Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles
By Rosecrans Baldwin
To write the definitive book about Los Angeles would be impossible. In “Everything Now,” the novelist Rosecrans Baldwin doesn’t try. And in not trying, he may have written the perfect book about Los Angeles.
Freewheeling and polyhedral, the book could serve equally as an ornament on the coffee table of a Silver Lake architect; a pamphlet at an anti-deportation rally downtown; or a primer beside bound scripts in a filmmaking class who knows where, as entertainment, Baldwin says, “often feels like an alien ship hovering over the county, spewing out chemtrails that breeze around the world.”
Since arriving to Los Angeles in 2014, the author and his wife and screenwriting partner, Rachel Knowles, have been welcomed onto that ship, in the tradition of collaborative California couples that includes the Didion-Dunnes.
But Baldwin’s concentric circling of a subject by immersing himself in the stories of curious characters recalls less Joan Didion than Gay Talese circa “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” (most strikingly when Baldwin’s tennis partner shows him a photo of a lover in a milk bath with “an orchid protruding from her vagina”). The artist Jenny Holzer also comes to mind, with Baldwin’s billboard-like chapter headings (“Risk a Lot, Win a Little,” “Anything Can Happen at Any Second”) rendered in slanted, sans-serif boldface. Even more so Baldwin embodies the 19th-century flâneur: alighting here and there in space and time, spending a while, passing through, pulling over. A Baudelaire of Bel Air; a painter of post-postmodern life.
The space and time machine of literature enables Baldwin, an admirer of Octavia Butler, to wander Los Angeles’s variegated and vast terrain at will, when in reality this is generally inadvisable, if not impossible — even as Google Maps has radically altered the freeway experience. (Old-timers will remember the Thomas Guide, a spiral-bound paper map the size of a lasagna always somewhere in the vicinity of the passenger seat.)
If his thesis is that Los Angeles is a city-state like ancient Carthage or modern Singapore, perhaps even more convincing is the idea he picks from the physicist and dedicated urban stair-climber Dan Gutierrez: that the megalopolis mirrors (or presaged) the internet, its “networks upon networks layered densely in a mesh,” where motoring from Point A to Point B “felt like social media’s infinite scroll,” human services thin as trapeze nets, full of holes.
Baldwin does not shy away from piloting down into such holes, untouristed places, unclicked pages. He comes to wonder: “Why was a feeling of ‘home’ something I had lucked into, that others were forced to earn?” A tracker with the Border Angels tells him that migrants are too often referred to as “waves” or “hordes,” rather than by their individual faces and names. “Storytelling,” she says, “is resistance.”
We spend intimate time with the expected characters, yes: the hopeful actress, the landlord who cares more about star signs than credit scores, and various self-help shysters, from blood drinkers to a “people walker.” But Baldwin also introduces us to another side of the city: a victim of labor trafficking, a pair of volunteers distributing aid at the border, a longtime inhabitant of Skid Row, amateur firefighters and environmental scientists trawling for plastic.
None of these visits feel like drive-bys, or postcards from the edge. Perhaps because of Baldwin’s asides, as when a man on the sidewalk outside a grocery store sees “90210”’s Ian Ziering walk past. “Looking big, Ian!” he says. The actor responds, “All natural! Protein, yo!” These minutiae are central to our understanding of this place that is as overcrowded as it is desolate; sometimes friendly, but never cozy.
And if “Everything Now” is not the first to remark on the double meaning of Angelenos “needing validation” — for parking but also their souls — no matter. Consider Baldwin’s ticket stamped.