About a Mountain
W.W. Norton: 236 pp., $23.95
At the end of his exquisite new book, “About a Mountain,” John D’Agata acknowledges that things are not exactly as they seem. “Although the narrative of this essay,” he writes, “suggests that it takes place over a single summer, the span between my arrival in Las Vegas and my final departure was, in fact, much longer. I have conflated time in this way for dramatic effect only, but I have tried to indicate each instance of this below. At times, I have also changed subjects’ names or combined a number of subjects into a single composite ‘character.’ ”
Them’s fighting words for those who take a hard line on invention in nonfiction, but the offhand genius of “About a Mountain” is that it renders the whole issue moot. By the time we get to D’Agata’s admission, we’ve already given ourselves over to his subtle brand of experimentalism -- a fluid mix of reportage and conjecture -- with the personal, political and philosophical interwoven like overlapping roller coaster tracks.
Ostensibly a story about Yucca Mountain, “About a Mountain” is really a meditation on the nature of fact and fantasy, a riff on Las Vegas that gets beneath the city’s layers of cliché. It is also a book that seeks to tell us a little something about time and understanding, even as it admits that these concepts are too big, too amorphous, for us to wrap our minds around.
This is what, at its best, contemporary narrative nonfiction aspires to, a story that, like the novel, operates on many levels at once. And in “About a Mountain,” D’Agata has found a nearly perfect nexus to investigate our post-millennial concerns. Beginning with a bit of personal history -- he came to Las Vegas to help his mother move there -- the book quickly shifts focus, detailing the battle over nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain while questioning whether such containment even can be safely accomplished.
The concept behind Yucca, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is to create a secure repository where waste will be stored for 10,000 years. The problem, however, is that 10,000 years is a number more arbitrary than not. “Taking into consideration that some potentially harmful exposures may still be possible several hundred thousand years following the mountain’s closure, we therefore recommend that a time frame be established . . . which could be on the order of a million years or more,” D’Agata notes, quoting a report from the Committee on the Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standards, part of the National Research Council. The very notion of 10,000 years, then, is a leap of faith, a kind of temporal metaphor.
Metaphor, as it turns out, is what D’Agata is after, and after he gets going he finds it everywhere. It emerges in the fact that Las Vegas, which is supposedly all about illusion, has the highest suicide rate in the United States, a statistic almost no official will discuss because of the negative image it portrays. It emerges in the atomic history of the region, where nuclear tests were once viewed from resort hotels. Even the harshest realities have a metaphorical component, if only for what they say about the things we take for granted -- about, again, our faith.
Early in the book, D’Agata posits the effect of a nuclear accident. “We’d forfeit Las Vegas to the desert,” says Bob Halstead, a nuclear waste consultant. “The city would no longer exist.” To get at what this means, D’Agata cycles through a series of increasingly narrow specifics: "[e]very traffic lamp and bulb and post . . . [e]very sidewalk square and concrete curb . . . [e]very newspaper stand . . . [e]very call girl ad.” Implicit in his account is the idea that nuclear accident or no nuclear accident, we will eventually lose all this anyway, to the inexorable flow of time. And yet, even as D’Agata gives voice to his bleakest fantasies, the city continues to exist, a symbol for the odd dance of denial in which we all participate every day.
Of the metaphors in the book, perhaps none is as compelling as that of the warning system that needs to be developed at Yucca Mountain, a system that must last 10,000 years. This is harder than it seems because language degrades, and even the commonality of certain images cannot be assumed over such a period of time. Ten thousand years ago, D’Agata notes, there was no written language; the basic infrastructure of civilization -- laws, irrigation, accounting -- did not yet exist. Who knows what people will be like 10,000 years from the present or even whether humanity will still exist?
It’s a complex problem, and D’Agata traces the efforts of an expert panel to create a warning that is itself more than a warning, that will not so much tell our descendants about the dangers of the waste at Yucca Mountain as it will give them a puzzle to solve. Maybe the solution is a wasteland of black basalt, “unwelcoming and uninhabitable,” or perhaps “an echoing aural effect from a series of stone sculptures that would be carved to emit a single pitch in the wind.” Either way, D’Agata never forgets what we don’t know, what we can’t know, which reduces the idea of meaning to something conditional and abstract. As he writes, “We must find ourselves, the panel says, having an experience: an essaying into the purpose of what’s apparently purposeless, an essaying that tries desperately to cull significance from the place, but an essaying, says the panel, that must ultimately fail.”
This, of course, is a perfect metaphor for “About a Mountain,” or more accurately, for any endeavor that tries to make sense of the world. It’s all about interpretation, which is why it makes sense for D’Agata to conflate certain details in the service of a larger point of view. We are here and do not know why, nor do we know what the future holds. “I do not think,” D’Agata writes, “that Yucca Mountain is a solution or a problem. I think that what I believe is that the mountain is where we are, it’s what we now have come to -- a place that we have studied more thoroughly at this point than any other parcel of land in the world -- and still it remains unknown, revealing only the fragility of our capacity to know.”
Ulin is book editor of The Times.