Tuesday, March 13, 2018

About a Mountain | John D'Agata

The first half of this book is utterly boring. I struggled through the intense stream of lifeless statistic and personal anecdote only half-full of feeling, wishing I could be reading LITERALLY anything else. If you handed me a car manual, by now I'd be able to tell you how a carburetor works. If I hadn't had to read ABOUT A MOUNTAIN for my nonfiction class, I never would have picked it up.

I did not know that D'Agata was praised as a forefront of the genre. Reading the first half of this book, I would have doubted that entirely. The second half, however, got much more intense.

The book parades as a chronicle of the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada, a then-potential home for nuclear waste that wouldn't be safe for humans to come near for at least 10,000 years. That was the problem of the first half of the book; how do we communicate to the humans 10,000 years from now that the mountain is dangerous? How do we keep people away? How do we warn them, what signage do we use, what sounds can we emit, what message can we leave behind?

But this book isn't really about Yucca Mountain.

ABOUT A MOUNTAIN is about the immensely high suicide rates in Las Vegas, Nevada, and shyly follows the suicide of a teenager named Levi as the narrator hints every few pages that this specific death is what he is after.

Levi jumped off of the Stratosphere one evening after he lost a Tae Kwon Do tournament, when his parents thought he was just sulking as a regular teenager is prone to do, when he walked past hotel waiters and passersby and casino workers and ticket-takers. He got on the ledge, waved to a security guard supposedly sent to stop him, and jumped.

The details of Levi's life and of his death are chronicled near-expertly by D'Agata, and the book is laden with emotion and a style of reportage ultimately attractive to a reader who craves a story. But real life isn't like a story. Suicide isn't romantic at all.

That's my problem with this book. It's too romantic. The details of Levi's death and of the day on which he died, the details of the Yucca project and of witness reports and D'Agata knows what else are details altered and falsified. D'Agata changed the most minute details – claiming that the temperature on the summer day when Levi jumped was 118º when really, it was 113º – because of some authorial will to make things flow better, to appeal to a readership more interested in attractive metaphor than truth.

Honestly, I don't care that D'Agata called something nine seconds when it was really eight, that his characters are conglomerations of several people, that his anecdotes are embellished. But little lies like these for the sake of fluidity open the door for harsher lies, like calling the other suicide that day a hanging instead of the jump that it was because he was already writing about a suicide by jumping, and he want his to seem more unique.

That isn't fair to the other woman who jumped.

I'm the type of reader of nonfiction who fully trusts the person writing to me. I was moved by this book and it's because I was moved that I felt so lied to when I learned that most of the quotes, anecdotes, and statistics in this book were falsified in the name of art. If you're like me, take this book with as a shot of tequila and don't open your heart all the way to believe in the romanticism that D'Agata has created for you.

In the words of Ander Monson in his response to ABOUT A MOUNTAIN and its fact-checked spinoff, THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT,  "...that’s what makes us angry when we hear about confabulation in works of apparent nonfiction, even as the deep satisfaction we may take in the artifice of the book (until it is exposed) moves us greatly. It’s as if we are angry in proportion to how deeply we allowed ourselves to be possessed by a book or an essay. We are angry at ourselves, and we project this onto the author."
(Ander Monson, "The Skeptical Gaze," The Los Angeles Review of Books. Published March 20, 2012.)

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