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About a Mountain by John D’Agata

About a Mountain

In 2002, John D’Agata helped his mother move to Las Vegas and found himself following the ongoing controversy around a federal plan to store locally radioactive waste material from all over the country. Also while in Vegas, he volunteered for a community suicide prevention help line, and that same summer a 16 year-old boy jumped from the roof of a hotel to his death. In About A Mountain, ($23.95, W.W. Norton & Company) John D’Agata takes these disparate threads of his experience in Vegas and weaves them into a meditation on everything from bureaucracy and corrupt politics, to the self-destructive impulses of individuals and nations, to the limits of language over time.

For over twenty years, Yucca Mountain, the titular mountain, has been at the heart of a plan to dispose of waste from every nuclear power plant or weapon development site across the United States. Once collected, the government plans to store this material underground, inside the mountain, until it no longer poses a threat to human life. But as D’Agata unpacks the decisions that led to this course of action, it becomes clear that the threat to humanity isn’t what’s driving the policy. Instead there are politics at play at almost every level of the process, from the assessment of risk—does the threat of transporting nuclear waste outweigh the threat of storing it in multiple locations—to adopting Yucca Mountain as the central storage facility. Will anyone be surprised to learn that Congress selected this mountain—which geologically may not be the most suitable location for a variety of reasons—because its state and federal representatives were among the weakest, least able to protect their constituents from harm?

Fortunately D’Agata has his sights set higher.

He isn’t primarily concerned with rabble rousing against corrupt politicians, but wants us to consider instead the act of self-destruction itself. We consider it literally as he traces the last hours of a sixteen year old Levi Presley who commits suicide. We consider it figuratively as we reflect on how long the toxicity of the radioactive waste we’re creating will last, compared to the length of the longest known civilizations and cultures, or the efficacy of language itself. D’Agata gets high marks for the scope and breadth of this work. He reaches for and imagines descriptions of everything from Edvard Munch contemplating the world as he paints The Scream, to the last hours of Presley’s life, before he leaps from the tower at the Stratosphere. I really wanted to enjoy this book, and for the most part I did, but somehow, something about its execution left me cold.

D’Agata has a penchant for lists. He includes lists of contradictory facts, lists of the exact types of devastation that might occur in a traffic accident involving a truck with a payload of nuclear waste, lists that include everything that would be contaminated in such an accident from rusted bolts to light bulbs, lists of the accumulation of cosmic sums of interest that accrue over vast periods of time. One or two these type lists seems fine, a good idea—this is, after all, a book about the existential grief of modern life. What better way to present this than by asking the reader to wade through this sort of data. But I am the type reader who wants to drink in every word, and I feel cheated when I am tempted—no, invited is a better word—to scan so many lists by the author. Worse, D’Agata has chosen to bring into the story his own experience, but his experience moving his mother to Vegas seems inconsequential and dull. Mom and son look for somewhere to live. Mom and son march in a small parade. Not all of his experiences are so trite. For example, he describes a visit to the proposed site at Yucca Mountain, and his work on the suicide prevention hot line allows him to segue more easily into the material about poor Levi. But there is little self-revelation here. The material from his life is simply a way to frame the text, lacking any sort of urgency or depth. Why bother?

Compare D’Agata’s use of memoir here with something like Nick Flynn’s sublime memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb, where Flynn, a soon to be father, uses his book to examine his fears of fatherhood and intimacy and, as the Abu Ghraib scandal breaks in the news, his growing obsession with torture and pain. Under Flynn’s deft hand, the connections between his own personal fears, American fears of terrorist attack, and the fears of torturer and tortured alike seem plain enough, but each is made all the more urgent by the immediacy of the prison scandal, or the infant growing in its mother’s womb. This is how to use personal experience to inform a political issue. D’Agata presents some intriguing ideas, but his text misses on some important marks.

It’s a noble miss, but a miss all the same.

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New York Times Book Reviewer Invites Your Shock, Outrage

Charles Bock invites you to be outraged. This past Sunday Bock reviewed John D’Agata’s new nonfiction book, “About a Mountain,” describing the material this way:

The mountain that John D’Agata is ostensibly concerned with … is Yucca Mountain, located approximately 100 miles north of Las Vegas. … [S]ince the mid-1980s, the United States government has been doing back flips to bury the country’s entire reservoir of spent nuclear waste — some 77,000 tons of apocalyptic yumminess — deep inside Yucca. In the summer of 2002, the summer after D’Agata helped his mother move to a Vegas suburb, Congress was proceeding with plans to make the mountain a nuclear dump. Also that summer, 16-year-old Levi Presley jumped to his death from the observation deck of a third-rate Vegas hotel. These subjects, disparate though they are, animate D’Agata’s sprawling narrative.

But Bock doesn’t want to direct your outrage toward government backed destruction of the environment, youth suicide, or even sprawling nonfiction narratives. No. He wants to direct your rage to a few of D’Agata’s footnotes.

Yes, that’s right: the footnotes.

With such weighty material to discuss, it seems ridiculous to zero in on footnotes but perhaps these are some outrageous footnotes, deserving of the full weight of our scorn. D’Agata writes nonfiction, you see, and he acknowledges in one of his naughty footnotes that he conflates the dates of two key events in his story by three days. MY GOD.

Bock uses inflammatory language, calling the material referred to by the footnote a “lie.” He goes on to charge D’Agata with playing “fast and loose with a verifiable historical date.” I suppose this is true if by “verifiable” Bock means that he had to read the footnote where D’Agata presents the discrepancy. But I wonder if adding footnotes to nonfiction really deserves the “fast and loose” qualifier that’s typically employed to discuss immoral women, or deviant sexual behavior (as fun as those things can be!).

To be fair, Bock speaks highly of D’Agata’s work:

Rarely does D’Agata betray his emotions or reactions to an event; rather, he works by establishing a scene, introducing tangentially related elements, building layers of complexity and scope, then jump-cutting or circling back at just the right moment, guiding the reader safely — and unexpectedly — to a destination D’Agata had in sight the whole time.

And Bock understands the bigger picture. He knows what D’Agata is trying to do with creative nonfiction, not just in this book, but in the whole of his career:

As D’Agata himself writes, in his introduction to “The Lost Origins of the Essay”: “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art? It’s not very clear sometimes. So this is a book that will try to offer the reader a clear objective: I am here in search of art.”

But ultimately Bock finds D’Agata’s voice lacking, having lost nothing less than his “moral authority” by conflating these dates. Although D’Agata offers no explanation for this conflation, Bock helpfully tenders a reason of his own: “for the sake of a tight narrative hook.” I don’t know. I haven’t read the book. But even knowing that the date of this child’s suicide has been conflated with some important back room vote doesn’t make the hook of this hard-to-grasp story much tighter for me. In Bock’s own words, the hook seems built on “layers of complexity and scope”; it does not easily give itself to a quick one line summary: this boy dies, that deal done. But even if we concede that a tidier hook is the reason for the conflation: Is it worthy of our scorn?

I’d argue that all of creative nonfiction suffers when we—writers and readers of creative nonfiction—allow journalists to manipulate us so easily. We do have to be wary of authors who pass off their fictions as truth. But do we need to be so dogmatic that a footnote raises a larger cry from us than anything found in our texts?

Of course, Bock can evaluate the book and the writer in whatever way he chooses. And calling into question the veracity of nonfiction is (sadly) the norm these days. I do want to know if the nonfiction book I’m reading has been made up. I just get tired of journalists revving up the scorn machine to score a point.

If John D’Agata can lose the moral high ground for footnoting his work, what does that say about us as readers and writers?

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