Party Like It's 2009: Life And Friendship In The Great Recession

Aug 9, 2013
Originally published on August 11, 2013 4:23 pm

In Choire Sicha's Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City, a voice from our future looks back at events taking place in a "massive" East Coast metropolis, its citizens perpetually gripped with "a quiet panic" while living in a gritty landscape of iron and excess. Throw in a mysterious virus, a rich, blind governor, a sketchy mayor campaigning for a third term, and this novel gets even more curious.

Guiding us through this is John, a young man so poor he can't even afford socks or regular haircuts. His days are spent working in a dreary office, making less money now that he has a "real" job than he did freelancing. Sicha spins a compelling allegory of New York City and its residents. Here's a tangled fable of greed, consumption and isolation in a place where characters grapple with profound feelings of isolation despite too many friends, too many romantic flings, and too many choices.

John spends his nights partying with his tightknit group. There's the sensible Chad, a tutor to the children of the city's wealthy; and Chad's boyfriend, Diego, who he met on a dating website aptly called DList; the likable Kevin and his "incredibly symmetrical face," with whom John sometimes has sex; and the beautiful Tyler Flowers, whose skin is "so pale that you [can] see into his head a little."

As the novel progresses, the city sinks deeper and deeper into a recession, the shadowy virus gradually claims more victims, our imperious mayor spends more money on a re-election campaign based on fear and intimidation, and John and his friends find themselves increasingly lost in a labyrinth of smoky bars, hook-up sites, and sex clubs.

But even as they glibly rant about cigarettes and social media, wealth and power, Sicha portrays this group of gay men not as vapid and shallow products of their time, but as compelling, keen and intensely complex individuals yearning to be heard and remembered in the face of so much annihilation. In the relentless bombardment of text messages and non sequiturs, one-night stands, and obsessions about money and jeans, we encounter incisive musings on love and worth at a time when it seemed as though the entire world would unravel.

Choire Sicha's writing charms and delights, but beneath the biting wit and cynicism, I found a book that dares to explore the darker underbelly of human avarice and capital, a book that's equal parts blindingly terrifying and smartly humorous, and one of the most clever reads I've encountered in a long time. This novel forces us to consider the cyclical nature of profits and losses, forces us to remember that friends and fads come and go, and that some things survive while others die off.

For it's only when we closely examine our own very recent history that we can better learn to understand, and embrace, the very possible future we'll inevitably inherit.

Alex Espinoza is the author of Still Water Saints and The Five Acts of Diego Leon.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Ask almost anyone old enough to remember and they'll tell you exactly where they were when they heard about the death of John F. Kennedy, the attacks of September 11 or even the killing of Osama bin Laden. Big events tend to stick in our memories.

One such event from recent times was the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It was the beginning of a time that certainly made an impression on writer Choire Sicha. His new book is called "Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City." It follows a group of friends living through the great recession. Here's Alex Espinoza with our review.

ALEX ESPINOZA, BYLINE: It's an interesting time. A mysterious virus is going around. There's a rich, blind governor and a sketchy mayor campaigning for a third term. Add it all up, and what you got is pretty clearly a view of New York City in the year 2009. Our guide to all of this is John. He used to be a freelancer. He made more money. Now, he has a regular job, but he's so poor he can't even afford socks or haircuts.

John spends his nights partying with his group of friends. There's the sensible Chad, who tutors the city's wealthiest children. There's Chad's boyfriend, Diego, who he met on a dating site called DList. There's the likable Kevin with his incredibly symmetrical face, who sometimes sleeps with John, and beautiful Tyler whose skin is so pale that you can see inside his head a little.

Sicha's glib rants about cigarettes and social media could come off as vapid, but they don't. You'll see this group of men as complex people. They're trying to be heard and remembered in the face of all of this annihilation. And in the relentless bombardment of text messages and non sequiturs, one-night stands and obsessions about money and jeans, they actually manage to be incisive on love and worth at a time when it seemed like the entire world would unravel.

The book's full of biting wit and cynicism. But underneath that, I found a writer exploring the underbelly of human capital. The book's terrifying and funny, even as it forces you to consider the nature of profits and losses. In the end, Sicha asks us this. What's a person worth to himself and his friends when everything he knows is crumbling around him?

LYDEN: The book is "Very Recent History" by Choire Sicha. Our reviewer is Alex Espinoza. His latest book is called "The Five Acts of Diego Leon." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.