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In this pandemic diary, 2020 can seem too tidy

Sophia Nguyen

THE WASHINGTON POST – Has there ever been a period of human history documented so exhaustively as the spring of 2020? Every media outlet was running pandemic diaries – from doctors and luxury-travel agents, from residents of Wuhan and Milan – but even without that incentive, people wrote.

They recorded what they saw and felt, what they ate at each meal, the birds they observed from their windows. Social media had already conditioned us to document our lives, but the shutdown intensified that instinct.

People living through crisis often turn to diary-writing. As English professor Larry Rosenwald put it in an interview with the New Yorker’s Katy Waldman: “It’s the quickest route from thought to production.” Charles Finch, a novelist and critic in Los Angeles, didn’t take the quick route.

The production surrounding his thoughts was protracted, a process intended to create something more than an artless, organic record. The result, What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year, is theoretically intended for public use – made to serve someone or something beyond whatever private function a journal has for the writer alone.

The premise is straightforward: What Just Happened collects Finch’s observations over 10 months during the coronavirus pandemic. In the first entry, dated March 11, 2020, he observes the streets’ shifting mood, an “emotional chill”: “People are suddenly thinking and planning, which are not always part of the normal duties of life.”

The sketches in these early pages skilfully evoke their moment’s spiky, overstimulated atmosphere – especially the new, frightening friction of such everyday routines as grocery shopping.

From there, the book unfolds chronologically, its concerns cheerfully quotidian, following Finch’s personal sense of what seemed noteworthy that day: sometimes a text from a doctor friend in New York; more often a Donald Trump tweet.

At the same time, the entries feel scrupulously impersonal: Finch declines to write about the people he lives with, on the grounds that. As a result, the book feels weirdly, if strategically, depopulated. It’s strewn with cozy little episodes – Finch ordering spinach fettuccine online, or becoming “a candle guy”, – but with the mess of actual domestic life vacuumed away.

Some readers will take to Finch’s style, because for the most part he comes across as good company. At its worst, his book feels like a series of auditions for a gig as a newspaper columnist: You can take or leave the warmed-over political verdicts and rants about New York Times editorials.

But his voice is warmly conversational, and he has a knack for piquant, bite-size insights, especially about art. (Listening to Norah Jones “is like entering the dream of what you hoped adult life might be like as a teenager, legible, full of coffee and sun slanting across rumpled bedsheets”.) He also likes to string along adjectives. “Everything feels sad and witchy and possible.” A street is “unfamiliar and beautiful and lunatic.” This is prose like a farmshare box: generously overstuffed, but mostly with things that don’t quite make up a meal.

Then, in late May, come the uprisings sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Finch, who is White, drives to meet up with his friends, encountering police blockades. Out loud, they express unqualified admiration for the mass protests; their concerted distance from the action, though, suggests some inner disquiet.

Finch feels compelled to record the summer’s racial reckoning, but he also seems eager for that story line to wrap up and for the pandemic and the 2020 election to resume dominance over the narrative. “The George Floyd protests are smaller in number, but the concrete actions resulting from them are more numerous,” he reported that August.
It’s little surprise that the book ends in January 2021, with Joe Biden’s inauguration. But then the narrative turns, unexpectedly, to a remembrance of the author’s grandmother, the sculptor Anne Truitt. He describes walks they took through apple orchards, the paintings she explained to him, the colour of her winter coat and her car.

This section feels like a portal to the book this might have been – something personally addressed, intimate. It’s a reminder that recording and sharing a life, bringing some private memory into the public eye, can be a labour of love.

More than a year later, the diaries from the spring of 2020 collectively seem to radiate a furious optimism.

The fiercely concentrated attention that people lavished on preserving every detail reflects an implicit assumption: This clearly exceptional period would have a clear end; the disaster would be acute but ultimately brief; life would revert to the norm, so we had to write, to ward off the risk of forgetting. Finch’s book expresses a similar doomed hopefulness; it wants to put a bow not just on the pandemic but on our other political crises.

The problem is that “what just happened” is still happening – and Finch’s present-tense reflections, coming to us at this awkward remove from the events they describe, feel too weightless to help orient us to our future.