At first glance, Choire Sicha’s new book — Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City — is like a literary version of The Hills, the reality television show produced by MTV that ran from 2006-2010. Both works focus on groups of 20-somethings in the city who are negotiating the always-perilous transition from adolescence to adulthood; they form friendships and see them fade away, they strive to find jobs and careers, they look for sex and love.
As in life, there’s rarely much resolution for these individuals; they mostly “get by.” They don’t come across as particularly talented or driven (which is understandable at their age), they don’t have unlimited reserves of wit or intelligence. They watch bad television and listen to crappy music. They are, at times, hilariously misinformed about the past. They smoke and drink and use drugs socially. Their lives are messy, flawed, and often seem very pedestrian, at least compared to average Hollywood (or New York publishing) fare, given that they are the subjects of a television show (or a book). Mostly we see them gossiping — at bars, at parties, at each other’s apartments — in ways that feel very familiar to those of us who have also grown up in the city, or probably anywhere else. We love and detest them in the same way that we love and detest ourselves.
And just as The Hills was compelling because it presented a largely disenfranchised group (young women, albeit very privileged in an economic sense) in a quasi-realistic manner, Very Recent History does the same thing for young gay men (and also in a quasi-realistic manner). Although technically non-fiction, Sicha’s book does not have the feel of a documentary or “long-read” internet magazine article but, like The Hills, juxtaposes dialogue with gorgeously written descriptions (akin to the transitional cinematography that would become a trademark of the MTV reality spinoffs) of the mutating landscape of the city, which — another similarity — is a central “character” in these stories. (The Hills was set in Hollywood, whereas Very Recent History unfolds in New York, not that Sicha specifies the location.)
The city in Sicha’s book, however, can be distinguished from the Los Angeles of The Hills in two important ways, the first being that 2009 was a year (in case you are just returning from another planet) of extreme economic turmoil. There are multiple rounds of layoffs and reorganizations at the media company where “John” — the young man with whom we spend the most time — works; in an era of growing disparity between the rich and the poor, we see him struggling under a mountain of personal debt as his ability to hold on to his job becomes increasingly tenuous; “Edward” — one of John’s lovers — lives with his parents for much of the book and feels ruined by the Internet. Other characters drift in and out of financial stability. Meanwhile, the rich are throwing lavish parties and spending fortunes on apartments. If none of this feels particularly newsworthy, Sicha presents these facts with a combination of wry humor, melancholy, bitterness, and distance (he narrates the book from some unspecified time in the future) that makes the reader question the moral compass of our society (which of course has not changed in any meaningful way since 2009).
The second distinguishing factor is AIDS, which, in keeping with the rest of the book, is never explicitly named beyond a “virus,” but hovers like a miasma through which we must peer to understand the actions (or inactions) of everyone involved. “There was something missing and no one knew what it was,” Sicha writes, not long after introducing us to his ensemble of young men. “This was an absence that people didn’t really think about very much, or at all,” he adds, and goes on to describe how the virus took the lives of approximately 100,000 men (in the city alone) and how these dead men, had they been alive, would have been John’s “co-workers, mentors, bosses,” artists and lovers.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of what Sicha has done here, simply by acknowledging a fact that remains largely ignored at this juncture in our society. There are many reasons for this: We are a country of youth-obsessed optimists who don’t like to think about death. We move on, we get back to work. We buy wrinkle cream. We live in denial. But as Sicha makes clear, this disaster actually happened, and ignoring it hasn’t made it go away. We are also very homophobic, which is why, even in New York City, there are no large-scale monuments to these dead, no museums to acknowledge or contemplate the impact of this plague, no annual day of reckoning or remembrance to consider the true extent of what happened, which can only be understood as a knife through the heart of the city, perhaps not a fatal wound, but a crippling one nonetheless.
