So, this book. It’s a doozy that made me think and feel a lot… not all of it positive.
Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City by Choire Sicha really is nonfiction that reads like a novel, a detailed look at life in a large East Coast city (quite obviously New York City) through the money, sex, politics and people that make up the city. There are two threads to the story — a broad, almost anthropological look at the big themes of the city and a narrative about a small group of friends centered around John, a gay reporter for a weekly newspaper.
In the first half of the book — the half of the book I really liked — the narrative balances more to the big picture. The all-knowing voice that is analyzing the culture of the city reads a lot like an alien (or a really skilled anthropologist like Jane Goodall or Paul Farmer or Margaret Mead) sat down and decided to apply their scholarly mindset to chronicling a very particular moment in time in a very particular place in the not very distant past. I loved the way Sicha went at this concept full bore, pulling back our ideas of work and money and relationships to their most basic terms:
Almost everything in the City was capital. The offices were made to make money; the buildings were to make money; inside the buildings and the offices people were employed to make things that made money. And then around these pillars were services: restaurants, bars, shops, cobblers, dressmakers, all to serve the people who were employed making money. So: almost everything. Everything except love, probably. People in the City didn’t often make explicit matches of their children for the transfer of money or goods. But the arrangements of love had an old-fashioned lag to them, in which capital was attached. For instance, people talked about “marrying well,” which meant that someone was marrying someone rich. … There was also a custom of gift-giving at the time of the actual legal ceremony of marriage. When contracted, the parties would join in accepting gifts or, even more boldly, in dictating which gifts would be accepted.
Obviously, there’s a political slant in the way these descriptions are written. In being matter of fact, Sicha is able to point out the hypocrisy or absurdity of some of these (really, our) customs and arrangements and the powerful people who continue to support them. It’s just brilliantly executed and so very funny (and frustrating) to read.
In the second half of the book — the half that left me mostly bored — the balance of the narratives shifts more to John and his circle of friends, the “characters” of the story. Unfortunately, they weren’t very interesting characters to follow around for that much time. They’re all (if my memory serves) gay men in their late 20s or early 30s working jobs they didn’t like (or not working at all), spending nights and weekends staying out too late at various bars. I couldn’t keep them organized as I read, and their similarities made for a narrative without much variety. I wish that Sicha would have chosen a different bunch to follow — maybe John’s coworkers instead of his friends — to make this narrative feel as layered as the more anthropological thread of the story. The city is big and broad and interesting… these characters were not.
So in the end I feel torn about this book — there were parts I really liked, but I’m not sure if those parts were outbalanced by the parts that I really didn’t like. While Very Recent History was a biting look at sex, money and power in a big city, but I just couldn’t generate enough sustained interest for the characters who inhabited this place to enjoy the book as much in the end as I did in the beginning.
Other Tour Stops: Write Meg | Broken Teepee | Dreaming in Books | Man of La Book | Doing Dewey | guiltless reading | The Year in Books | A Bookish Affair (Aug. 22) | Bonjour, Cass! (Aug. 26) | Bibliophilia, Please! (Aug. 28) | 50 Books Project (Aug. 29) |