Copyright 2010, W.W. Norton & Company
By Scott Dickensheets and Geoff Schumacher
Odd book, John D’Agata’s About a Mountain. As one reviewer noted, it’s more of an extended essay than a full-fledged book — heavy on the jumping around and idiosyncratic juxtaposing allowable in the former, with less of the shape and design you expect in the latter. Ostensibly it’s about Yucca Mountain, the now-all-but-dead nuclear waste repository proposed for a site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Except that it makes no attempt to be a well-rounded history or journalistic exploration of the project. Rather, it’s a highly selective sampling of Yucca-related issues: some of the politics that led to the site’s selection; some of the dangers associated with it; the folly of thinking we could devise signs that would warn people away for the 10,000-year life of the project.
But to that subject, D’Agata appends numerous other topics — Las Vegas, where his mother now lives; some of the sad and silly aspects of the city’s 2005 centennial celebration; the suicide of a young man (who jumped off the Stratosphere Tower) whom D’Agata was at first convinced he’d spoken to on the night he died.
So, plenty of oddity already. But then, in the style of the “lyric essay,” of which D’Agata is considered a foremost practitioner, he took a few factual liberties. Tinkered with the timeline; conflated events. D’Agata, in interviews, describes it as applying imagination to the essay in order to deliver not the factual payload of journalism but the emotional and intellectual satisfactions of literature. This is where our exchange begins.
SCOTT: Let me limp into this thing with a disclaimer: Nothing nice I say about this book is meant as a defense of its outright factual sloppiness. That business about I-80 running through Vegas, or the major Strip hotels being 2,000 feet from the freeway interchange we call the Spaghetti Bowl — there’s no excuse for that. You and I are all same-page and shit there. Where we depart, I guess, is my nonjudgmental curiosity — see how tentative I am, protecting what’s left of my journalism cred?! — about the way D’Agata uses certain fictional techniques in his nonfiction. He’s upfront about it, if not so much (not enough, perhaps) in the book itself, at least in talking about it: “I mean, if you’d asked me whether I succeeded in writing a stellar piece of journalism, I would say absolutely not,” he told me in an interview. “I’m not a journalist, it’s not what I attempted to do. I changed things, I conflated time, I changed names, I altered some experiences slightly in order to streamline the narrative a bit. I did things, in other words, that journalists don’t do. Or shouldn’t.”
He defends that practice the way most nonfiction fabulists do, on artistic grounds: “No matter what genre you’re working in, at the end of the day it’s literature, it’s art, that you’re trying to make.” That is, the work’s cumulative emotional and intellectual impact is more important than some niggling concerns about minor factual accuracy. Some are sympathetic to that argument, and not all of them are James Frey apologists; some are David Sedaris fans. Hunter Thompson certainly embroidered reality in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and you can still find that shelved in the journalism section. Of course, Thompson’s style was comic, and so the satirical exaggerations were (sometimes) easier to parse. D’Agata is not a primarily comic writer. But does that mean this kind of license is only available to funny writers?
GEOFF: It is certainly true that there are many well-known and well-regarded works of nonfiction that have been, to use your apt word, embroidered for greater literary effect. Besides Hunter Thompson and David Sedaris, the legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell comes to mind. In these cases, I believe, the writers had two main objectives. First, to make the story more entertaining by smoothing out the narrative and fixing any roadblocks that might slow down or hamper the reader’s enjoyment of the story. Thompson and Sedaris certainly had this in mind. The second objective follows more ambitiously upon the first: to make the story hit home more effectively with the reader, to essentially make it more true.
This second objective is somewhat paradoxical, right? After all, what could be more true than the truth? But the case can be made, I think, using fiction. Advocates for fiction will say that greater truths about human nature often can be revealed through good fiction than through factual reporting. The fictional story, in essence, is truer than the messiness of reality. Mitchell, I believe, would have argued that through slight alterations in his stories about New York City denizens, he was able to reveal them more fully to his readers and his message about reality became clearer.
