Choire Sicha takes a stab at this question in “Very Recent History” (Harper), a chilly but brilliant examination of city life in 2009, when Manhattan was still absorbing the financial meltdown of the previous year and one of the richest men in the city was running the show.
Sicha has subtitled his novel, “An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. 2009 A.D.) in a Large City,” which is an accurate reflection of the eerie time capsule quality of a narrative which contrasts real events in New York with the work and relationship adventures of a group of anxious young office workers.
The mix of fact and fiction, reporting and storytelling, is distinctive, but the icy Joan Didion/Renata Adler tone will put off as many readers as it turns on.
Sicha keeps reminding us of the terrible truth that 2008-2009 was particularly rough on office drones because so much of what goes on in New York is about money:
“Almost everything in the City was capital. The offices were to make money; the buildings were to make money; inside the buildings and the offices, people were employed to make things that made money. And then around those pillars were services: restaurants, bars, shops, cobblers, dressmakers, all to serve the people who were employed making money. So: almost everything. Everything except love, probably. People in the City didn’t often make explicit matches of their children for the transfer of money or goods. But the arrangements of love had an old-fashioned lag to them, in which capital was attached.”
The characters in “Very Recent History” spend most of their time focused on the bookkeeping aspects of their lives — rent, student loans, credit card debt — while trying to figure out what they might be looking for in a mate (in this case, sex partners who hang around for a while).
Sicha stops the narrative frequently to explain the nuts and bolts of 2009 life to those folks in the distant future. These digressions are often funnier, and more interesting, than what happens to the characters in the novel.
When was the last time you stood back and contemplated the electronic object much of the populace spends a good chunk of their lives watching? “Lots of people — most people — wanted a TV in their apartment. A TV was a thin device for displaying broadcasts sent by corporations. People paid for their TVs just once, and then, like electricity, paid each month for what came to the TV. Even though you paid for the TV programming, big companies also paid to show off their products on the TV, so the companies that distributed the TV programming made money two ways.”
Paranoia and lust fuel the characters in the narrative sections of “Very Recent History” — the fear of shutdowns and layoffs hang over the heads of all the people in the story (unless you count Mayor Bloomberg, who actually becomes a major figure in the book) and they use sex and sort-of romances to half-unwind from the pressure of working life.
Sicha’s people also worry that their connection to “reality” has been severed by the devices they use when they’re not watching TV:
“Edward thought the Internet had destroyed his brain in the last two years. In part he thought it was chat. It was the closest thing to telepathy. He could beam any thought into other people’s minds. And he was faster, more articulate, funnier than in person, or he thought so…If he could burn the Internet down, he thought he’d be happy. He thought it had physically changed the way his brain worked. He couldn’t even watch TV without a computer on his lap, or unless he was really stoned, or preferably both.”