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King of the hill

D'Agata pushes nonfiction's boundaries

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In his second book, John D'Agata has shown himself to be a razor-sharp deconstructionist of society's foibles, fables and complexities. Author of the much lauded collection of essays, Halls of Fame, and aggressive editor of two essay compilations, he turns in his latest to Yucca Mountain, an arid landscape 100 miles northwest of downtown Las Vegas, and its implications—both correlated and imagined—that it had on the region and on the world. From the first page he manages to dust off our notions of the essay, the cultural history and the travelogue. It's all very disorienting, and somehow extraordinarily pertinent.

About a Mountain - John D’Agata - Hardcover, W.W. Norton & Co. - 236 pages, 23.95
  • About a MountainJohn D’AgataHardcover, W.W. Norton & Co.236 pages, 23.95

About a Mountain starts on a personal note and wends its way to cover the universe. While helping his mother relocate to a Las Vegas development, D'Agata begins investigating the proposed nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain (approved by Congress in 2002, rescinded in 2009). Soon, he discovers that contradictions about the site are ubiquitous. D'Agata recounts, in tragicomic deadpan, that neither the National Economic Council nor the Department of Energy can agree on anything from the cost of the project to hypothetical routes the shipments would take. From there, the absurdities multiply and the author dutifully follows them all. Stylistically wedged somewhere between the nerdy travel episodes of Sarah Vowell and the incisive compulsions of Chuck Palahniuk, D'Agata immerses himself in the looping knots of his story, from the vagaries of casino architecture and the dark politics of Vegas, to the Thematic Apperception Test and the Vegas suicide rate (researchers claim that merely visiting the city increases the chances of having suicidal inclinations). From a study of the nightmarish designs intended for Yucca, D'Agata focuses his considerable dexterity on "nuclear semiotics," the highly subjective theory of figuring out which words, colors and images to use to deter the curious of the future from disturbing nuclear waste sites.

Not once in About a Mountain does the author attempt anything as conventional as a narrative, or for that matter, anything resembling a formulaic chronology: His story could have occurred over the course of a week or several years. Often archaic and misleading, it is never boring or incomprehensible. With chapters journalistically titled "Who," "What," "When," "Where," "Why" and "How," D'Agata gives an account of his time volunteering with the Las Vegas Suicide Prevention Center (after which he becomes obsessed with the suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley), the biological necessity and approaching extinction of screaming, the frightening diary entries of Edvard Munch, "The Scream" in modern advertising, the fear and trembling inherent in all the great works of art, and the ultimate astrobiological fate of the universe. At the conclusion of this 10-page denial of our future, D'Agata gets at the nucleus of his investigations:

"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."

About a Mountain is distinctly ahistorical as nonfiction, while overly historical for a classic essay. Its humor is buried in noncommittal narration—as dry and inhuman as the region it explores. D'Agata creates a disruptive, unemotional mood, imbues it with real or artificial meaning, then fades out and into another fascinating whim. It is one circuitous digression after another, as though the author is taking every passing thought remotely connected to Yucca and attempting to statistically prove why each is important while still remaining unconvinced. No answers are given, few questions beforehand asked. One considerable disadvantage is his tendency to make the obvious into something impenetrable in order to instill much of his material with nonexistent significance.

D'Agata is a master of juxtaposing curiously ironic statistics with the deeply miserable. About a Mountain is a virtuosic display that, like many postmodern attempts, only occasionally relegates itself to inanity. Starting early in his career D'Agata has injected prose poetry into lackluster topics, going far beyond simply illuminating his subjects to a disassembling of the craft of writing itself. He is more technician than writer, and his book is high-end collage rather than lyrical essay. Sometimes the artistic drive hinders the facts, as in D'Agata's statement that the 16-year-old boy's suicide coincided with the final Senate vote on Yucca, only to add a disclaimer that he embellished the dates of the two events for reasons of continuity.

But at its best, About a Mountain is not really about a mountain. Mostly, it is about the form of the essay as though its subjects were set to random on an iTunes playlist; poetry charged with a slightly frightening dud of dynamite. Everyone to whom I've summarized the book responds, "That sounds like a great novel," and it says something essential about D'Agata's method that when I tell them it is a nonfictional essay, they still insist that it sounds like a great novel.

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