All well and good. I suspect we’re on the same page there. The problem with About a Mountain, in my view, is that the fabrications, as I understand them, do little or nothing to make this a better book. In fact, the reason we’re talking about them at all is because they jump out from an otherwise lackluster piece of writing. I don’t know what this book is about, and I don’t know what D’Agata wanted it to be about. I don’t know what some high-profile critics saw in the book that made them write glowing reviews. He’s a talented writer, I think, someone who is trying out new ways to write essays. I get that. But I don’t get the feeling this book would have been worse if D’Agata had stuck to the facts throughout. The marketing people tasked with writing the jacket copy and press releases for this book must have been pulling their hair out trying to explain it to prospective readers: It’s about Yucca Mountain, the proposed nuclear waste repository, right? Well, yes and no. It’s about Las Vegas then? Well, sorta kinda, but not really. The book is an interesting grad school exercise, but I don’t think it could find much of an audience. What did you like about it?
SCOTT: As it happens, Sedaris is and isn’t a good comparison — as the New Republic demonstrated pretty convincingly in 2007, he made shit up. Not merely “exaggerations for comic effect”; he wrote pure fiction, which he then retailed, much more lucratively, as having actually happened. But Sedaris is an instructive comparison because his fans, and pretty much everyone but me and the New Republic, give him a free pass because it’s only humor writing, and faking it just makes for a “better story.” No harm, no foul. D’Agata’s factual liberties weren’t nearly as egregious, but no free pass for him; those liberties were part of what ruined the book for you.
What’s About a Mountain about? Not really a mountain, I think. It seems to me that it’s about Yucca Mountain in roughly the same way Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about the district attorneys convention. Both were pretexts — Thompson’s real subject was a lament for the permissive spirit of the ’60s, already doomed by creeping Nixonism; D’Agata’s, more subtly, is about knowability. Questions about what you can actually know riddle the book. Who can truly understand a project as scientifically dense, as politically compromised, as logistically complex as Yucca Mountain? Who can know why a young kid kills himself? Was the suicide victim really the kid D’Agata talked to that night?
And so you have D’Agata structuring the book using the ancient reporter’s standard for basic understanding: the five W’s. And you have the set pieces. The exhaustive list of everything, and I mean every damn thing, down to the dirt, that would have to be destroyed in the event of a nuclear transport incident — he’s using sheer knowingness to overwhelm the reader’s ho-hum attitude toward yet another apocalyptic scenario. The long section about the project to develop signage that would warn people away from the site for 10,000 years — that’s a graphic depiction of how hard knowledge is to codify, communicate and preserve (never mind that language itself would deteriorate into gibberish over 10,000 years; they can’t even find a material that would last that long on which to inscribe the gibberish). And D’Agata’s attempts to find some connection, even metaphorical, between the larger social anxiety represented by Yucca Mountain and the very private anxieties that led that kid to jump off the Stratosphere Tower — again, trying to discern the limits of what can be known. And, frustratingly, failing in this case. “And,” he told the Las Vegas Weekly, “I think that’s when it gets, toward the end of the book, a little more manic in pulling in more and more and more subjects. And the transitions become slighter, and a little more dramatic. It’s trying to announce its inability to find that significance. … That’s what the experience of the book was like for me — learning that meaning isn’t always possible. And I think in nonfiction especially that’s pretty interesting to discover.”
That’s not a wholly satisfying explanation, nor entirely obvious. I might not have fished some of that out of the often random-seeming narrative if he hadn’t hipped me to it; that’s how over-subtly he handles it. And some elements of the book — some of the Vegas scenes, the centennial — don’t bear on that theme in any way I can figure.
In pursuit of all that, of making it a “better story,” he torqued facts that, as you say, might not’ve needed torquing. Agreed. That still bugs me.
