Faith in Withheld Meanings

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What do nuclear waste, suicide, and Las Vegas have in common? John D’Agata searches for meaning in the heart of Yucca Mountain

A familiar cast of characters populates John D’Agata’s new book-length essay, About a Mountain. Activists, apologists, hucksters, linguists, lobbyists, opportunists, politicians, and rationalists—all take part in the debate over whether to store our country’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, which stands about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, a suicide capital of the USA. If you keep up with politics, you won’t be shocked when facts get lost in the Senate’s formality. Or when stats abound but never match up. Or when everybody has opinions and the “science” to prove them true. Or when the Department of Energy (DOE) is the best improviser this side of Charlie Chaplin: Yucca is porous, you say? We’ll build a shield made of Alloy-22. Alloy-22 is corrosive? We have evidence to refute that—but sorry, those documents are classified.

I’m afraid that introduction likens D’Agata’s book to some stuffy tome about the eighth-grade dance we call the United States government, but that isn’t the case at all. On the contrary, About a Mountain avoids predetermined, pre-indexed conclusions. And smarty-pants rhetoric. And Clear Argument. And Evidence, put together in support of a Central Thesis. D’Agata’s book, in other words, is what people like me call capital-A Art.

Most of the book unfolds as follows: A scene plays out without commentary—no explaining, no editorializing. And then something sparks the writer’s curiosity, and the search for answers begins. Repeat.

After watching C-Span with his mother and her activist friends, D’Agata heads to the local mall, where between a Disney Store and a Cinnabons he finds Yucca’s informational center. Without a hint of irony, our writer describes the center, funded by the DOE, before shifting to a spokeswoman talking to students about her job correcting all the flubs in the local media. Here our writer supplies some information of his own: The DOE has wooed local teachers with nine hundred educational manuals, costing upwards of $800,000 to produce. The collage of story and fact continues: Information about Yucca’s porousness, and Alloy-22’s corrosiveness, is followed by a scene in which students use water bottles as containers, Silly Putty as Alloy-22, kitty litter as waste, and packing peanuts as a protective barrier, and try to form an airtight seal.

You can imagine the rest.

Having been told that waste stored at Yucca will be “safe” after 10,000 years, D’Agata tries to find out how this number could be so neat and tidy—a simple question which leads him to multiple agencies, to numerous acts and policies, to nonprofits and science academies, and, after many dead-ends and referrals and I-don’t-knows, to a waste consultant, who answers our writer’s simple question—Is the number arbitrary?—with a yes. And a no.

This is what D’Agata is up against. But he’s resilient, even when his pursuits proliferate and his inquiries lead only to other inquiries. What started as a book about a mountain changes into a book about Las Vegas and suicide and signs and language and death, and it reads like a wonderful and free-flowing improvisation.

We encounter our writer’s pursuit of meaning in his love of lists. And, boy, there are lists. There’s a list of doomsday hunches, from Genesis through Confucius and the Plagues, to Charles Manson and mushroom cloud novelties. There’s a list of the possible effects of a nuclear meltdown, which details the contamination of Vegas all the way down to the steel, the asphalt, hinges, bottles, nuts, and bolts. When referring to a linguist’s list of two hundred words shared across languages, our writer refuses to let the reader take his word for it—D’Agata lists each and every word.

At first this hyperattention to detail—the elevator’s “up” button, the page count of the local phone book—seems to be his way of reclaiming a little sanity, a way to revel in the hard details so lacking in the debate over Yucca, demonstrating D’Agata’s “faith in withheld meanings: the dream that if we linger long enough with anything, the truth of its significance is bound to be revealed.”

But those optimistic lines come early. As About a Mountain unfolds, the lists branch out and we notice how each item stands alone amid all that white space. We notice our writer isn’t cataloguing but attempting to reach a conclusion by accumulation. We begin to see that his task is immense, that he’s seeking answers to the Big Questions, the ones filed under: “The Unknown.” And we are thankful for the effort. But we also sense that at the end of these virtuosic riffs, our writer, despite his efforts, knows he may not know enough.

There’s enough here to fill a prescription for anti-depressants. The death of language. The suicide of a teenage boy. The politics. Vegas. Meanings unrevealed. Or do the meanings reveal themselves? Our writer has a nearly inhuman depth of perception, and readers can take hope from how, in the face of his uncertainty, D’Agata puts his fine improvisational mind to work, where meaning dissolves into nothingness, where low ceilings are protection from God, where suicides occur by the dozen, where cakes are the size of football fields, and where language is as porous and corrosive as that damn mountain.

Kevin Evers writes essays, reviews, fiction and nonfiction. His work has previously appeared at The Millions. He lives in Somerville, MA. More from this author →