money had been an object that promised a value, such as a piece of paper that said, with words, that it conveyed a certain amount. … Where there was money, some would hoard it. Some would never get much of it. Some who had much of it would use it to get more. This was a sensible reaction to there being money.”
“John worked, as did many people in the City, in the office of a corporate entity that was privately owned. Some companies were owned ‘publicly.’ This meant that, to one extent or another, individuals or companies could buy ‘shares’ — little pieces — in the company and therefore become its owner, or one of its many owners. … Some of these companies were profitable — earning more than they spent. This one was not.”
“Sex was a very unsatisfying practice at this time, considered animal and messy, and also dangerous. It had been dangerous for a long time, but now most nonlethal diseases were treatable, and also women could largely control whether they became pregnant. Pregnancy was the most lethal byproduct of sex.”
“All told, at the end of this year, John’s debt added up to about 15,000 dollars for college, 40,000 for professional school and about 14,000 in credit card debt during school, almost 70,000 dollars all in, a small percentage of which was paid down. Who could even begin to start worrying about a thing like this? That was what desk drawers were for.”
Despite the fact that I regularly enjoy literary fiction, I found Very Recent History to be a slog — for me. It’s funny because, as a reader, I can clearly see why others would enjoy this story . . . and can’t deny its power and relevance. It felt fresh and current, but I just knew rather quickly that it wouldn’t be a winner for me. I want to be savvy and high-brow enough to enjoy such a book, but I just felt so removed. Emotionally, physically. I never bonded with John, never took to his cobbled-together group of friends and coworkers. I just . . . didn’t quite get it.
I commend Sicha for coming up with an innovative work and appreciated his grander message: examining our present lives and culture long enough to wonder, “Is this worth it?” The Mayor plays a significant role in the work, too, working to make us question the role of government, power and leadership, but it was all just . . . over my head. While I didn’t feel cool enough for Very Recent History, I hope it lands with the right reader. Maybe it’s you.
3 out of 5!