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?
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.