GEOFF: Your explanation of what About a Mountain is really about is persuasive and, I believe, correct. That’s easy to say, I suppose, because the author basically confirmed it. But when I read the book — and I readily admit this is partly my failing — I didn’t glean this deeper meaning from the narrative. And if I couldn’t figure it out, I wonder how many other people couldn’t either. The book opens with D’Agata and his mother participating in a parade that was part of the Las Vegas centennial festivities. Looking back over that chapter, I can’t find any legitimate relation between that scene and the underlying theme of knowability or about Yucca Mountain. At the end of the chapter about the parade, he concludes with something about wanting “the truth of its significance to be revealed.” Nothing wrong with that. Writers try to find significance in everyday things all the time. But in the case of this silly parade, the significance is plain to see: It was a lamely conceived and executed promotional scheme for the Las Vegas centennial. Nothing more, nothing less.
Since I’ve been so mean to this writer and this book, I want to say something nice. As you have explained, D’Agata is big on lists. In his list of things that would have to be destroyed if there was a nuclear waste accident in Las Vegas, he mentions asphalt, newspaper stands, traffic posts, etc. One thing he lists really made me smile. When he’s going through a hotel, listing the things that would have to be removed, he mentions, “The antique table where the elevator stops in the hall with the white marble top. The gold-gilded mirror behind it.” I love that. Isn’t it true that hotels feel the need to place a table and a mirror in that position in the hallway next to the elevator? This is a great observation.
Finally, I must return to the main issue of the discussion: nonfiction that isn’t completely nonfiction. In Reporting at Wit’s End, the recently released collection of New Yorker articles by St. Clair McKelway, a contemporary of Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling and E.B. White, it is revealed by Adam Gopnik in his introduction that McKelway may not have been 100 percent factually accurate in some of his articles.
“There are often in McKelway’s writing bits of shapely storytelling and sprightly dialogue that belie their factual surface. The truth, politely held in a vault on West Forty-third Street, is that writers of his generation worked with a general understanding that a story could be kneaded into shape as long as the kneading was done gently and with good purpose; the well-wishing tone of their work is due in part to its being gently held in hostage to the good will of the subjects. Character can only be revealed, in the shortish span even of a long magazine piece, by a certain element of caricature; the license of cartoonists to draw a black outline and exaggerate an eyebrow was the license they claimed, with the understanding that it wouldn’t be used maliciously — when, in later years by other writers, it began to be, the license was revoked.”
I would argue that in the 21st century, the world is a different place than that in which these “kneaders” operated. Readers today are offended by the notion of being deceived. In Gopnik’s words, the license has been revoked. It’s either fiction or nonfiction — anything in between is a violation of a sacred trust, yet another nail in the coffin of integrity. And as much as I’d like to give writers free rein to do their thing, I have to endorse this modern-day belief in a strict division between fiction and nonfiction. The world is too weird and hostile a place for me to have to parse such things. If it’s fiction, I understand that it’s fiction. And if it’s nonfiction, I ought to be able to trust that it’s nonfiction. That’s not to say a nonfiction writer can’t ever “knead into shape” a story to help get at the truth. For example, a memoirist who re-creates dialogue from an earlier time that wasn’t recorded or written down can, I think, be given the license to build a reasonable narrative — as long as the physical and historical facts remain intact. It’s all very slippery, but my point is I don’t think D’Agata has either lived up to this general rule or, in the tradition of McKelway and Mitchell, manipulated the facts to sufficiently good effect to justify manipulating them.
SCOTT: In one last gasp of defense, I’ll say that some of the meaning and knowability theme is readily available to readers. I picked up on a bit of it in the first two passages I mentioned — the incantatory naming of everything that must be destroyed after a nuclear incident, and the Yuccca signage project. Indeed, it’s because I asked D’Agata about it that he pointed out the rest, which admittedly I didn’t tumble to. Blame my essentially journalistic cast of mind — about much of About a Mountain you can say that instead of directly explaining its themes the way standard nonfiction would (“and now let’s examine the limits of knowledge”), this book more or less enacts that knowing and not-knowing — demonstrates it. That was a literary nicety, the kind you tease out by thinking slowly and deeply about what is and isn’t in the narrative, that escaped me until later.