Given these conditions, is it any wonder that the young men in Sicha’s book often seem maddeningly feckless, misguided, and self-destructive? If you take a step back and consider the history from which they arise (and Sicha provides this history), you understand that we are seeing an entire generation of orphans who — like John, who lost both parents at a young age — have grown up without any of the support (cultural, intellectual, or financial) that earlier generations of gay men in the city took for granted. If it seems like Sicha’s characters are living in a vacuum, it’s because they are; they don’t deserve our scorn, however, they deserve our sympathy.
Since its beginnings, the modern city — by which I mean the “industrial” or (now) “post-industrial” city — has been a sanctuary for gay men. More than any other place in society, the city allowed men to find each other and, amid the urban chaos, to lead relatively anonymous lives, unshackled from the onerous expectations and responsibilities of heterosexual marriage and childbearing. Nor — to some important degree (and this is how we distinguish gay men from their even more maligned female counterparts) — did they have to labor under the oppressive weight of misogyny. Obviously there have long been “codes” of conduct that had to be followed to avoid the scrutiny and abuse of religious zealots, reactionary thugs, and government officials, but by and large, gay men in the city were free to do pretty much whatever they wanted, assuming they could pay for food and shelter.
It’s no surprise that the great cities of the 20th century were marked by two important developments, the first being the number of gay men who — especially in the arts — shattered traditional modes of creative expression. Which is not to say every gay man spent all of his time making revolutionary art. To the contrary, the same conditions that fomented artistic genius — namely free time and disdain for societal convention — allowed gay men of all stripes to have unprecedented amounts of sex. The supply of partners was basically infinite, and many men felt no compunction about taking full advantage of this windfall. And really, who can blame them? When you stepped off — or more likely, were kicked off — the field of respectable society, there was really no reason not to wander into caressing wilds of the forest.
AIDS threw a big wrench into these gears of art and sex (to put it mildly), and in Sicha’s book, we see the continuing legacy of the disease. The city of 2009 (or 2013 for that matter) has been replenished with a new generation of gay men who — like their predecessors — are eager to have as much sex as possible, and the city (and now, technology) gives them every opportunity to do so. What’s lacking is a concomitant sense of gay culture or “heritage”; the young gays described by Sicha have nobody to introduce them to the important works of their elders or to inspire some number of them to follow in their footsteps. The men in Sicha’s book are groping through the night, and there’s nobody to take their collective hand.
In Very Recent History, there’s a grand total of one gay man from an older generation who imparts any wisdom to John, and this concerns 1) the best time to go to different bars on Fire Island, where John spends a weekend, and 2) how to tell who on the beach is a “loser” because he can’t afford the $26,000 (minimum) cost of a summer rental. In the context of what’s missing, this advice — though offered in a benign manner — comes off as heartbreakingly vacuous, particularly when, around the same time, we learn that John is busy having sex without condoms. John seems to be angry and grieving, but has little idea why; by telling his story, Sicha becomes the older gay man who offers much-needed guidance, compassion, and consolation.
To portray gay life in the city as Sicha has done — in a manner that’s both realistic and insightful — would be a noteworthy accomplishment in any era, but must be considered particularly remarkable in today’s publishing climate, in which major publishing houses offer readers more gay characters written by straight authors than gay ones.* Which is not to say you should read Very Recent History out of a sense of obligation or guilt; it’s a beautifully written and carefully documented (and often very funny) book about a group of people that, to our society’s collective detriment, continues to be largely ignored, dismissed, and stereotyped.
Sicha doesn’t use the words “gay” or “homosexual” in his book. He transcends these labels, not in the “universal” manner we’ve come to expect from treacly book-jacket copy written by marketers with the hope of appealing to the widest possible audience, but by telling stories in which such labels are washed away in the waves of specificity and truth that make up the days of our mostly unremarkable but precious and fragile lives. With any luck, Very Recent History will help to resurrect the gay narrative, so that we won’t need another book like this in 50 more years.
*I will be happy to hash this out in the comments with anyone who disagrees!