Lessons from the city-state of Los Angeles
America is obsessed with Los Angeles. And America has been thinking about Los Angeles all wrong, for decades, on repeat. Los Angeles is not just the place where the American dream hits the Pacific. (It has its own dreams.) Not just the vanishing point of America’s western drive. (It has its own compass.) Functionally, aesthetically, mythologically, even technologically, an independent territory, defined less by distinct borders than by an aura of autonomy and a sense of unfurling destiny — this is the city-state of Los Angeles.
Deeply reported and researched, provocatively argued, and eloquently written, Rosecrans Baldwin’s Everything Now approaches the metropolis from unexpected angles, nimbly interleaving his own voice with a chorus of others, from canonical L.A. literature to everyday citizens. Here, Octavia E. Butler and Joan Didion are in conversation with activists and astronauts, vampires and veterans. Baldwin records the stories of countless Angelenos, discovering people both upended and reborn: by disasters natural and economic, following gospels of wealth or self-help or personal destiny. The result is a story of a kaleidoscopic, vibrant nation unto itself — vastly more than its many, many parts.
Baldwin’s concept of the city-state allows us, finally, to grasp a place — Los Angeles — whose idiosyncrasies both magnify those of America, and are so fully its own. Here, space and time don’t quite work the same as they do elsewhere, and contradictions are as stark as southern California’s natural environment. Perhaps no better place exists to watch the United States’s past, and its possible futures, play themselves out.
Welcome to Los Angeles, the Great American City-State.
It’s not just America that’s obsessed with Los Angeles. I’ve long been fascinated by the city (even though I’m not sure I’d like to live there). It’s one of my favourite fiction locations, and its diverse and fragmented nature allows for incredible variation in the novels, TV series and movies set within it. In Everything Now, Baldwin does a very good job of showing us the city from a number of different angles — some familiar, some new, all interesting. An interesting and engaging journey through various facets of Los Angeles, I enjoyed this.
Baldwin approaches his subject from a few different perspectives. It’s a city and region that “has long resisted classification”, but Baldwin is game to tackle the challenge.
For my part, it is the only place I’ve been to in the United States where I can stand anywhere and feel like I am in the middle of everything, and also like I am nowhere at all.
He writes about it as a relative newcomer, exploring his new home and its various neighbourhoods, municipalities, and characters. He examines its history, and whether or not it has reached the point of being an actual city-state (yes). Through the words of some other Angelenos — some famous (Octavia Butler, for example), others not — he explores the ways in which the city has shaped those who live in it, and how they have sometimes shaped the city.
Through the lens of Butler’s novels, he writes about LA’s place in Western commercialism and consumerism, how Parable of the Sower, published in 1993, was prescient in so many ways — Baldwin connects the themes and vision of LA in Butler’s 2020s with the real 2010s-20s: vast income inequality, climate crises, proliferations of private communities, and more. Baldwin includes some quotations from Butler’s diaries, which also offer a very interesting insight into the author (who I haven’t read much about), and also highlights many of the ongoing challenges that face those who are either non-white, non-wealthy, or both.
… for many new Black arrivals, Los Angeles wasn’t Joan Didion’s tabula rasa, but a place built on the United States’s deep racist rot.
The author mentions many damning facts and statistics about income inequality, in particular, and readers will often get a sense of Baldwin’s frustrations that LA (and, perhaps, by extension, America) doesn’t have to be the way it is.
He writes, inevitably, a bit about Hollywood and that ways it has shaped much of the city’s economy (not to mention the fact that very little of Hollywood-the-industry takes place in Hollywood-the-place).
Of course, “Hollywood” was still very big business, big icon, big macher. And, in its own way, “Hollywood” was L.A. and the sign was L.A., and the people who worked in “Hollywood,” the business that had for a long time mostly taken place in villages and neighborhoods scattered around the city-state that weren’t named Hollywood — Toluca Lake, Burbank, Culver City — were also L.A., though those people often spoke as if everyone else in L.A. worked in the business of “Hollywood” too, which could be off-putting.
He writes about the county’s strange political structure, in which a very small number of elected officials wield and incredible amount of power over the lives of a population larger than many other states.
… the government of the county was so unique. Los Angeles County, the largest local governmental unit in North America, was overseen by an elected panel of five supervisors — the “five little kings,” Davis called them — each representing more than two million people, with immense administrative, legislative, even judicial powers. Also, the county sheriff ran the world’s largest sheriff’s department and the largest jail system in the United States, basically reporting to nobody save the voters, and then only on occasion. “It’s just an immensely powerful, largely secret government,” Davis said.
A portion of the book also covers the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, how it has laid bare certain weaknesses and quirks of the city — things that really need to be addressed, or fixed, if Los Angeles is ever to really live up to its reputation as a city of dreams and any kind of “paradise”.
It’s a wide-ranging book, covering many more issues and topics than I’ve mentioned in the review. The book offers an interesting and insightful examination of Los Angeles. It is by no means exhaustive — one imagines that might be an impossible task in a single volume — but it is an engaging, enjoyable read. If you have any interest in Los Angeles and American culture, then I think you’ll find a lot to like in Everything Now. Definitely recommended.
Rosecrans Baldwin’s Everything Now is due to be published by MCD in North America and in the UK, on June 15th, 2021.
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Review copy received via NetGalley