The Strange Insights That Come From Putting Modern Life Under a Microscope

Choire Sicha's Very Recent History takes an anthropological look at some very curious people: us.
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In 1956, anthropologist Horace Miner published a well-researched account of the Nacirema, a strange people who occupy "the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles." Miner was struck by how far the Nacirema go in honoring what their tribe considers sacred. "The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease," he wrote.

Each Nacirema family has a shrine devoted to bodily upkeep, and each shrine houses "many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live." The Nacirema, Miner noted, are also particularly concerned with their mouths, "the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships." But the key to understanding the Nacirema, in all of their strangeness, is to read their name backwards: They're American.

In his book Very Recent History, The Awl co-founder Choire Sicha files a follow-up report on these peculiar people. Very Recent History tells of a man named John who has the bad luck of spending his 20s during the recession in New York; his social calendar is packed, but not as fully as the envelopes containing debt notices that he receives in the mail. "John" is a pseudonym for an actual New Yorker, and the book is technically a work of non-fiction -- all quotes are verbatim, taken down by Sicha while reporting in the field.

Sicha's reporting is thorough, and the arc of John's love life is occasionally affecting, but it's the book's conceit -- it's an account of life in the year 2009 meant for unnamed readers from the future -- that makes Very Recent History such a worthwhile read. Sicha stitches dry anthropological asides into his account of John's year, laying out in 5th-grade-textbook terms concepts like patents, property, and the feng shui of cubicle arrangement.

Some of these asides carry on for multiple pages. One memorable lesson, for example, sketches the history of currency, beginning with seashells. Most, though, are short and insightful: "'Insurance' was an idea where, if you had something that you valued a lot, like an expensive painting or a child, you could pay a relatively small amount of money to a company and, if the painting was stolen or the child died, the company would pay you the agreed-upon value of the missing, or dead, object or person." In one sentence, Sicha reminds us just how strange insurance is: How often do we forget that we live in a society that can conflate death with commodity?

This all serves to make the real seem dreamt-up, and the familiar seem bizarre; by suspending us between fiction and non-fiction, Sicha is able to tell us about a world that we must remind ourselves is ours.

Sicha's main anthropological interest is money. He spots its strange effects everywhere from pocketbooks ("At that time, it wasn't customary to ask other people for money. That was one reason why credit cards were so successful, so universal. It was considered better to borrow from strangers, at an interest rate, than from friends.") to dinner tables ("This bib was specifically intended for the eating of lobster, a hard-shelled sea creature that you cooked and then broke open, usually with tools. It was once considered something gross that poor people ate but was then an expensive delicacy."). In doing so, he connects the quotidian to the systemic, bringing up topics like animal rights, environmentalism, and gender binaries without getting explicitly political. He's diagnosing who and what are responsible for the way daily life is: "It wasn't in anyone's interest to change this, which also must have meant it was in someone's interest to not change this," he writes.

The history-book concept might strike some readers as a gimmick, but it's actually what keeps all of these ethnographic notes from coming across as scattered, stoned observations. Very Recent History, though, differs from traditional accounts of history in an important way. Sicha takes care to keep things in the abstract, rarely providing his characters with last names or life stories. Even though we glean how John interacts and loves, he is never more than "John," and thus he melts down into an emblem of a time and a place. We know he's real, but reading about him in this way makes him seem like a fictional character. Further, Sicha's New York is simply "the City," Michael Bloomberg is just "the Mayor," and D.C. is "the Capital" -- these are terms that create a magisterial, almost science-fictional atmosphere throughout the book. This all serves to make the real seem dreamt-up and the familiar seem bizarre; by suspending us between fiction and non-fiction, Sicha is able to tell us about a world that we must remind ourselves is ours.

Our time and our society are not uniquely weird -- the future in which Sicha pretends to write surely will have its own hypocrisies that go undetected day-to-day. That said, the issues Sicha brings up are ours to work through, in the realm of what Georges Perec called the "endotic": the habitual, predictable things that get overlooked as they hum on in the background, determining more than we could ever imagine. Three-quarters of the way into Very Recent History, in one of the few lapses in his deadpan, instruction-manual monotone, Sicha writes something that Perec would have appreciated: "It seemed very strange when you started to think about it all."

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Joe Pinsker is an assistant editor at The Atlantic. He has written for Rolling StoneForbes, and Salon.

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