Can you write compellingly about the trials and tribulations of New York media types circa 2009? Choire Sicha’s Very Recent History suggests not.
In 1977 the New Statesman published a poem by Craig Raine, “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home,” that launched the very minor British school of Martian Poetry. Martian poems were so called because they adopted the perspective of a stranger in a strange land, reenvisioning familiar things in elaborate metaphorical language. (The car in Raine’s “Postcard” is, e.g., “a room with the lock inside—/a key is turned to free the world/for movement.”) Martin Amis was a champion (and anagram) of Martianism, prizing its penetrating gaze and its disdain for cliché, and it is Amis’s Money, a somewhat Martianistic take on 1980s New York City, that comes to mind when one reads Choire Sicha’s Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City.
Money is a novel. Very Recent History isn’t—not quite. Though its subtitle sounds coyly skeptical of the attainability or desirability of truth, the publicity copy explains that it’s a “nonfiction account that reads like a novel.”
Last year Sicha, a former Gawker editor and co-founder of The Awl, told an Amsterdam blog that “in 2009, [he] followed a group of four friends around in New York City, to see how they were coping with the [financial] crisis.” The resulting book reads in part like a novel, in part like an encyclopedia entry composed by aliens, or at least historians from some alien future. Amis used potent, roided-up language to make New York City both familiar and un-, and the tools of satire to make it grotesque. Sicha’s language in Very Recent History is minimalistic and often dryly funny. He speaks slowly, as it were, like one taking his audience’s ignorance for granted. Consider this:
“‘Insurance’ was an idea where, if you had something that you valued a lot, like an expensive painting or a child, you could pay a relatively small amount of money to a company and, if the painting was stolen or the child died, the company would pay you the agreed-upon value of the missing, or dead, object or person.
“Companies offered this insurance because they made the payments just expensive enough that, almost always, the amount of money they were paid for these policies in total was more than they had to pay to replace people’s paintings and children.”
The book alternates between passages like this—which Martianistically explain how much a luxury apartment costs, say, or how credit cards work—and a bare-bones narrative about a coterie of gay men struggling to make their lives and careers in “c. AD 2009” N.Y.C. work. It may be a good time to note that although the city and its mayor—“the richest man in town was its mayor”—aren’t identified, to serve the conceit that we’re receiving a Martian’s-eye view of this distant but also “very recent” civilization, there are enough details like “Beyoncé” and “Park Slope” to make us wonder if Sicha is really sure why he employed the conceit in the first place.
The saga of the young, struggling men is the one that reads something like a novel. Its closest literary relative is probably Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. Both books feature characters that are maddeningly difficult to tell apart. The most interesting features of Sicha’s men are their poverty and their debt, but since they only respond—or can only respond—to their circumstances passively, by stuffing their bills and dunning letters into drawers, they never become proper protagonists. Fine. This isn’t, after all, a novel. But neither is it a rigorous sociological study or a polemic or a jeremiad. It is what it purports to be: a competently written account of what life was like for a few guys who wanted to live in New York City but couldn’t make very much money there.
Never mind whether future historians will care to know what that life was like. Do we? The most interesting thing about Sicha is that in the face of a limited job market, relative poverty, and uncertainty, he created an unusual and consistently engaging website on an offbeat business model and has received well-deserved accolades for it. That story doesn’t appear in Very Recent History, though it would have made a welcome respite from the Pig-Pen cloud of dejection that clings to the book. Instead we have the long-form version of an article we know from Time or Newsweek or a hundred smaller outlets, about how economic collapse has snatched away the good life and good times that so many expected as their birthright.
It isn’t always easy to rip a novel from the headlines and have it truly grip a reader. Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (2012), which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize, pulled it off: in Johnson’s North Korea, dreams, or even basic social mobility, are a sick joke, but he manages to describe, convincingly, a hero who claws his way out of hell. Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, which tackles the Great Western Obesity Crisis, also portrays a man who defeats his condition—but then, at the last minute, it draws back the veil of illusion with a “just kidding” and a fatal heart attack. The former is outstanding, the latter disposable, but what they have in common is that they issue from “headlines” it’s easy to care about. Sicha’s book feels a bit less urgent, focusing as it does on men far from rock bottom.
Maybe there’s too much partying in Very Recent History. Though it’s fundamentally a novel of complaint, it depicts a lifestyle long on anxiety and uncertainty but short on especially intense privation. It’s difficult to read Sicha without asking, why don’t you just move? or wondering if he knows how many people never dreamed of living, let alone thriving, in New York City on bloggers’ or reporters’ or editors’ wages. We might prefer to read, as a comment on the crisis, an account of life in a Bakken shale “man camp” or a Sacramento Hooverville. Of course, there can be no faulting Sicha for not having chosen different subject matter. But it’s reasonable to suggest that he tried to dramatize a struggle that just wasn’t dramatic enough to be dramatized.
Sicha’s characters are good at seeing how circumstances have wronged them, but bad at doing anything, including making matters worse, that would command a reader’s complete attention. Years ago Amis gave us a New York that was spiritually empty but, thanks to his prose, maniacally, even demonically, alive. Sicha’s New York is rendered in detail but strangely inert, a city that wants points just for existing, a place where people go who expect a gleaming paradise just for showing up. Who can say, though? New Yorkers just might thank him for it.