Referring to it as a “slim but powerful new book,” Charles Bock of the New York Times called John D’Agata’s latest book “About a Mountain” an “engrossing story and an often impressive piece of reporting.” A 1995 graduate of Hobart College, D’Agata graduated summa cum laude with an individual major.
D’Agata was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and earned High Honors in Literary/Non-fiction. After graduating from Hobart, he went on to earn two MFA degrees – in nonfiction and poetry – from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He has also published, “Halls of Fame: Essays,” “The Lost Origins of the Essay,” and “Next American Essay.”
The full review from the New York Times follows.
The New York Times
Charles Bock • February 28, 2010
ABOUT A MOUNTAIN
By John D’Agata
236 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $23.95
The mountain that John D’Agata is ostensibly concerned with in his slim but powerful new book, “About a Mountain,” is Yucca Mountain, located approximately 100 miles north of Las Vegas. And he’s not the only one interested in it: since 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.
The author of a well-regarded book of essays and the editor of two exceptional essay anthologies, D’Agata has an encyclopedic understanding of the form’s intricate artistry. Moreover, he is a serious thinker who regularly lays down stylish, intelligent sentences: “I do not think that Yucca Mountain is a solution or a problem. I think that what I believe is that the mountain is where we are, it’s what we now have come to – a place that we have studied more thoroughly at this point than any other parcel of land in the world – and yet still it remains unknown, revealing only the fragility of our capacity to know.”
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. Along the way, he provides media reports, expert opinions and first-person reportage. He gives statistics, calculations and projections; he cites policy papers and delves into scientific and academic studies. Also mixed in are literary references, modernist collages and postmodern composites that should leave any decent fact-checker wanting to set himself – or, better, D’Agata – on fire.
Highfalutin as it all sounds, the result is an engrossing story and an often impressive piece of reporting. After D’Agata explains the failed experiments and damning evidence that make it impossible to believe Yucca can safely hold nuclear waste for anything close to the 10,000 years Congress is seeking, he spends pages trying to discover who settled on that figure anyway. Eventually he learns that the waste would really need to be stored for a million years or more, but that a panel recommended 10,000 years because it sounded more feasible. “It’s theatrical security,” he’s told. “The preparations that are being made by the Department of Energy have no real chance of succeeding.” The plans are merely a symbol of control.
But some things are beyond our control. D’Agata presents a plausible, detailed doomsday scenario involving overturned semis, nuclear waste and Las Vegas’s elevated highway system, then discusses statistics and the difference between probability and a really bad day (because it would take only one). The government, he tells us, wants to erect a sign warning future generations not to go near Yucca. This leads him to ponder signs and symbols and signifiers, what the world was like 10,000 years ago and what it might be like 10,000 years from now, and whether any current language will even be comprehensible then. A list of historical predictions about the end of the world follows. So does an appearance by Edvard Munch. (“We scream,” a psychologist explains, “because we need someone’s help.”)
Chapters in “About a Mountain” are labeled according to journalistic staples: Who, What, How, Where, When. Working a suicide hot line, D’Agata learns that volunteers aren’t supposed to ask callers why they want to kill themselves. The book’s last three chapter titles ask the question that cannot be answered: Why. Why. Why.
“I do not know how to fix a problem if that problem is someone’s solution.
“People would call the hot line and I would start to understand. Instead of saying, ‘No,’ ‘You’re overreacting,’ ‘Everything will be fine,’ I would sit sometimes and nod, forgetting that there were answers I was supposed to have to give.”
Indeed, D’Agata’s prime reason for steering us through all the glittery factoids and scholarship is to take us to the ledge of what knowledge can provide, and to document how perilous it can be to stand on that ledge. These 200 pages are nothing less than a chronicle of the compromises and lies, the back-room deals and honest best intentions that have delivered us to this precarious moment in history. The book is a shouted question about who we are and how we move forward. This is how art is made. And the final pages of “About a Mountain,” which consist of a single long paragraph leading through the last evening of Levi Presley’s life, are unquestionably art, a breath¬taking piece of writing.
Unfortunately, there’s a problem.
At the heart of a crucial section, D’Agata writes, “There is no explanation for the confluence that night of the Senate vote on Yucca Mountain and the death of a boy who jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino.” But the accompanying endnote reads: “I should clarify here that I am conflating the date of the Yucca debate and the suicide that occurred at the Stratosphere Hotel. In reality, these two events were separated by three days.”
Maybe there’s a claim that since the Obama administration is shutting down Yucca anyway, and since D’Agata is sensitive beyond a fault to the Presley family, and since the book is so aesthetically impressive, there’s no harm in doctoring the dates – especially since doing so gives the book a better hook, and thereby (perhaps) a better chance at finding readers and keeping Levi’s memory alive. And, absolutely, all kinds of licenses are taken in the name of creative nonfiction. 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.”
With “About a Mountain,” D’Agata goes further, attempting to create art through the exploration of what happens when we “misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.” But he shimmies too close to the flame. In pursuing his moral questions, he plays fast and loose with a verifiable historical date, one involving a kid’s suicide. He does this just for the sake of a tight narrative hook. To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites – a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.
D’Agata might argue that such questions are just part of the truth-wisdom debate in which his book engages. I certainly would listen to his case, and undoubtedly will read anything he writes. Still, my sense is that this singular author unnecessarily compromised an otherwise excellent book. To me, that’s a shame.
Charles Bock is the author of a novel, “Beautiful Children.”