Not that you’d know it from this exchange, but I tend to surveil the fact-fiction border like a Minuteman on the Arizona state line. For example, my interest in Liebling bled out almost immediately when I figured out he was juicing his pieces. Indeed, for me, that’s the exactly right analogy: It’s like using steroids. Cheating. Liebling has an asterisk now, and he lost my hall-of-fame vote.
I’ve never been entirely comfortable with that “fiction is truer than nonfiction” argument, even though it’s been said by people much smarter than I am. Intuitively, it just doesn’t feel correct to me: If a truth is so rarified that you can’t find its manifestation in real life, what good is it? And if the argument is that you can get at those truths better in fiction because you can delve into people’s minds, well, as Tom Wolfe said, he figured that what people think “was just another door you had to knock on.”
So much of what I want out of nonfiction is bound up in the rasp of the writer’s voice and sensibility as it rubs up against the real, actual world as it exists, encoding that experience into prose. To short-cut those decisions for the sake of a “better story” is to take the easy way out, and I hate that. If your story doesn’t say exactly what you want it to say, either find a story that does, or say something else.
Not to mention that, in the indiscriminate info-bath of modern life, clarity is to be treasured.
And yet I find myself defending, if somewhat uneasily, a book that clearly bends those rules. I guess it’s that I also realize we exist in a hybridizing culture, a culture of sampling and remixing and mashing-up, and I find something captivating about the vigor of all those recombinative energies. So let’s get all subliminal here: Maybe, in the end, what I’m sticking up for is less About a Mountain itself (although I did like it quite a lot) than the hope that this cross-breeding mentality can help keep nonfiction writing alive and evolving. (I think that’s what D’Agata wants, too.)
GEOFF: Of course in the end we find a degree of common ground. Such is life when it is lived properly. As journalists, we naturally bristle or at least worry more than the average person when a writer wanders away from the facts. But in the interest of confusing things further before we conclude, I want to offer something of a concession. In his new book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields, a D’Agata fellow traveler, makes the compelling point that the blurring of reality and fiction — your mash-up, remix ethic — has become ubiquitous in 21st century culture. He cites, among other things, “VH1’s Behind the Music series” . . . “‘behind-the-scenes’ interviews running parallel to the ‘real’ action on reality television shows” . . . “DVDs of feature films that inevitably include a documentary on the ‘making of the movie'” . . . “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” . . . talk radio.” Shields is absolutely correct that the notion of reality has been forever warped by these new elements of popular culture. These creations aren’t real in any traditional sense of the word, but they still can be informative, entertaining and worth doing.
This, unfortunately, does not alter my view re: About a Mountain. I guess, for me, D’Agata chose a strange subject on which to try out his new-school essaying. His perception that there’s something unknowable about Yucca Mountain, some vague uncertainties about the safety of the project, is ultimately what bugs me the most. As someone who lives 90 miles from Yucca Mountain and who has lived through two decades of political and scientific wrangling over this project, I think there are some very knowable things about it. This is a serious matter for people in Southern Nevada, just as it should be for people across the country. We do not have a workable solution for storing high-level nuclear waste, and yet we keep making more of it. This is a disaster in the making, a very sobering business. For D’Agata to use this subject as the basis for a literary experiment just rubs me the wrong way. VH1 can produce truth-challenged Behind the Music shows for years on end and it doesn’t really mean a whole lot one way or another. But Yucca Mountain does matter.
We still need a good social history of Yucca Mountain, a thoughtful exploration that isn’t just science, isn’t just politics but a book that puts the whole messy story in perspective. When I first heard about D’Agata’s book, I vaguely hoped he had given that a shot. He did not.