Higher Vistas

Rosecrans Baldwin's Everything Now and the Incoherence of Los Angeles

Higher Vistas

I grew up in Irvine, California, a perpetually sunny suburb distinguished mostly by its gleaming cul-de-sacs, respectable public university, and distance from Los Angeles—almost exactly fifty miles, or one to three hours in the car, depending on the time of day, whether there was a Dodgers game on, or any number of utterly random variables. California, as the cliché goes, is a state that traffics in traffic, and in the atomized, over-air-conditioned life that accompanies its far-flung network of highways and parking lots—here, concrete takes the place of prairies. (As of 2015, 14% of L.A. is devoted to parking.) Cars keep us cloistered off from one another, but with them, we can access greater swaths of the world, and profit from an artificial sense of elevated scale: Maria Wyeth, the anhedonic protagonist of Joan Didion’s California classic, Play It As It Lays, sweeps through highways at night the way an insomniac New Yorker might wander from bodega to bodega. Accordingly, my memories of California—fourteen years-worth—always involve driving somewhere. Even from the back seat, watching the shrubland and flattened office parks flash past, I experienced a purely concentrated rush of power, like the arrival of a Santa Ana wind. The world seemed conquerable, my position at its helm guaranteed.

This was a feeling only magnified by my occasional trips to L.A.—hours spent sweating in traffic for a glimpse of the glossy buildings, the hills looming, the total dearth of shade. Irvine prided itself on being the one-time home of Jacques Derrida, of sending its high schoolers to college preparatory camps and Math Olympiads. L.A., by contrast, preferred fast-talkers, hustlers, moguls; teeth-whitening and self-tanning products, sold by the bushel; the glinting, tawdry glamor of a well-placed billboard. I was seduced, in spite of myself.

And yet I was disappointed to find the same values in L.A. that I had come to distrust in Irvine—values that seemed to be etched, like crude hieroglyphs, into the California experience. Irvine was friendly—everyone said so—but I could just make out an undercurrent of disgust, a fear of difference, in the way my neighbors behaved. The slight sneer as they handed their gardener, likely undocumented, a lousy tip; the panicked 911 call placed by a white professor when a Black man, selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door, showed up on our street. In L.A., wealthy residents whispered about Skid Row as if it was an epithet, or an unsubstantiated rumor; it wasn’t clear they’d ever seen it in the flesh. The 1992 riots were only vague historical glimmers to many Angelenos, even if their root causes—segregation, police brutality—remained as firmly fixed as the Hollywood letters, perched high above the city, bleached white enough to make your eyes sting.

California was the apotheosis of the pioneers’ swaggering dream of expansion (and that term, “manifest destiny,” tossed around in our classes on California history, disguising a century of colonization and Native American genocide). It was also the end of the world, the edge of the continent. Driving toward L.A., the palm trees—imported luxury goods, not native horticulture—quiet and sinister above us, I wondered how this state, this city, could contain so many things at once.

It was with this sense of dread—and an attendant hope for solutions—that I turned to Rosecrans Baldwin’s new book Everything Now: Lessons from the City-State of Los Angeles. The title is somewhat deceptive. Baldwin, a journalist and novelist, is interested less in providing straightforward “lessons” from Los Angeles than in telling stories about its history, its fraught place within American culture, and especially its inhabitants: cities, after all, can’t actually provide lessons, though people can. The result is an impressively reported but unwieldy book that occasionally slips into the easy bromides that surround Los Angeles (or any major city, for that matter). If one goes to Baldwin’s book in search of some clarity about L.A., as I did, one is likely to be disappointed, though passably entertained.

Baldwin’s organizing principle is to wrap Los Angeles in the concept of the “city-state,” a self-governing city with the breadth, resources, and autonomy of a small nation—think Monaco, Vatican City, ancient Athens. “Los Angeles felt strangely nation-like to me from the moment I arrived,” Baldwin writes: larger, odder, and less connected to the “bedrock Americana that anchors cities like Chicago, New York, or Boston.” (Though how much of this “bedrock” is left, actually, after years of erosion by gentrification?) The idea, it seems, is to gesture at the sheer difficulty of defining Los Angeles—how can this city just be a city?—and offer something like a justification for the book. Los Angeles, Baldwin wants to say, is powerfully singular. (Well, yes, of course, I wanted to say.)

The “city-state” comparison strikes me as a bit of meaningless marketing razzle-dazzle, a way to set Baldwin’s book apart from a virtual cavalcade of books about Los Angeles (many of which Baldwin cites and quotes liberally). It’s also a categorization at odds with what Baldwin notes elsewhere: “To attempt to say what is Los Angeles, other than ‘by itself,’ sometimes feels like trying to pin down a cloud.” More intriguing is the book’s insistence on a kind of multivocality, through which Los Angeles, in all its throbbing contradictions, can speak. There are the L.A. writers—Didion, Octavia Butler, John Fante, the indispensable Mike Davis—but also the L.A. lives: immigration activists resisting ICE, Skid Row’s citizens, faltering actors and actresses, participants in M.I.T.T. (an L.A.-based, NXIVM-like “leadership workshop”), volunteer firefighters, those incarcerated in California’s robust prison system.

