BOOK REVIEW: About a Mountain
By John D'Agata, W.W. Norton & Co., 2010, Hardcover, 235 pages, $23.95
It is indeed about a mountain: Yucca Mountain, the potential designated waste dump for America's nuclear industry, up until the Obama administration walked away from the idea for reasons that are apparent after a few dozen pages. And it's about Yucca's nearest city, Las Vegas. And about a few other things, in fact, so many others I'd like to relate, in a poor imitation of D'Agata's style:
It's about the city's suicide problem. The fact that it is running out of water. That people don't seem to notice or, if they do, to care. That the rock in which we'd planned to bury nuclear waste leaks, that most materials tested to contain the waste corrode, and that lots of people don't believe the human race will see the end of this century anyway.
The fact that Krakatoa erupted days before Edvard Munch stood on a dock in Oslo at a time when his fellow Norwegians still kept child slaves, not far from the woods where rocks were placed on top of abandoned, deformed newborns and where their ghosts, should they jump on your back, will only release you if you talk them into killing themselves.
That Munch's family had all died by then.
That when the volcanic dust turned the clouds above his head into hanging red daggers, he took the scene home and painted "The Scream."
That Munch's painting "was once described by Carl Jung as 'man at the shoreline of reason and doubt,'" writes D'Agata. "It was once described by Jackson Pollock as 'the destruction of every painting that had ever come before it.' And it was once described by Edvard Munch as 'I live with the dead every day.'"
That that overused classic's terrorized figure was a key part of the non-verbal warning system designed to keep future generations well away from the black slopes of Yucca Mountain.
It's about other mountains too: the mountain of information D'Agata ran through a sieve and sluiced into print. Then, without anything more consequential than a paragraph break, the information dump stops, and a story returns about D'Agata's time in Las Vegas, which, if you come at the text seeking its narrative qualities, you'll soon find wasn't all that noteworthy: he helped his mom moved down there, he volunteered on a suicide hotline, he took the world's most bizarre public-relations junket to Yucca itself.
What happened is not the point. This is a lyric essay, not a novel; it's something in line with Emerson or Thoreau, except not buried under the weight of 10 billion years in high school English curricula. D'Agata is at play in a sea of information: the redundant phrases and the throwaway words are meant to trick you into thinking you're reading literary Muzak. And then the music swells and things get a little complicated, and you find yourself in the middle of not a story so much as an idea.
What idea? Well, a few. That a whole civilization can live in a state of denial. That it's impossible to craft a warning for people whose culture we can't foresee. That the inability to communicate has been, is and will always be fatal for the talkers and the listeners. Ideas like that. "About a Mountain" is not so much about Yucca as about being about Yucca. Or maybe not even that, for here comes D'Agata's buried caveat: "that if I point to something seeming like significance, there is the possibility that nothing real is there. Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information. Sometimes our wisdom, too, in pursuit of what's called knowledge."
D'Agata has shattered the essay form against a mound of carefully heaped facts. Brown as a desert June, constant, ubiquitous and ultimately without meaning, the dusty facts may be gone with the next rain. But the glass-strewn field that's left glitters beautifully, and each shard bears a tiny piece of our reflections. Walk out there and look around. Watch your step.