About John D’Agata’s About A Mountain
Inestimable are those writers who we look forward to like children in want of being told, the arrival of whose books come in great anxiousness and sublime waiting, in the way one might for a magical movie or arrival of a friend. I can remember obsessively visiting Barnes and Noble in the weeks and months before Wallace’s Everything and More came out, how I must have been back there a couple dozen times, in each checking the Wa- partitions of the fiction, science, and philosophy sections to see if it’d been stocked (I for some reason didn’t want to buy it online, I wanted it the very day it was in stores). All of this over a book of theoretical science! Math! Who else could render such desire in my mind? In his future absence, the dome of delightful patience in expectation over future books seemed greatly dimmed.
And yet, when I heard of the upcoming release of John D’Agata’s About a Mountain from W.W. Norton, I found myself again beginning to obsess over its event. Reading his Halls of Fame several years ago I become absorbed by it, some certain modes and designs therein feeling in my fingers a certain way, a manner of speaking that combines fact and vision, architecture and heart, packed in a style that looms and moves from page to page. As well, the two anthologies of innovative essays, The Next American Essay and the brand new The Lost Origins of the Essay (which I’ve also already torn through, all 700 pages, which is a whole other sets of posts herein forthcoming), each from Graywolf, have acted as buoys or maze-mirrors in the way of thinking about interpreting and approaching language as objects and objects as language in the world, tomes that anytime I’ve felt blank or stifled for new ways of writing I’ve opened them again and felt lit up.
Even in his anthologizing and therein collaging of others’ texts, D’Agata’s poise and manner has proved for me something magical to look after, and all of this at age 36: a blink of future by present day. Say what you want about the pursuit of ‘creative nonfiction’ (for which D’Agata, by hook or crook, is in some ways a young figurehead, with degrees in both nonfiction and poetry, his style a magic wedding of the two, and more), but in what can often be an over-stylized or navel-gazing (in a bad way) or simply a very difficult thing to make seem new, D’Agata not only wields that poetic essayist branch in a way that transcends any decoration, any term, but makes it something worthy of compulsion. Where for me great writing is great writing, some great writing is a true event, on par with any sort of aesthetic experience, and that is the most needed thing, what keeps the art of it in the body, and alive. It is what we need.
Such that, when About A Mountain finally showed up at my door last night in padded package, I did a little hop inside my shoes. My girlfriend pointed it out to me, “You did a little hop.” I was holding his new book: I had that feeling in me again, a door to open, in that rare glimmer of expectation. It even had blurbs from Wallace (“John D’Agata is one of the most significant U.S. writers to emerge in the past few years.” (which I remembered then that Wallace was likely the original reason I got into D’Agata back then in the first place)) and another one I look forward to with great excitement, Ben Marcus (“Here is the literary essay raised to the highest form of art.”), and as well, another charm, Nick Flynn (“Utterly amazing.”). I tried to convince myself right then I wouldn’t tear through it, that I would make this feeling last, and read the book slowly, taking time. Still, I sat down immediately and began.
Like the candy hog I am, three hours later, I held the book closed, read, on my lap, not even remembering how what just happened happened, how so much came out of such a frame in such an unexpected (even for D’Agata) and mesmerizing way.
Back up a little bit: this book is indeed about a mountain. Specifically, Yucca Mountain, an old hump 90 miles outside of Las Vegas, where D’Agata’s mother moves at the beginning of the book. The thing about this mountain, you may know, is that it for years has been the subject of extreme debate, a proposed site for the disposal of our nation’s nuclear waste. The controversy over this dumping, mainly centered around the hazards of it for the Vegas people, not to mention everyone surrounding (that is, all of us), becomes a centerpiece of the book’s strange turning, a trajectory that also includes a heavy dollop of suicide, Vegas being the suicide capital of the U.S. As it stands, intertwined with this mountain problem (which gets more and more hairy in quick, deft strokes) is a particular suicide, during D’Agata’s residence in the city, by a young man who jumps off the Stratosphere Hotel. (For a taste, there is an excerpt in this month’s Believer.)