If this all sounds a bit frenetic, that’s because it is, though Baldwin coaxes some extraordinary anecdotes out of his subjects—which, taken together, speak to the strange and often paradoxical ways life in L.A. tends to unfold. A physicist and engineer spends his weekends mapping Los Angeles by climbing its 310 miles of public stairways (a reminder, perhaps, that what constitutes public space in a city may not always come in the form of a park or an avenue). Baldwin meets a gambler and perpetually out-of-work actor (whom he dubs “Henry Chinaski,” after Charles Bukowski’s alter ego) whose complacency repudiates one strand of L.A. weltanschauung: a desperation, frantic and thrumming, to be noticed at all costs. “People are like, ‘You could’ve contributed to the world,’” Chinaski remarks. “I couldn’t! I’m limited. If I could be Elon Musk, I’d be Elon Musk.” (The latter belief, at least, puts Chinaski in the same category as most tech-addled Californians.) Later, Baldwin overhears two landlords discuss a tenant who runs her water overnight—a small act of vengeance against the person who restricts her right to live comfortably and affordably. “Go out, buy an AK-47, unload a full magazine into that bitch,” one man encourages the other, before departing for a country club.

These people felt familiar to me, though not necessarily because I’d met others like them. Rather, they seemed to reify feelings I’d often had in L.A.—of being both charmed and distressed, amused and horrified, sometimes all in the space of one sultry day. Far from occurring discretely, those feelings tended to run together, like rivulets meeting at their source: the heat has a way of eliding the city’s divisions, of rendering the city-goer’s mind pliant. Reading Everything Now offers a similar experience. One story melts into another; the reader barely has time to readjust between them.

Still, there are obvious pitfalls to a book so crowded. Baldwin’s technique—to craft a narratorial persona who flits between topics like an indecisive shopper—will be familiar to readers of most contemporary nonfiction, a market oversaturated with books that, in attempting to avail themselves of all the possibilities a subject might contain (and attract as many disparate readers as possible), end up feeling rough and shapeless: the literary equivalent of a burlap sack. These books are touted as “ambitious,” “sprawling,” “wide-ranging”; that they might lean too heavily on long bibliographies or hastily limned vignettes is somehow taken as evidence of the author’s hard work, her devotion to the field. But is merely accumulating information an achievement? Where does research end and writing begin?

In a review of Olivia Laing’s Everybody: A Book About Freedom—a book that similarly whirls between stories, rather than attempting to collect them into one fluid, lissome argument—the critic Katy Waldman notes that she finds herself “in a mood of distrusting overly tidy nonfiction.” The pleasure of Everybody, Waldman suggests, stems from its looseness, which allows for a playful interchange of ideas, with none of the torpor a more methodical study might entail.

I share Waldman’s distrust of tidiness in nonfiction—or any kind of literature that genuinely seeks to index life, for that matter. But Everything Now is not exactly a Sebaldian monologue, or one of Chris Kraus’s meandering, theory-laden letters in I Love Dick: its jaggedness can confuse, rather than entice. Stories that should be distinct—so different are their contexts—end up perching uncomfortably next to each other, unlikely bedfellows made to cavort. Baldwin interviews a Filipino woman named Angela (also a pseudonym) brought to Los Angeles by a trafficker and forced to work as a home care nurse; in the next section, he picks up the story of Bridget Biddy Mason, a Los Angeles woman born into slavery who successfully petitioned for her own freedom in 1856. Angela, too, extracts herself from slavery, with the help of the FBI (figured here as unequivocal good guys). But the comparison with Mason made me uneasy. Both women were victims of dehumanizing violence, made possible in part by Los Angeles’s own history as a locus for exploitation: a city built by Mexican immigrants paid unlivable wages, then shuttled into cramped barrios. But “modern slavery”—a dubious term often used in place of “trafficking”—shouldn’t be slotted in with American slavery and the transatlantic slave trade; these are systems with drastically different origins and complexities.

Nor should Octavia Butler, the epochal science fiction writer, be cataloged with a “self-help program”-cum-multi-level-marketing-scheme, simply because Butler was a self-made artist with a dogged work ethic. (“I shall be a bestselling author,” she once wrote in a journal. “I will find a way to do this. So be it! See to it!”) Butler’s brand of self-help, Baldwin wants to argue, is clearly better than the other—but to even put the two together feels like a needless reduction of Butler’s work and spirit. In these instances, I found myself wanting what Waldman didn’t: coherence, delineation, space for each story to breathe and unfurl.

