How to Destroy a City
Two Books Try to Upend Familiar Systems; One Succeeds
by Mark Leibovich
(Blue Rider Press, $27.95)
Very Recent History
by Choire Sicha
Mark Leibovich's This Town is the sort of book that attracts more attention before its publication than after. The idea of a tell-all about the back-scratching, self-obsessed behavior of Washington insiders, written by no less an expert than the New York Times Washington, DC, correspondent, sounds pretty salacious. But while This Town begins promisingly enough, with a prologue set at Tim Russert's funeral that indignantly gapes at all the politicians and commentators who are using the occasion of a beloved journalist's death to preen and be seen, it soon fades into monotony.
Here's what we learn in This Town: Politicians are vain. Journalists are lazy and will publish whatever you want, as long as you give them access. The relationship between lobbyists and politicians is uncomfortably close. Retired politicians get big paydays from industries they favored while in office. Everyone sucks up to those in power, then stabs those same people in the back the moment a weakness becomes visible.
Leibovich is an excellent writer, but there's little here that qualifies as news. Occasionally, a sarcastic observation will demonstrate the absurdity of the life of a Washington reporter, but the book winds up feeling too middle-of-the-road. While Leibovich scorches a few acres of ground, This Town still eventually feels like a backhanded love letter to the culture he's unveiling. A book like this should either be ripe with the acrid stench of gossip, like Halperin and Heilemann's Game Change and Dan Balz's Collision 2012, or it should be a progressive call to arms, with suggestions about how to change the harmful culture of vanity and pettiness.
Blogger Choire Sicha (you probably know his name from Gawker, back when it was cool, or from his site, the Awl) dissects the culture of a very different East Coast city to much greater success in his new book, Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City. His target is New York in the throes of the Great Recession, with the very poor bearing the brunt of decisions taken by the very wealthy. Sicha's book wins the reader's affection through a ludicrous—and highly effective—gimmick. It's written as though it's being told in the distant future, when the specificity of our everyday world has faded and our customs appear quaint to future generations. As a result, our mores are examined with embarrassing clarity:
For instance, it was illegal to exchange money for sex, and it was illegal for men to marry men and women to marry women. It had also, until quite recently, been illegal for people of some different ancestries to marry. As well, it had been illegal for two people to have kinds of sex that couldn't result in the conception of another human being.
Or, more simply: "Most people at this time ate meat." This viewing modern life through the wrong end of a telescope is a good, Vonnegut-style joke, and there's more than enough fodder with which to fill a short book like this.
Everything gets equal weight: relationships; one-night stands; heartbreak; economic inequality; Mayor Bloomberg's reelection campaign; the way trees in New York were "always invisible" until spring, when "they began to emit a tiny green mist of new leaves." In interviews, Sicha is calling Very Recent History an entirely truthful book, and that is a truthful description, but it's a beautiful book, too. Here's more from the passage about the dawn of spring, when the winter clothes slowly came off: "Chest hair! Again! The backs of knees were shining everywhere. There was maybe no good evolutionary or biological reason for everyone to want to touch someone's skin on that first warm day of spring, but there it was."
Reading Very Recent History is often like one of those framing sequences in a movie that is used to demonstrate the passage of time, where a long shot of a public space is sped up so the blurry humans skitter about, running to and fro, looking silly and alien and unknowable. Sometimes you latch onto a single figure making a unique pattern in the spill of humanity, and sometimes you just watch everyone go by, wondering if you could find yourself somewhere in the shot. At those moments, you look up from the book to find that Sicha took the opportunity to screw a new pair of eyes into your sockets. With his distance and his wit, he's showed you the ridiculousness, and the impossibly high value, of everything you take for granted.