Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (C. Ad 2009) in a Large City
by Choire Sicha
ARC Received from publisher via TLC Book Tours
Published August 2013 by Harper
Read August 2013
I really love the show ‘Community.’ I think it’s weird and fun and I often find myself responding, “Cool. Cool, cool, cool” when someone says something that I can only assume is, well, super cool. The problem with ‘Community,’ however, is that the weirdness that inspires loyalty among its die-hard fans is a weirdness directed at a niche crowd that, as indicated by its low ratings, keeps it from being embraced by a larger mainstream audience.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of Community’s weirdness while reading Choire Sicha’s Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (C. Ad 2009) in a Large City, even if they have seemingly little in common beyond that. The title alone, combined with a taller- and thinner-than-usual ARC (presumably the hardcover version will also be this size), indicated that this book would not be the average tale of financial woe in the late aughts.
The weirdness doesn’t stop there. The reader of Very Recent History is presumed by a third person narrator to be a person from the distant (or, I don’t know, apocalyptic) future; someone who requires lengthy explanations. Some of these are funny and clever—regarding sex: “Some people could achieve sexual satisfaction through only very specific means. For instance, dressing up in pirate hats, or as lions or puppies, or as corporate brands and characters” (p. 19-20)—and some far too lengthy and boring—describing money: “[…] money had been an object that promised a value, such as a piece of paper that said, with words, that it conveyed a certain amount” (p.33). That explanation of money spans four pages. I didn’t necessarily dislike these passages—some of them, like the explanation of sex, are perceptive—but they weigh down the book and grate on the reader who, after all, is only four years removed from 2009.
The other sections of Very Recent History read like a risky novel. It follows John, a 27 year old gay man, and his friends and lovers and friends/lovers. There are so many men (usually with only one or two syllable names) that by page 43 I had to start a list so I could keep track. Despite the author’s assurance that his book is non-fiction, John’s story is a post-AIDS novel that owes a debt to both the AIDS novels of the early 1990s and the pre-AIDS gay novels of the 1970s. John is a sexually active gay man who frequently does not use protection, yet the threat of HIV/AIDS looms farther than the threat of student loan payment due dates and the possibility of losing his job and how to make it to payday with only $13 left on a Wednesday.
The last third of this book is absolutely brilliant. The lengthy blurbs stop, and Sicha is finally able to rise above his capital-C Cleverness and write, and we get astute observations on the Millennial Generation’s relationship with money, like,
“[Chad’s family] thought John had issues with money that kept him from improving his life. They thought there could be little sacrifices he could make. But it was so much all tied in with his family and feeling very badly about money. He actually hated money, they thought. He wanted it to leave him as soon as it possibly could. Chad thought John saw the very idea of money as being all wrapped up in the death of his father. But Chad’s mom said that she thought John just believed he didn’t deserve any security” (p.145-146).
While passages like that didn’t make me love the book, it did convince me that Choire Sicha is an author to watch. Very Recent History is a satisfying, if uneven, debut that I can’t stop thinking about.