Rosecrans Baldwin, You Lost Me There — September 23, 2010

Rosecrans Baldwin, You Lost Me There

Cover of _You Lost Me There_: crimson background, white type, everything looking hand-drawn. There are also antlers studding the page. (It's possible that they're crossing axons.)
This is the debut novel for Rosecrans Baldwin, who in 1999 cofounded the always-excellent Morning News; it’s a charming first work. I’ve spent a couple days trying to figure out what’s so captivating about it. I’ve not entirely worked it out; but herewith, some thoughts.

The narrator, Victor Aaron, is a old-ish (not sure if he ever mentions his age, but it’s in the 60s) Alzheimer’s researcher on Maine’s Mount Desert Island at a presumably fictional research lab. His wife Sara has died in a car crash at some point in the recent past, though you wouldn’t know it by watching how people interact with him. Sara’s aunt, with whom Victor spends a lot of his time, hardly mentions Sara’s death, and Victor himself has been getting private performances from a 25-year-old curvaceous burlesque performer for a good long while — possibly even while he and Sara were married, or maybe just soon after she died.

That’s part of my confusion: is everyone just really selfish? Maybe Victor himself is just selfish? Maybe, as the narrator, he just doesn’t mention those things that don’t occur to him, and maybe he’s not thinking terribly much about his late wife. If others are bestowing sympathy on him, maybe he’s just not seeing it.

Victor is a busy researcher, spending most of his time writing grants and attending meetings and so forth. He’s working 20-hour days, and one gets the sense that he worked that much when he and Sara were married, too. For large fractions of their childless marriage, she never saw him. Somewhere along the way, though, Sara got her own stellar career: her screenplays took off, and one of them — [film: The Hook-Up] — got turned into a movie starring Bruce Willis. (The scenes where Victor chats with Willis at cocktail parties, or dreams about the man’s wisdom, are hilarious little snippets.) The tables turned: now *Sara* was the jet-setting one whom Victor never saw, and his jealousy got the better of him. They drifted further and further apart.

We find out about all this through a work of inspired narrative brilliance: Victor hunts through Sara’s office after her death, and finds a set of index cards that she prepared for her psychologist, describing important turning points in her life; each chapter of [book: You Lost Me There] corresponds to Victor’s reading the next index card. This serves three purposes. First, it’s just suspenseful. Second, it helps you get to know Sara; you wouldn’t have gotten to know her otherwise, because the narrator is off in his own world in which Sara may as well never have existed. Finally, and connected to the second: it gives you and Victor a glance at what others thought of him. What Victor discovers about himself is often ugly. And the characters’ solipsism disappears for a few minutes, as Victor realizes that there are others in the world whom he’s wronged and ignored.

So in a way, this is the first novel I’ve ever read that’s written from two distinct perspectives. We learn as we go along that Victor just cannot be trusted as a judge of his own life. As he realizes this, he slowly falls apart.

If such a flashlight were turned on any of the book’s other characters, it’s likely they’d feel just as much pain as Victor. Everyone in [book: You Lost Me There] seems selfish in his or her own way. Everyone’s drifting, from Victor’s teenage goddaughter who comes to stay with him for the summer, to the goddaughter’s father who hops from one bed to the next, to Victor himself, reclaiming his youth in a young girl’s bed. Everyone’s flailing around, trying to figure out what he’ll be when he grows up.

(Baldwin is in some ways the anti-Philip Roth, by the way. Victor can’t attain an erection despite several tries throughout [book: You Lost Me There], whereas you can’t read a Roth novel without some male character — typically old, transparently a stand-in for Roth himself — having completely implausible sex with a beautiful woman who’s helpless before the narrator’s powers. Even when Roth writes about the aging man’s loss of potency, as in [book: The Dying Animal], the Roth-stand-in still ends up having sex with voluptuous women young enough to be his daughter. Victor can’t get it up by the time we meet him, and he can’t get it up by the end.)

There are touches of enlightenment as we go along. Our characters get smacked around some, and come out bruised but maybe a little smarter and a little less self-involved. It’s never schmaltzy or sentimental, though: [book: You Lost Me There] is a realistic look at getting your head straightened out.