This collision of local concern, both with the mountain (the city’s potential future) and, among other issues, the suicides (its black neon present), develops, in its own blinking, enthralling manner, a portrait of the quickest growing area of our country, a world many see as a mirror-hall unto itself. As D’Agata explores further the matter of the mountain, coursing through an oddly and beautifully connected association chain of facts and inquiries, he begins, in a style so immensely compelling and only his, to draw a relief portrait of the city, and in our surrounding of it, the United States. The facts of the absurdist bureaucratic method of such heavy matter are handled not as the potential deathmarch-making megalopolis that they are; instead a concern of how best to make a universal marker for the radioactive sludgehole as it survives us: how to speak to future civilizations among our changing languages to warn them of this sick hole we have created. A direct study, herein, implanted, of how words clear to many now might be seen by translators long after we are gone, as happens now with Old English, shows, in horrific calm, how transient and extinguishable anything we say might be, and how in translation, for the future, the slow (but rapid) smudging, resulting in a question of the means of creating space that transcends time.
About A Mountain, then, in its calm and innately-phrased 200 pages, becomes not just a recitation of the horror of our error, but a meditation on what drives a life, and death, how time changes the way we speak, how no way we can say a thing can outlast the products of our terror, how we try to hide the thing that could bring an easy end unto us all. And from out of this, what a scream means, the singularity of an object, how we communicate; how we are surrounded, every second, by neon light and fake meditations and an ongoing smudgery of some impending, more than death, more than a book is, more. I’d be more specific in elucidating the methods and makery of the book’s trajectory, but like the best tricks, it should stay something you experience of itself. However, simply put: from these facts and observations, D’Agata blends and bends a thing akin to mirrorhall. Whether extrapolating from a proposal of what might happen if the transported waste were to leak into our air, or how the nuke sludge could spread from containment into our bodies, how minor things can quickly become major against the odds; or whether exploring the fragments of a people, the suicided, the transitory make-up of one of the strangest and yet still human locations in our world, all of it operates in silent manic, a real mirage made out of what is right under our daily way.
What is perhaps most amazing, under the scope of what D’Agata is dealing with here, is how unassuming and navigable his object is. This is no headbeating, this isn’t navel-gazing. If anything, the magic of About A Mountain‘s tone is how level-headed and clean it seems in its negotiation of such traffic, how quickly the slim but massive series of observations bead themselves together, wake. I found myself, as the book progressed, almost as if reading something in the calm adrenaline of shock: still and easy, having fun even, while in the book some kind of unnameable hole became peered into, opened up. I’m not hyperbolizing here: I really felt this.
And some things are worth hyperbolizing, because there is no other way to say. This is the power of the book, when in its best form it becomes an object separate both from the paper and itself, fused into a thing given from the author as if something he did not intend, and yet is wholly his, and only he could have ever said. If there had to be a single thing to learn from D’Agata, it might be his pristine taste, his eye: a thing far undermentioned in the way of approaching craft (perhaps because it is a thing, even more than talent, that you can not learn or buy, though if you could it would be from studying bodies such as what is going on in here). This is the kind of book that awe is made of, and without struggle, and becoming new. This book exits itself. It contains a kind of air. It is also the rare sort of creation that inspires both the want to talk about it reeling as I have here, and to keep it intensely against me, near to the self. As each person is Las Vegas, we want that glimmer sometimes only to ourselves, and yet can’t help building a taller sign.
With About a Mountain, John D’Agata becomes, if not remains, an author I would go to the store everyday to find again, again, if I could. While some books are so good they make you want to write, and some books are so good they make you not want to write, his is a vision, a building body, a sum beyond its parts. I hop.
— About a Mountain is listed as to be released February 8, 2010 from W.W. Norton, and yet is apparently already shipping both from the publisher and Amazon.