John D’Agata’s book About a Mountain is about a mountain.
Just as this blog post is about About a Mountain which is about a mountain.
But just as About a Mountain is not really about a mountain, so this blog post is not, strictly speaking. about
Shortcut #52: John D’Agata’s About a Mountain
but it is about John D’Agata’s writing in and of the book About a Mountain which, in fact, is not so much about a mountain as it is about Las Vegas, the future of humanity, the despair of the general populace, and what struck D’Agata’s mind during his time living in Las Vegas.
Yes, most of what is imbedded in D’Agata’s book is about Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the site that for many years was (and perhaps still is) designated as the answer to all our nuclear waste prayers. A vault would be mined through the mountain and waste would be stored there in safety-checked containers until ten thousand years had passed at which time it would be safe to frolic on the mountainside without risk of… well… death.
Actually, most of the book is not about Yucca Mountain. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that of all the subjects talked about in the book, Yucca Mountain is the one accorded the most face time. For one thing, the final chapter/epilogue is an account of a teenage boy’s suicide, a tracing of his whereabouts on the day of his death, and a little reasoning as to what may have driven him to jump from the top of the tallest building in Las Vegas.
I bought this book at AWP in Washington, D.C. I was drawn to it because of the bright yellow cover and the spare but effective design. I purchased it because it claimed to be about Yucca Mountain, a subject I’d cursorily read about before and was interested in and
SOLD! to the highest bidder! Your non-fiction book fulfilling all your informational needs regarding Yucca Mountain and the problems of nuclear waste disposal in an interesting fashion, at your service!
Okay, so that’s not what I found in D’Agata’s book. In one way, I think I’ve been spoiled by non-fiction writers such as Deborah Blum and Erik Larson, those whose interests lie in recreating the past and, through that recreation, exploring questions regarding culture or human belief or societal evolution.
Instead, in D’Agata, I found someone who writes non-fiction the way that I do. All the facts and details in About a Mountain are filtered through the lens of D’Agata and the story told is the story of D’Agata figuring out what Yucca Mountain is all about, what Las Vegas means, and why people turn to despair and kill themselves. In my non-fiction, the story is secondary to the images and the emotions, the conclusions are ghosted rather than invited to the party, and the facts are often purposely assailable.
About a Mountain is often beautiful, and often informative, and often witty. But at the end of the book, I’m wondering what exactly it is about. It’s not about Yucca Mountain, and it’s not about Las Vegas, and it’s not about suicide. The wealth of details D’Agata juggles in the air is left spinning in space after the last page is turned. What the book is about, I suppose, is the search for answers.
And – like any search for answers that, in the end, turns up empty – the search can be unsatisfying.