Early on in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, an acquaintance of the protagonist bemoans the modernization of the Bay Area while staring longingly at a model sailboat contained in glass display case. “The things that spell San Francisco for me are disappearing fast,” he says. “I should have liked to live here then — color, excitement, power, freedom.” Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City, a not-quite-novel published earlier this month by former Gawker editor and current co-proprietor of The Awl Choire Sicha, will likely elicit a similar pang of nostalgia in its readers. (About this not-quite-novel business: The book is being marketed as a factual account that reads like a novel and Sicha himself has seemed content to let readers decide what genre it falls into. For the purposes of this review I'm categorizing it as that which it most resembles, and what I think it in large part aspires to be: a novel.) Set in a New-York-City-like metropolis and focusing on a coterie of (mostly gay) men in their mid-to-late twenties, it is a bold aesthetic confirmation of fears about what modernization (in this case, the internet, and the ever-widening class divide that seems to have accompanied it) will do to us. Sicha’s picture of our era is bleak, and he takes pains to paint it bleakly: the characters are vapid, the writing detached, the narrative inert and fragmented. This makes, certainly, for a frustrating (or at the very least tedious) reading experience. But there is little doubt that in muting his story — in reducing its emotional spectrum to that of a set of those facial-expression flashcards therapists show to psychopathic children — Sicha has a purpose. For all the reasons Very Recent History fails as a novel, it succeeds as a bracingly spot-on portrait of the millennial generation. Vapid, detached, inert, and fragmented we are indeed.
The book is styled as a fable of our time, written and read, presumably, in the far future. A Grimm-Brothers-esque preamble introduces us to The City (New York, unmistakably) and its residents, name-dropping those in the high tiers — Brian Williams, Beyoncé, Peter Thiel, Marc Dreier — and making offhanded mention of the other eight million or so “below: thick slabs of the poorer, the lonelier, and the hopelessly left behind.”
As it happens, the novel’s protagonist, John, hangs somewhere down in these drabber slabs. He works at a nameless company doing a job we get almost zero details about, although later, coded allusions to New York Observer owner Jared Kushner suggest that he’s a staffer at the paper. He makes $43,317.43 per year and owes $69,000 to student loan lenders and credit card companies. These numbers might seem oddly precise for a novel, but Very Recent History is littered with such figures. For all the human details Sicha leaves out (we know none of the major characters’ last names, and have only scant ideas of what they look like), he has a fussy accountant’s fixation with things like the costs of apartments ($5.1 million for a 1,360-square-foot apartment), the taxes on cigarettes ($5.26), and the amount of money the mayor — a thinly-disguised Bloomberg — spends on his re-election campaign ($108 million).
In a similar manner, entire portions of the book are devoted to dry expositions on economic history and theory, the fallout of the 2008 banking crisis, and the mayor’s (Bloomberg’s) controversial bid to first legalize and then get elected for a third term. The novel’s occasional textbookiness is further augmented by disruptive asides in which the narrator (addressing that audience in the far future) explains quotidian things — such as lobsters, or the concept of irony — which have presumably disappeared by the time of the fable’s writing. The purpose of these encyclopedic elements, seems to be to lend a kind of global, epochal weight to the smaller human drama of the novel. This is an old trick and ambitious novelists from George Eliot to Jonathan Franzen have been playing it for centuries. It doesn’t entirely work here — if only because Sicha lays it on too thick — but that’s OK. Very Recent History has another, more interesting ambition, which is to give substance to the dehumanization — the emptiness, superficiality, disengagement, and distraction — that has become a kind of spiritual thesis for the millennial generation.
