The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In this pandemic diary, memories of 2020 can seem too tidy

A memorial for George Floyd in Minneapolis in August 2020. In his book, Charles Finch recalls how he and his friends cheered on the protests that followed Floyd’s killing. (Joshua Lott/For The Washington Post)

Has there ever been a period of human history documented so exhaustively and so rapidly 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, made it compulsive. Nearly two years later, you can look back and find out what the members of the MIT chemistry department got up to, or read Jimmy Fallon’s complaints about stepping on his daughters’ Legos. 

People living through crisis often turn to diary-writing — a “reactive form,” 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. This was a project that one of the big five American publishers acquired, that at least one editor gave notes on, that the author revised, that was sent to a printer and made into a physical object, bound between hard covers and priced at $28. 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.

If it sounds like I’m attempting to explain the bare concept of “book” to a space alien, it’s because my brain overheated while trying to discern this one’s intended audience or aims. 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 skillfully evoke their moment’s spiky, overstimulated atmosphere — especially the new, frightening friction of such everyday routines as grocery shopping or picking up a prescription. 

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 or a Ron DeSantis news conference. At the same time, the entries feel scrupulously impersonal: Finch declines to write about the people he lives with, on the grounds that “it would take so many decades of thought to do any of them justice, such mad care, that only silence seems like an option.” 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,” or worrying if he’s smoking too much weed — but with the mess of actual domestic life vacuumed away. 

Some readers will nevertheless 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, the paeans to Ruth Bader Ginsburg 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, vaguely sexy, full of coffee and sun slanting across rumpled bedsheets.”) He also likes to string along adjectives, in an effort to gin up our sense of wonder. “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. It sent me back to the early 2000s and the debuts of Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer — puppyish, well-scrubbed, twee.

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, texting each other videos of the action in Minneapolis. They get high and listen to the Doors. 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 reports that August, citing the removal of various Confederate statues. From that point on, Blackness resumes its odd, spectral place in the book, invoked in discussions of the school he attended (Yale, which named one of its residential colleges after the civil rights activist Pauli Murray), the music he listens to, and the places he’s left behind and can thus thoroughly romanticize (Chicago: “a valiant city, as I saw up close at moments when I lived there”).

Perhaps it was this sense of estrangement — either from the fight for justice or the pain of injustice — that motivated the most shocking move in the book: reprinting Floyd’s last words in their entirety. Finch probably intended to pay tribute to Floyd’s irreducible humanity. But it comes off as an insulated White writer’s attempt to inject some rawness into his narrative, one that flattens Floyd’s suffering into an aesthetic gesture. (This, too, smells strongly of the early aughts’ ghastly sentimentality — like how Safran Foer capped off “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” with photos of a man falling from the twin towers.) Finch informs us that he is at work on a novel “about the survivors of slavery, and I suppose also about white incomprehension of Black experience. If any good idea for a novel can be summarized so briskly.” It’s a grim prospect.

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 color 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 labor 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. 

What Just Happened

Notes on a Long Year

Charles Finch


288 pp. $28