Choire Sicha - Very Recent History (2013)

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One thing I have learned about myself is that I have an uncontrollable craving for any media relating to the 2008 Recession. I graduated from undergrad in 2009, which was a sorry time to emerge from any kind of cocoon. I often describe graduating and going to grad school during the Great Recession thusly: Some very smart people whose Plan A was to get jobs couldn't get jobs, so they chose Plan B, which was to go to grad school. I was one of the legions of people for whom Plan A was grad school. But just because it was other people's Plan B didn't mean they were less smart or competent, and in some cases they were extraordinarily brilliant and more academically muscular than the people who chose Plan A so they could have a quiet tenured life bouncing between sabbatical and teaching for the next fifty years. As I exist in a dystopian academic landscape that seems to be a cascading series of implosions building towards something apocalyptic and irreversible, my fascination with the Great Recession probably does not seem outside the realm of reason. 

Choire Sicha is someone who has flitted in and out of my peripheral vision since my early college days. He was at one time the editor of Gawker (well, two times, as his bio on the back of Very Recent History pointedly clarifies), but as big of a job as that used to be, it only hints at Sicha's greater importance. I think his mark on Gawker, and thus the writing of internet journalism as we know it, with the morally-grounded and at times quite self-satisfied sharp snark of someone who is having much more interesting conversations with much more interesting people than you in his spare time and has honed his wit to a razor's edge, is very much indebted to his style. I was a fan of The Awl, his project after leaving Gawker, which finally died without much comment by the wider internet in 2018. It was actually in the aftermath of that death, when I was reading The Awl and lamenting that I did not do more to support its writers (an impossible burden to bear in a click-based economy, but we are in a world that outsources responsibility from poor system design and choice to individuals and then chides them for not doing more in a system that is designed to profit off of the critical mass an individual can't summon, but I digress), that I looked to see what else Choire Sicha had done and found this book.

I have seen others speak to the length of Very Recent Historyas being to its detriment, and I must concur: a 250 to 1000-word blog post allows for some spellbinding gymnastics that are harder to pull off over the course of 255 pages. Rhetorical flourishes - the appositive ending in an exclamation point, for example, which I love for its folksy "can you believe it?" sincerity layered on top of a deep cynicism that indeed does believe it, and believes it so much that it knows that speaking to it is saying the obvious - and paragraph-long asides explaining in plain language institutions and processes that we all take for granted but, when spelled-out, actually make little or no sense (several explainers on the third term of Bloomberg, corporate downsizing, and money are a few of the standouts), give the book the "anthropologist from the future" vibe that people refer to in their reviews. Those parts are the most revealing and, deep-down, below the unconvincing lowbrow didacticism, hostile. Far from being an empty populist indictment along the lines of "if it doesn't make sense to John Q. Public, it can't be good," Sicha's prickly prose is about pointing out that the rules have logical fallacies and that those logical fallacies have become part and parcel of the American experience.

The human story in Very Recent History is itself anthropological, but it is not told with quite the alien lecturer voice that characterizes other sections. The prose in the sections about the characters center on John and his circle of gay friends who pile up against each other when the wind carries them and who part when the wind carries them away. Perhaps in the sense that Sicha's writing feels like a twentieth-century fairy tale, with its simple language explaining ineffable feelings, the sections about John and co. do fit in the book in a larger anthropological sense, as if Sicha has researched these characters in an archive and reconstructed them as personalities from old chats and Grindr profiles. But we are to believe, from the subtitle, that Very Recent History is "an entirely factual account" to the point that the names have been changed to salvage some sort of anonymity. Sicha doesn't seek to explain these human beings (they exist, and to try would be a kind of condescending that would likely strain those relationships) but to simply present them as human, making decisions that don't make sense in part because they live in a system that doesn't make sense and has enabled them to think of themselves immediately and in short bursts into the future but no further than that. 

It is a snapshot "of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City." Through the approach Sicha has chosen, its explanatory power is reduced. It may be nonfiction, but it is not seeking to explain but to at once expose and connect disparate assumptions, cultures and ideas - consequences, city culture, gay subculture, and money - to the everyday living and confusion of young gay men in New York. And because it is from one of my favorite writers I have had the opportunity to read in my 22 years on the internet, a man whose work I would jump through hoops and dig through old archives to experience, it felt enriching to me in a way I'm not sure it would to others. There are better ways to experience Sicha the first time (just go dig around on The Awl archive if you're curious), but I think Very Recent History works as a meditation, both on the inconsistencies that are baked into the foundation of our modern madness and on adapting, growing, and pushing ahead into new, and sometimes bittersweet, phases of life.