Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

John D'Agata, _About a Mountain_

I EXPECTED TO like this somewhat more than I find I did. I thought Halls of Fame was excellent, and the two prose anthologies D'Agata edited were beyond praise--watersheds, in fact. Accordingly, I had this on pre-order at Amazon, and started reading it as soon as it arrived...but only finished it a couple of months ago.

It's good--no doubt about that. D'Agata and his mother move to Las Vegas; he volunteers at a suicide hotline, and has reason to think that he took a call from and failed to help a teenaged boy who jumped from the roof of a hotel; meanwhile, the government is planning to construct an enormous but perhaps not very safe nuclear waste storage facility under Yucca Mountain, about a hundred miles away.

That D'Agata retouched some details in writing this account outraged the person who reviewed the book in the New York Times Book Review, and D'Agata's correspondence about this very issue with a fact-checker at The Believer (which published an excerpt) recently came out as a short book. About a Mountain has thus inspired a good amount of discussion of truth and art, or Truth and Art...

...which is interesting, certainly, but it's hard to see that D'Agata has taken any broader liberties than Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, John McPhee, Lillian Ross, Tom Wolfe, or a variety of other skillful non-fictioneers have taken. He has only (as others did not) pointed out where he refashioned details and has refused to be apologetic about it--more power to him, say I.

But there's a bit of déjà lu in About a Mountain. It kept reminding me of a certain vein in Didion: a similar conjunction of American desert landscape, deadpan assessment of the shallowness of our amusements, and tight-lipped anxiety about our future that occurs in "The White Album," "At the Dam," "On Morality," and Play It As It Lays--a nearly affectless anomie. a dread that barely surfaces into expression, a chill that persists even under the desert's relentless sun. D'Agata does Didion damn near as well as Didion herself, but I would still like to hear the distinctive note I'm sure he has in him.

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