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What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year

Review

What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year

The dust jacket photo on Charles Finch’s WHAT JUST HAPPENED leaves an indelible impression, a symbolic foretaste of the powerful recent memories that unfold between its covers.

You’re looking at a drone shot above a park, in which 110 precise white circles have been painted on the grass. All but five contain people --- individuals, couples, close friends, families --- in obedient protective separation. Only half a dozen or so humans and dogs are found outside these compulsory boundaries. This is outdoor living during COVID-19.

The abrupt cessation of “normal” during mid-March 2020 caught a lot of the world off-guard. We learned new terms like “pivot,” “distancing,” “social bubble” and “herd immunity,” and we reacquainted ourselves with “uptick,” “cocooning” and “pandemic,” among many others.

Award-winning American book critic, essayist and novelist Charles Finch (who is not related to me, to my knowledge, but I’d gladly claim him) accepted what must have seemed a tedious assignment at first: chronicling his experiences of living through COVID-19 when no one knew how long the global shutdown would last. To hear people at all levels (from then-President Trump, on up the intellectual ladder) talk back in March 2020, it seemed things would be under control in a matter of weeks or months. In that case, WHAT JUST HAPPENED would have been a very short book, perhaps only an extended magazine article.

"There isn’t a thing that crossed my mind during the initial few months of pandemic restrictions that Finch doesn’t include in WHAT JUST HAPPENED."

History, of course, proved a lot of those early prognosticators egregiously wrong, resulting in a substantial, socially penetrating and often moving journal of our worst “plague year” in modern history --- an international health crisis that is far from over. As I write, the Omicron variant is today’s breaking news.

From his vantage point in Los Angeles, Finch documents not only his own disrupted life as a deadline-plagued writer, but that of the people closest to him (including a very knowledgeable New York doctor), their intersecting relationships, and the neighborhoods in which they all once moved with nonchalant freedom.

Rather than writing every day, as many pandemic-inspired journal writers (like me) have been doing, Finch adeptly juggled work on WHAT JUST HAPPENED with other real-world writing assignments, maintaining a sense of professional normality between outbursts and reflections that seem to well up in his psyche and burst out in rivers or explosions of prose. As I read each entry, all of them eccentrically varied in length and tone, I realized that what grabbed me most was the jagged honesty of the entire enterprise.

There isn’t a thing that crossed my mind during the initial few months of pandemic restrictions that Finch doesn’t include in WHAT JUST HAPPENED. He comments on sudden shortages of certain foods, hygiene products, access to entertainment, restricted medical services, disrupted transportation, global and national politics, the latest vaccine science news, and (inevitably) shopping online for things one used to get in local stores.

More tellingly, Finch writes about people --- those he knows and misses in physical presence, and those who have become statistics in a steadily mounting toll of COVID-19 fatalities. On April 23rd of the agonizingly long 10-month “year” covered in WHAT JUST HAPPENED, Finch notes the first in a series of terse one-liners: “50,000 deaths in the U.S.” The last of these is recorded on January 19, 2021: “400,000 deaths in the U.S.”

Against a relentless backdrop of rising case counts, the daily barrage of news headlines, pervasive anxiety about the future, and concerns over the mental health of his closest friends, Finch dug deep into his own life and identity. He worked through long-ignored personal issues, explored his inner mental and spiritual world as never before, and immersed himself in music that both clears and soothes the mind.

While he binged on the Beatles, other bands of the ’60s and some under-appreciated country singers, up here in Canada I binged on Bruce Cockburn, Loreena McKennitt and Gordon Lightfoot. He returned to smoking marijuana regularly, feeling guilty and anxious about it, only to be told by a doctor that he was doing exactly the right thing. I’m drinking a bit more red wine these days, but I’m not going to ask my doctor about it.

All in all, if we must accept COVID-19 and its hideous variant spawn as part of our “new normal,” I for one am glad that Finch accepted the assignment of documenting our collective experience of it. He lets us laugh, learn and lament all at the same time --- sometimes even on the same page.

He leaves us with a work that doesn’t finish, it simply stops. We still have to weather the real length of the COVID-19 crisis. Remember, WHAT JUST HAPPENED is not phrased as a question. Charles Finch doesn’t give us an answer, he gives us a cogent response. And he does it brilliantly.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on December 3, 2021

What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year
by Charles Finch

  • Publication Date: November 9, 2021
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0593319079
  • ISBN-13: 9780593319079