Nothing ruins a good novel or collection of stories quite as well as a glowing review. So when Nick Flynn calls John D’Agata’s latest book of creative nonfiction, About A Mountain, “utterly amazing” and Ben Marcus raves, “Here is the literary essay raised to the highest form of art,” I’m settled in for smug disappointment. It is, after all, a book about nuclear waste. How good could it be?
But then I’m 50 pages in and I cannot breathe. I do that thing where you put the book down because you’re so excited that it’s impossible to slow yourself down enough to read each word, but then immediately pick it back up again because you can’t bear to stop. I finish the last of the book’s exactly 200 pages that same afternoon, read each and every end note (33 pages worth), and then look at my hands, unsure of what to do with them.
What I’m saying is it may be impossible to overstate how compelling this book is.
About A Mountain is “about” Las Vegas’ Yucca Mountain—the proposed site to store the country’s nuclear waste—inasmuch as White Teeth is “about” dental hygiene. The book covers topics as diverse as gambling, suicide, suburban sprawl, congressional inefficiency, soft money campaign contributions, the history of Las Vegas, linguistics, and even Edward Munic’s “The Scream” (which gets almost an entire chapter). Yucca Mountain is not the subject so much as a jumping off point and the tension between the text and the title is the tension of the book–an attempt to condense, limit, and make sense of subjects that are relentlessly expanding, impossibly tangled, and flat out baffling. This is, in other words, a book-length nonfiction poem, artfully juxtaposing a set of images and ideas with little transition or resolution and demanding a greater deal of reader participation. D’Agata has MFAs in both nonfiction and poetry from Iowa and it shows. This is cubism for creative nonfiction.
Part of what makes the book so compelling is the details of these subjects. I’m not sure what type of person is inherently interested in the particulars of safely storing nuclear waste, but the particulars, it turns out, are fascinating. Let’s say, for example, you are the U.S. government and you want to store the country’s 45,000 tons of nuclear waste (to take the lowest estimate) for 10,000 years (lowest estimate again). You don’t want anyone accidently releasing the toxic waste so you decide to, you know, put up a sign to tell people that this storage facility is dangerous, unsafe, etc. Now, keeping in mind that this sign has to last 10,000 years, that whoever is around in 10,000 years needs to understand it, that only fifteen percent of people in the world can speak Mandarin (the most popular language), and that most people who can speak English today can’t read middle English much less old English (which is only one thousand years old)—keeping all this in mind: What do you write on the sign? What language do you put it in? And what material or metal can you even make it out of?
And if that thought experiment isn’t enough, the way D’Agata writes about these subjects is even more compelling. Most writers, having stumbled on such interesting subject matter, would sit back, content to let it speak for itself. Not D’Agata. Over and over he leaves the narrative to more fully convey an image or idea, often digressing pages at a time so that the reader not only understands a concept, she feels it as well. He spends several hundred words, for example, listing the ways in which the earth has changed in the last 10,000 so that you feel just how long that really is. And he takes eleven full pages to trace exactly what would happen if even just one of the 3,000 trucks that, in theory, would be arriving in Las Vegas every year with nuclear waste were to get in an accident and release a toxic gas. He details everything that would become contaminated: every nut securing every bolt connecting each green reflective street sign to the highway’s sides; every button in every elevator in every hotel in the affected area; “All 1,987 pages in the local Las Vegas phone book,” which he describes (the phonebook, that is) for a page and a half, quoting specific ads. D’Agata refuses to continue his story until he’s absolutely sure you’ve got his point; and it’s to the book’s credit that it eschews a linear approach to such an over-determined set of concerns.
And even the discussion surrounding the book is a subject of interest in itself. On a basic level, the world of creative nonfiction splits into two camps: the “creative” and the “nonfiction” (to put it simply). The first group emphasizes emotional truth whereas the second sticks to hard facts. It’s a question of ethics and art. Each has their literary journal of choice, their own heroes and villains, and, oh yeah, the two sides hate each other. D’Agata tries to play to both at the same time by bending the truth here and there for the sake of art while painstakingly listing each and every date-change or composite character in the end notes. But, judging by the reviews, he managed to piss of just about everyone for it (even The Rumpus questioned an excerpt). In many ways, reading the competing reviews after you finish almost as fun as reading the book itself.
And it is this experimentation with genre and form, combined with the grave and urgent nature of the subject matter (which refuses to go away, despite Congress’ decision to reject Yucca Mountain as a site to store nuclear waste) that make it not only a compelling book, but an important one. Immediately after finishing it for the first time I wanted to tell everyone I knew about it, I wanted to buy seven or 12 copies of the book and hand it out to friends, family, strangers, enemies. Mostly though, I just wanted to read it again.