John and his network of friends, enemies, fuck buddies, and romantic interests are about as empty and distracted as they come. To say there’s a story here would be like saying that the incoherent miasma of articles, videos, texts, and newsfeed items each of us consumes in a given day is a story — so randomly do figures enter and disappear from the story; so inconsequential do the characters’ interactions often turn out to be—but here’s a go at summary. Self-loathing, charming, and monogamy-averse, John surprises himself and his friends early in novel when he falls for Edward. Edward happens to be in a relationship, but this seems a negligible detail. Other principal characters include John’s friend Chad, who’s experiencing some anxiety about moving in with his boyfriend, and Edward’s friend Jason, the oldest of the bunch, who creates bittersweet drama when he confesses his feelings for John. There are many more, all of whom we meet only fleetingly, with similar porn-studio first names: Aric, Jordan, Kevin, Taylor, Tyler, Fred, and so on.
Around and around the merry circuit of gay bars they go: Phoenix, Eastern Bloc, Sugarland, The Cock. Adderall keeps them awake; cigarettes keep their anxiety in check; alcohol helps them to forget themselves. They peruse each other’s Facebook pages. They talk on Adam4Adam, Craigslist, Manhunt, and Grindr. But for the most part they worry about themselves. And for John this entails keeping one foot in safe, promising Edwardland and one foot out in the gay wild, where he can thwack his way through any number of sexual conquests, forever hankering after something — what? He’s not sure.
John is a mostly impenetrable character — both to the reader and to himself — and he oscillates between moments of icy cynicism and lost-little-boy desperation. At an underwear party on Fire Island, he peruses the sea of flesh with the glazed dispassion of an online shopper. “He felt like the bodies were a kind of currency, which heightened tension between people, but at the same time it fostered a sense of relaxation, with all that mystery eliminated.” But, later that weekend, walking through the woods, the futility of his philandering takes shape: “He’d been trashed for days now. What he thought was the worst was that he realized this was the kind of fun he’d set out looking for: boys, drugs, excitement, booze. The hunt and its success.”
As difficult as it is to make empathic contact with John, the other characters are even blurrier. Moments of conflict and heartbreak float in and out with the forgettability of a tweet. Jason, at one point, gets ill with case of pneumonia that could potentially be — given his recent obsession with Grindr — something much worse. Chad, after taking the leap of moving in with his boyfriend, falls in love with a WASP-y art history buff. These are fertile moments, ripe for exploration, but, deprived of narrative attention, they wither quickly.
Another curious emotional blind spot in the novel is sex. Characters have lots of it, but an actual sex scene you will not find. The closest we get is: “They had sex on the couch. They made a lot of noise. The whole house probably heard.” One gets the impression that a proper depiction of sex would involve too much skin, too much contact, too much vulnerability and reality.
If the novel permits us to care about anyone besides John, it’s Edward, who more than any other character retains some vestige of his humanity, if only insofar as he’s worried about losing it. “One thing that happened was that things came easy when he was young,” he thinks to himself near the close of novel, “and then when things didn’t come easy anymore, he didn’t know how to try, how to study, how to learn. Also having a laptop meant you never had to be away from the Internet for long. Everywhere had Internet now. If he could burn the Internet down, he thought he’d be happy. He thought it had physically changed the way his brain worked.”
On the whole, though, the novel resists exhibiting or allowing in more emotion than it deems necessary, and that’s a paltry amount.
That said, no reader will walk away from Very Recent History unmoved. After turning the last page one is left with a sinking feeling of loss — the regretful pang of a missed opportunity — a missed connection, if you will. After spending so much time with so many desperate young people we assumed we’d walk away with the firm satisfaction having come to know, truly, at least one of them. But these anxious, ambitious men rarely let down their guard and, when they do, we have Sicha’s dry, impermeable prose to contend with. There’s just no way in.
This is Sicha’s great, merciless achievement: to give us a cast of characters with which he makes it impossible for us to connect. In doing so he has given positive substance to that which our generation lacks. All our deficiencies — of feeling, of foresight, of authenticity, of connectedness — congeal into something material. He has a made a novel of our nothings: something real, that we can hold in our hands.
Very Recent History was published earlier this month.