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In “About a Mountain,” D’Agata sifts Yucca, Vegas for deeper meanings

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John D’Agata’s ‘About a Mountain’
William L. Fox

Yucca Mountain, located on the Nevada Test Site about 90 miles north of Las Vegas, remains the nation’s only planned repository for radioactive waste, which includes plutonium, various isotopes of which can remains deadly for millions of years. Las Vegas has the highest suicide rate of any city in the United States. And the writer John D’Agata happened to be working a suicide line in town the night a local teenager he identifies only as “Levi” jumped off the observation deck of the Stratosphere.

About a Mountain is not “about” any of those things, although the author spends most of his most recent book talking about them. That he is able to fuse those disparate situations into a coherent whole is why he’s considered one of our best young essayists. D’Agata never met a fact he didn’t like, and he’s compulsive about collating them with ancient history, modern engineering, tourism and anything else that catches his overlarge capacity for fancy.

The Details

About a Mountain
Three and a half stars
John D’Agata.
W.W. Norton & Company, $24.
Amazon: About a Mountain

Perhaps it was this desire to mash up everything he meets that inspired him to acquire graduate degrees in both nonfiction and poetry, which turns out to have been a fine thing. The essential task of nonfiction is to create a linear structure that ties together facts so we understand them. It’s a rationalist project. In poetry the aim is to bring together previously unrelated situations in hopes of creating new metaphors, which in turn might reveal unsuspected meanings that facts alone can’t present. Poetry is a deeply irrational act of faith. When D’Agata brings together those opposing methods he creates a sustained literary train wreck, the equivalent on the printed page of one of those intricate action spectacles in the movie theater.

About a Mountain, more of an extended essay in segments than a book in chapters, jams together lyrical lists of facts, snippets of deadpan dialogue, character observations so acute they slice the camouflage off the people observed, and decisive physical details. His account of how the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was debated and passed on the floor of the U.S. Senate is one of the most devastating descriptions of lawmaking ever written—and he uses not a single disparaging word. All D’Agata does is relentlessly set the words of the politicians next to facts. Likewise, his retracing of Levi’s journey into and up the Stratosphere will leave you unable to ever again see the inside of a casino without wincing at how cynical and tawdry their attempts are to manipulate you into spending money.

We should be depressed by such litanies, and yet when you’re reading D’Agata, you’re in such thrall to the dizzying literary risks he takes, and so relieved that he manages to stay on the rails of each swoop and curve of logic that you can’t help but be thrilled. Occasionally he missteps—listing, for example, the authors of Learning from Las Vegas as art historians instead of the renowned architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown and Steven Izenour. But that’s what editors are for, to catch such minor slips, and they should slow down neither the author nor his readers.

D’Agata spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to understand the general state of suicide in Las Vegas—and the individual case of Levi—but in the end can only create a matrix of facts that illuminates how their underlying reasons are not known, only estimated. That state of indeterminacy permeates Yucca Mountain, as well. It may be the most-studied piece of geology on the planet, but we still don’t really know how the long-term heat from radioactive waste would cook the rocks, how it would affect the already friable, permeable structure of the ridge, and just how fast the waste would leak out.

What D’Agata is really writing about is our failure to communicate, whether it’s among politicians or between politicians and scientists, engineers and the public, parents and children or our generation and future ones. The book’s key metaphor is the attempt at Yucca Mountain to devise a warning system that humans could still read in 10,000 years, which is far longer than any single human language has lasted. The idea that you could simply post a sign runs into languages’ tendencies to lose one word out of five every thousand years. At that rate, in 10 millennia, only 11 of 100 original words will be left. Apply that to any sentence you can construct, and you see the difficulty. And that inability to communicate pales before the difficulty of knowing the mind of a despairing teenager.

In turn, this unlikely juxtaposition of Yucca Mountain and a suicide asks us to consider what we risk when we fail to understand one another at the personal, civic and national levels. Las Vegas is a city which is obscure and mysterious in its relation to the American psyche. If the city is a sign, as Venturi, Brown and Izenour proposed in 1972, then it may be one that we should try to read more clearly. The image managers in Las Vegas may enjoy telling us that what happens in town doesn’t escape its borders, but in fact what happens in Las Vegas is a sign of what can happen in your own backyard. John D’Agata has just given fair warning.

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