August 02, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

Very Recent History

Current Status
In Season
Choire Sicha
We gave it an A-

According to a former hit song that’s relegated mostly to karaoke bars these days, the world appears blue and green and full of harmony when viewed from a distance. But Choire Sicha’s Very Recent History reminds us that it can look pretty screwed-up, too. Sicha followed a group of twentysomething gay men around New York City throughout 2009 for this compelling portrait of a city and its residents during one of the worst financial crises in history.

His detached prose, which at times reads like fiction, makes that year feel more absurd than any of us might remember. The narrator describes ”the City” — its unnamed billionaire mayor, its financial structure and health-care systems — as well as sex, love, Facebook, and everything else as if we’re hearing about them for the first time. It’s an unusual convention but it works, conjuring a fresh look at a seemingly distant world that is actually our own.

Similarly, Sicha doesn’t dwell on his subjects’ histories (or always use their real names). He writes about their everyday lives — gossiping, barhopping, texting, slutting around — as they fight to keep jobs and pay mounting bills. Sometimes the men seem indifferent to others, but Sicha doesn’t apologize for them: ”You can be adjacent to other people’s misery, but misery had to be right on top of you for it to matter.”

In one resonant passage, History puts the worst days of 2009 — and these men’s trivial pursuits — into perspective by discussing a tragedy that first struck the City 28 years earlier. Though Sicha does not identify that tragedy, he is clearly talking about the victims of AIDS: ”These were people who [today] would have been coworkers, mentors, bosses, owners, millionaires, subway workers, neighbors, guys to pick up at bars…. But they weren’t there.” Sicha’s method here is microscopic, but his message is universal: Living can be the best way to cope with life. A-

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