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Choire Sicha talks 'Very Recent History,' a recession chronicle

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Let's say you had the misfortune to be young and broke in 2009. Some people moved back in with family members. Some people's parents helped them get a job. Others sought shelter in graduate school. Choire Sicha, a former Gawker editor and cofounder of the website the Awl, took one of the unlikelier recession escape routes of all and wrote a book.

"Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City" (HarperCollins: 240 pp., $24.99) chases a group of young men on the run from an economy crumbling to the ground around them. Bills arrive without getting paid; money is borrowed for cabs when the next paycheck is days away; co-workers sit around after work and drink and wait for their company to become the next to implode.

As such, Sicha's book belongs to a relatively narrow category of writing you might call Great Recession literature — works that directly address the consequences of the most defining American trauma since the Sept. 11 attacks. Sicha, 41, introduces this very recent real-life New York as one might describe a strange and brutal society that has receded into history.

"There was, for a while, a very large and very famous city," the book opens. "For an even shorter while, the richest man in town was its mayor. This seemed, for the time that it was true, like a very improbable coincidence." Sicha, with conscious irony, describes how insurance works, how layoffs work, and how the popular idea of open-plan offices, "like a bonfire or declaration of love, had to be executed completely or not at all."

The book's narrative details the real year of friends whose supporting characters are always fading in and out as a city tries to stagger to its feet.

You're Mr. Internet. Why did you decide to write a book?

It was the recession, and no one would pay me to do anything, and I ran out of money, and when you sell a book, they give you like a third of it upfront, so I lived off that for a while.

Do you know anyone else who has tried to write a book during the recession to feed themselves? Don't people go into, like, manual labor?

I had a bunch of friends I grew up with in San Francisco and a lot of them work as cab drivers, and I thought, "I'll work as a cab driver, this will be great!" And then it's actually really complicated, it turns out — I'm not qualified to work as a cab driver.

How long did it take you to put it together?

The first year was accumulating notes and tape and little bits. I sat with it for a bit, [and] I guess it took me like nine months after that. Man, that makes it sound really easy. ‘Yeah, I whipped it out, and it was done.' 

This reads like a novel, but it's a nonfiction book, yes?

It is! ... I think people thought we were kidding a little bit with the "entirely factual" thing [in the book's title], like it was a Dave Eggers-y joke. But we were totally straight-faced and earnest.

Did you intend to make this a semi-political novel?

I just grew up very politically, and I guess I can’t help it....Part of it is, New York is definitely a city of outward markers of status. Rich people dress rich, everyone else doesn't. And you see it on the streets, you see it in the buildings, you see it in the cars — we're so compact here that it's shoved in your face.... The thing about L.A. is that famous people don't really have any money, because it costs so much money to be a movie star that you end up pretty broke actually. But here, we have actually rich people who own huge parts of the city and control people's lives....

Do you see a cultural shift since 2009?

The recession was a shock, and then a lingering crisis, and we came out the other side changed. Part of it is we did kind of create a new expectation for what employment is like. We created maybe, like, a new permanent underclass of people who will never really get to participate in the middle class. It definitely feels different. It's not the same pervasive horror that's in the book — it doesn't feel like that in New York.

Do you feel we're going to start seeing literature for millennials?

There's not a lot of young writers who've broken out yet. There's not been a lot of structure to support them breaking out, either.... I feel like this is part of the reason [novelist] Tao Lin [is] greeted with these rapt crowds and attention, because he's writing for younger people, he's youngish, he's part of this generation, and there's just not a lot of writers publishing who are young right now, which is maybe for the best in some ways.

Do you get the sense that’s maybe the natural bell curve of publishing – you’re not going to see authors getting famous until they’re like in their 40s or 50s? Or are young people tweeting and tumblring instead of writing books?

I think they’re also writing books. But you know what, I wrote a novel when I was 28 or whatever, and it was garbage! Like, nobody should publish that! It was not good!

I get the sense a lot of young people end up going online, to the Awl or Thought Catalog, to hear voices that speak to them about themselves.

There are places to read young people — probably more than ever before, actually. Not at book length, but you know what.... The whole magazine writer — the magazine award-winning dude thing — feels really stale and old, and when you hold it up to like a New Inquiry or even Thought Catalog sometimes, it just seems like night and day.

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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