I wanted to say a little about John D’Agata’s new book, About a Mountain, even though it wasn’t published as an essay in a literary magazine, to me, it is still an essay albeit one in book-length form. What makes it still an essay is the way it accumulates information after focusing intently on one laser-fine point. The way About a Mountain accumulates and asserts its topics parallels the topics themselves. So when D’Agata begins About a Mountain by describing Las Vegas’s centennial celebration, he is laying out the formal strategy for the whole book and subtly tucking in the issues the book will address. From this narrow focus, D’Agata lays the groundwork for the rest of the text: the population explosion of Las Vegas, the high-concentration of freaks in Las Vegas, the multitude of Elvis’s. From a single instance, 2005 at a parade for Vegas’s centennial celebration, D’Agata touches on all the subjects the book will address. Take for example the multitude of cash stores the parade passes: “We marched past Kostner’s Cash, and we marched past Super Cash, and we marched past Gambler’s Pawn and Loan and then an empty lot” (12). The issues addressed by the whole book emerges from these first pages examples. Things will explode here. Things will proliferate. The mold of Las Vegas had been cast long ago and time will accumulate enough neon, enough Elvises, enough cash, enough waste, to fulfill that mold.
Proliferation, explosion, exponential growth. Each of these are words to be ascribed to what appears to be D’Agata’s primary subject: Yucca Mountain and nuclear waste. Half-lives and millennia and the semiotics of language and the multitude of things that go wrong serve to parallel those first few pages’ promise. The essay, unlike other forms of nonfiction, creates from its first images, scenes and words choices the path and exertions of the text as a whole. Said more simply, the essay makes a metaphor of itself early on and, through that metaphor, guides the reader on how to read the essay.
So it makes sense that the idea of proliferation, desert-craziness, populations, the multitude of cash stores act early on as a metaphor for what D’Agata’s primary subject seems to be: nuclear waste storage. And so, when one learns on CNN that the whole Yucca Mountain as storage site has been quietly scuttled thanks to a deal between Obama and Harry Reid, you wonder, does this hurt the topicality of D’Agata’s book?
Since the problem of nuclear waste storage doesn’t go away with Obama’s signature, I’d argue no. But I’d also argue no based on the argument that the essay’s larger subject is about proliferation, form, explosion, and exponential growth and while this does work nicely with the issues surrounding nuclear waste, it also parallels nicely with what I think is D’Agata’s larger project: to understand how language does or doesn’t work. Language is meant to communicate, he argues, but language proliferates, explodes, dies outside our control. Therefore, when D’Agata investigates how we’ll create a sign that will tell our future selves—no, don’t go here into this mountain full of waste, he’s really talking about how language, like population growth, like nuclear waste, changes, and even escapes us, without our being able to predict or manage that change or escape.
The essay works then, like a Matroyshka doll with a set of images and scenes that repeat themselves, in larger and broader contexts. So from that straightforward centennial celebration scene at the beginning, to the descriptions of Vegas’ exponential growth, to the politics of nuclear waste storage, to the problems of scientific authority, to the nature of language, we finally arrive at the to the particular-to-Vegas, proliferating, political, scientific and language-failures attendant to suicides. D’Agata never abandons his formal essay project about proliferation, explosion, and exponential growth and it’s subject is as explosive, proliferate and expounding as the nuclear waste that becomes just one of the many subjects D’Agata juggles.