Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City is the first novel I’ve ever read that harmed itself with an epigraph. Yes, I considered the little italicized quotation that adorns the page before the first page of this novel so poorly chosen that it immediately depressed the excitement with which I had opened the book, and ended up presaging my overall dislike.
First, about that excitement: I had two good reasons to believe I would love this novel. First, Choire Sicha is one of the editorial voices identified with the golden age of Gawker, one of the most sarcastic and cuttingly relevant websites around. I would be happy to read an entire novel written in the Gawker voice (many of my friends hate Gawker, but I don’t, as is evident in the number of times I’ve linked to the site here on Litkicks). I also respect The Awl, a lit/culture magazine that Sicha founded after leaving Gawker.
Second, I was hopeful because Very Recent History is about young urban professionals in New York City in 2009. They go to parties, check each other out on Facebook, work banal day jobs at venal corporations (which happen to be convulsing in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 Wall Street crash). This is a world I know well, and lived through myself in 2009.
So I opened this novel expecting a treat, and really all Choire Sicha had to do was mail in a good story with some believable characters and smarmy roman a clef moments, and I would be giving the book a thumbs-up on Litkicks right now.
Instead, he — well, I really don’t know what the hell Choire Sicha did. First, he seems to have dumbed himself down quite a bit. The narrator’s omniscient voice is scattered, tired, cute.
Throughout the chapters, Sicha weaves a conceit that he’s explaining modern urban culture to a visitor from another planet. This could be interesting if done particularly well, but instead this narrator proceeds in a wan singsong rhythm:
John and Kevin and a bunch of others went to see Edward at a bar right before he left to go live with his parents for a while, to send him off. John intentionally didn’t look at Edward the whole night.
And at the end of the night, Kevin said to John, it is hilarious how all you do is stare at Edward and all Edward does is stare at you.
I wasn’t even looking at him! John said. And Kevin said, please, all you do is stare at each other longingly.
There are several gay love affairs in this book, narrated in broad strokes, with superficial details and status labels tossed throughout. After a few pages it becomes impossible to care who is checking out what who said on whose Facebook. If any touching or authentic moments take place, I must be misreading the clues.
Here is the kind of thing that happens when people get fired from their jobs, which happened frequently in yuppie Manhattan in 2009:
Late in the week, at six p.m., the managers said that there needed to be a big office meeting. The office was also a big open room, just like the Mayor’s office and John’s office. In that room, the managers announced to the whole office that the firm was out of money and they needed to fire people.
The whole book reads in this “Barney” kind of voice, never using words that a third-grader wouldn’t understand. Could it really have been Choire Sicha’s goal to write a Tao Lin novel?
Did he fall asleep under a fluorescent lamp with a Sheila Heti Audible novel stuck on 1/2x speed in his earbuds? There must be a medical explanation for this display of disengaged tedium, which virtually never even reaches the energy level of a good mid-2000s-era Gawker blog post.
At various points, between the romantic escapades and nightclub bacchanals, Choire Sicha’s omniscient narrator obsesses over the moral sins of New York City’s Mayor Mike Bloomberg. This could be interesting if done well, but instead Sicha again employs the same artificial, extraterrestial voice:
The mayor had not always been the mayor. There had in fact been many before him … Because people didn’t live so long, only the last three previous mayors were still alive.
What is happening here? I really don’t know. It occurred to me that this book annoys me in the same way that, many years ago, Jay McInerney’s famous bestseller Bright Lights, Big City once annoyed me (though, to be honest, I sort of liked Bright Lights, Big City, just as I will continue to sort of like Choire Sicha, though I do not like his book).
Bright Lights, Big City was about the yuppies of New York City in the 1980s — working for Wall Street banks and hip cultural magazines, partying hard, snorting coke, meeting cute. Like Very Recent History, Bright Lights is smug about the money-obsessed culture of Manhattan (it’s not that the characters in either novel have a lot of money, but it is simply offensive that the characters in both novels are so interested in money).
But here’s where the epigraph comes in. I’m pretty sure that Choire Sicha wanted Very Recent History to be a modern Bright Lights Big City (McInerney’s novel, likewise, wanted to be a modern Great Gatsby). Yet Bright Lights, Big City, for all its moral emptiness and cultural Alex P. Keaton-ness, was the better novel. For one thing, it had a killer epigraph from Hemingway. Here’s what’s on the page before McInerney’s novel begins:
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
— The Sun Also Rises
Choire Sicha’s novel, though, opens with this dim idea:
“No one has ever hung himself from the rafters of his second home.”
— Dan Bejar
When I first read this quotation, I thought it must be intended ironically. Could Choire Sicha not know, for instance, about Richard Cory?
Is Sicha not aware how many rich people kill themselves? Just in our own lit-hipster cultural milieu, for instance, there’s Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in one of his several homes. There’s David Foster Wallace, who literally hung himself from his rafters (I have no idea how many homes David Foster Wallace owned, but he was doing fine financially). Sicha must mean this epigraph ironically, I thought, as I began the book.
But by the time I stopped reading the novel (I’m not sure if I quite reached the end of the book, as I had trouble staying awake) I still had no idea whether or not the epigraph was meant ironically. This fact seems to symbolize what is wrong with Very Recent History, which must have begun with good intentions. I trust that Choire Sicha’s next novel will begin to explore the potential of his talents.