About a Mountain by John D'Agata

About a Mountain BY John D'Agata. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 236 pages. $23.
The cover of About a Mountain

Text occupies space. It creates a geography on the page by placing upon it characters in strings designed by the author. Many great writers are acutely aware of how the shape of their text affects the reading experience—think of the hermetic, no-paragraph-breaks style of Thomas Bernhard, or the postcard-like emanations of David Markson. This notion is certainly an active element in the work of John D’Agata. His first essay collection Halls of Fame is a panorama of fact and image, information delivered as a collage. Halls of Fame shifts between lyric essay and journalism as it considers subjects a diverse as the Hoover Dam, the Luxor casino, and Henry Darger. And the book is much more than a genre-busting exercise: like the works of David Foster Wallace or sometimes William Vollmann, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Joan Didion, it seems alive.

This is even more true of D’Agata’s latest work, About A Mountain, a book-length cultural study indeed about a mountain⎯specifically, Yucca Mountain, a worn down mound about 100 miles outside Las Vegas, and the proposed dumping site of our nation’s accumulation of nuclear waste. The book situates itself in the sleepless city⎯also, it turns out, the U.S. capital for suicide⎯and then delves into the specifics of the Yucca matter, calmly and masterfully negotiating the hypnotic maze of bureaucratic hyperbole and fact-masking.

It’s a heated issue to decide whether or not radioactive mass will be seated on the water table of our nation’s fastest-growing locale, and D’Agata reports on the debate skillfully, well enough that the book would be worthwhile on this level alone. But he also turns it into a series of thorny epistemological conundrums. How, he asks, will we demarcate Yucca Mountain as hazardous for the duration of the material’s decay—a proposed 10,000 years—as languages evolve, become slippery, and mutate? If we put up a sign warning people to stay away, it will probably look like Chaucer by the year 3000. D'Agata also powerfully meditates on the present moment, wondering how expressions of danger can compete with the stories of politicians who’d rather hide their eyes.

About a Mountain transcends outrage. For the most part, we do not experience the author’s fear or frustration. D’Agata offers quotes and stats and lists and facts but rarely gives specific opinion. And yet we still feel his presence. The author masterfully creates a space beneath the surface of his text, and there he puts us face to face with terror—about the future of civilization, and about the way information is constantly manipulated, even in our everyday lives.

As he subtly sifts through this anxious knowledge, D’Agata loads the story with more horror. His presence in Las Vegas intersects with a young man who, during the Yucca matter, throws himself off the roof of the Stratosphere casino⎯one death in the looming fugue of many. The author skillfully weaves this suicidal strand into his broader narrative, adding gravitas and drawing us even deeper into his text.

About a Mountain is about language, catastrophe, communication, impending destruction, and death, but like most great books, these aspects add up to something much larger. Despite its subtle surface, the book has a sensibility and style that emit their own radiation. D’Agata tells his story with such poise and precision that it not only reveals the fragility of words and human life—it also possesses the power to pull us in and change the ways we think.

Blake Butler is the author of Scorch Atlas and Ever. His third book, The Black Gazebo, will be published by Harper Perennial in late 2010.