AMERICAN CIRCUS - 18 DECEMBER 2013
Choire Sicha was one of the first editors at spit-balling rabble-rouser Gawker, and he later logged time at the genteel but influential New York Observer when that pink broadsheet was an incubator for talent now found across publishing's various august mastheads. In more recent years, he's made a new name as founder of The Awl, a curious but widely admired online magazine. Such is his and The Awl's influence, however, that when the editor of The New York Times Magazine stepped down one morning this November, it was Sicha who by 9 a.m. had assembled a list of suggested replacements, including novelist Renata Adler and Times India correspondent Ellen Barry. Unspoken but acknowledged, as media watchers admiringly linked to Sicha's list: some day, perhaps if a smart move was made by leadership, the new editor could be Sicha himself.
That's if magazines stick around long enough. Some of us are still traumatized by the crazy days of late 2008, when publishing basically imploded. Portfolio, the big Condé Nast business magazine, was among many titles that folded; it was impossible to get a job in Manhattan, let alone an assignment; and on a bleak day in November—which came to be known as Black Tuesday—some of the major book publishers axed as many as 30 percent of their staff.
Sicha was one of the bittersweet crew who sold a book in the aftermath. I remember hearing—perhaps from Sicha himself; disclosure: I've written for The Awl—that his first editor was canned, or perhaps the imprint was shuttered? (Yes, the imprint was shuttered, but then HarperCollins proper picked it up, but then his editor left for Amazon.) In any case, Sicha had the literary imprimatur in hand, and there was a great deal of wondering: What could a guy like that do with a couple hundred pages? Years had passed.
Sicha's first book, the rugged and bizarre Very Recent History, tells the story of a year in a big city, 2009 A.D., as it was lived by about a dozen young professionals, many of them gay, all of them fascinating, or at least terribly interesting. The book is funny, challenging, and ultimately a kind of radical morality tale about the trick of finding beauty in the dark tragicomedy of life in a big city.
What's immediately jarring is how the narrator operates with a cool, detached voice, as if he had landed on planet earth and felt compelled to describe everything we do to an otherwise intelligent person who knew nothing about our rules. The results can be stiff, with odd moments of beauty, inanity, and profundity:
A 1,726-square-foot two-bedroom apartment could be rented for 17,000 dollars each month—there were then twelve months in a year—which meant 204,000 annually. One resident, Marc Dreier, a lawyer, had paid 10.4 million dollars for a four-bedroom apartment on the thirty-fourth floor. He couldn't live there any longer because he was now going to live in a prison, which was run by the government at that time.
There's a tightly coiled threat of darkness in this characterization—"at that time"—as if, just wait, those prisons might soon be run by someone other than the government. Or, watch out, and there yet may be more than or indeed fewer than 12 months in a year. Sicha doesn't actually ever make it clear we're in New York City, but the fact that we are indeed in New York is as obvious as the fact that the mayor is billionaire Michael Bloomberg, and that Sicha thinks astronomical wealth is probably ruining the world for everyone but a select few.
When Sicha isn't revealing the banking or insurance industries for the diabolical morasses they are, he is tracking the normal people who don't live in 10.4 million dollar apartments. His main characters are regarded with the same all-seeing eye: their love and hope for love, when they get a raise or get fired, if they have an affair in the Hamptons or lounge around East Village walk-ups smoking Camel Lights.
Some refer to Sicha's story a nonfiction novel, others have it called it a staggeringly original form of narrative journalism. Whatever the case, in interviews Sicha himself has assured us it's all true: that he's aiming for a sort of documentation of how relationships work or don't, the lure of booze and sex, the agony of ambition, and the thousand ways New York is both the best and worst place on earth.
One of the reasons Sicha makes it all so interesting, I think, might seem impolite to focus on, if it wasn't so key: he treats gender and sexuality in ways that, to me, seem to blow up every idea I previously had about men and women. (Other reviewers have mentioned the fact that Sicha is gay; this may, in fact, be important.)
Consider how Sicha describes 2009 sex:
A very unsatisfying practice at this time, considered animal and messy, and also dangerous...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...Some people could achieve sexual intimacy with only one particular gender. Most people at the time believed there were two of those...People made great and complicated arrangements to satisfy their urges.
How many genders do you believe in? Because of the bracing oddness of such questions, Sicha can't help but up-end many of our conventional wisdoms. What emerges in the harsh light is, I dare say, not always depressing.
Sicha's is a generation of writers that's been forced to come to terms with traditional publishing's demise, the Internet's speed, and the collapse of an economic system that for half a century allowed an editor or writer to live comfortably. (How many are haunted by the image of prime rib served atTime magazine's bygone cafeteria?)
If a previous generation's epitome was Joan Didion turning her slow gaze from a New York Review of Books assignment to a book-length manuscript, Sicha might be our new avatar. In his Very Recent History, the best he can do is take the same wit and speed we see at The Awl every day, slow it down, and let what he sees speak for itself.
"The city was all soft and steamy and delirious," Sicha writes mid-way through the story, allowing himself one of the slim book's most lyrical touches. He continues:
Tree roots pushed up against slab, patient, growing every day. Down in the old former swamps of the City, where the hard schist broke up or dove down, the roots roamed wet and free, and pushed up because they could, and pushed down through garbage and broken rock and landfill. The old building sagged. In the bathroom, a tile would crack, and then another. One day a window wouldn't quite close square.
Bloomberg is nearly out as mayor. Book publishing has recovered enough to award a first novel a two-million dollar advance. Yet every week, it seems, the New York Times loses an editor to Buzzfeed or a thing called Mashable and another publication quietly shutters its print publication.
Would anyone have noticed if Sicha hadn't bothered to write a book? On Twitter or in the pages ofBookforum or on The Awl, Sicha is consistently one of our sharpest minds. If pressed, I bet he might concede how strange it was that an Internet presario bothered to write a book. Happily for us, the pages came together—just in time.
This piece was published by American Circus. Read the original here.