Los Angeles has no one literary style of its own—just the wholly individual products of iconoclasts (Butler, Didion, West, Bukowski, Babitz, Fante) and the less notable work, much of it now lost to the ages, of the imitators who tended to orbit them. Perhaps wisely, Baldwin sidesteps this problem altogether by positioning himself as a writer untethered to L.A. “I have no innate credibility to write about Los Angeles,” he admits—just a roving curiosity about it. (No qualms here: this seems to me as adequate a reason to write a book as any.) Baldwin doesn’t have the coolness of Didion or the jittery strangeness of Nathanael West; there’s an earnestness to his prose, a sense of investment, that can come off as charming or falsified, depending on your level of generosity. “I hated it, I hate it, I will hate it,” Baldwin writes, of a particularly horrifying photograph he receives from a photographer working on Skid Row. “Anytime I went around Skid Row, I hated it, all the suffering, the filth.” The antidote to this frustration and guilted complicity, for Baldwin, is uplift: the satisfying telos offered by happy endings, which occasionally crop up in his reporting. Angela is saved; a formerly homeless person finds housing and tenuous community; an actress who nearly starved in poverty eventually gets to Sundance.

Yet I couldn’t help feeling disheartened by these stories, no matter their conclusions: behind them lies so much exhaustion, so much wasted time, so many lost opportunities for fullness and pleasure. And at times, I longed for something akin to Didion’s skeptical pose, her refusal to read California—with all its overtly Gothic undertones—as a sentimental story. A Venice man living next to a homeless shelter admits to Baldwin that without his six-year-old daughter, who encouraged him to see their proximity to the shelter as an incitement to charity, he would have been less tolerant of the people sleeping next door. Is this anecdote supposed to inspire? What it made me feel was hopeless: that an adult couldn’t summon the baseline compassion that a child could; that people who choose to live in cities with housing problems—the fault of blinkered and ruthless politicians alike—feel free to complain about their unhoused neighbors, as if they might be overgrown hedges or bursting bags of garbage.

Ask some Californians to share a wall, a border, or even a strip of pavement with people whose conditions of life are dire (or just unfamiliar), and what results is always a painfully individualized response. Not in my neighborhood; they make me feel unsafe. (Notice the obstructed objects, the blurry pronouns, always in defense of an exalted self.) Manifest destiny never left us. Baldwin’s predilection for the sentimental is no help here; this is a style that also prioritizes the individual—the well-shaped story of one life redeemed—while purporting to stand in for the whole. Here, again, I wished for more rigor and specificity, even for so slippery a subject. Is this an impossible ask, or just a difficult get in our current literary market? Perhaps what I wanted from this book is best described in terms D.H. Lawrence, writing in 1923, applied to life in L.A.: “It’s sort of crazy-sensible.”

I haven’t lived in California since I was sixteen; I haven’t visited since I was nineteen. What glimpses I get of L.A. now are either oneiric—in one recurring dream, I find myself listlessly circling around L.A.X., waiting for a suitcase that never arrives—or drawn from the news: blackened skies in Paradise, COVID testing at Dodger Stadium. I have friends who have moved to L.A., or who tentatively float the idea, speaking of better weather, beautiful people, greener food, higher vistas (physical, metaphorical, metaphysical). I find myself scoffing at their fantasies, but I can’t quite dismiss them, either. Maybe I didn’t find the answers I wanted in Baldwin’s writing in part because the city is inextricably bound up in my own confusions about myself—the superficial parts of me that do battle with the political ones; the perverse delight I have always felt about consumption (and offering myself up to be consumed); the rootlessness that comes from growing up in a state that comports itself like a small country—the same inflated nationalism and isolationist rhetoric.

Or maybe it’s because Los Angeles is a subject better treated in fiction, which makes ample room for untidiness and irresolution. Nonfiction, beholden to reality, needs a stabler foundation, a refined sense of direction to carve a path—even a shaky one—through the world. I think of Oedipa Maas, the not-quite-human protagonist of Thomas Pynchon’s not-quite-human novel The Crying of Lot 49, as she drives through Southern California: “Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the center of an odd, religious instant.” Fiction can leave us stranded in mystery, but nonfiction should strive to enter that “odd, religious instant,” to siphon meaning from the recondite, the unfamiliar, the immense or even sublime. I remain convinced that a nonfiction book can perform this clarifying work, just as I remain convinced of Los Angeles’s import: an astonishingly young city that has nonetheless contributed to a long history of American treachery and injustice. There are more ways to tell the story of this place, I think; the possibilities flicker on the horizon, just visible amid the jumping flames, the slowly setting sun.

Sara Krolewski

is a writer and graduate student living in the East Village.

All contributions from Sara Krolewski

Latest in Criticism