About a Mountain

There’s a review on n+1 from a couple of weeks ago of John D’Agata’s About a Mountain that expresses a curious obsessiveness about the ambiguity of truth in D’Agata’s writing. Provan makes a few salient points about the economics behind essay writing and the MFA structure in which D’Agata has lived comfortably for his entire career, but a lot of the essay attacks D’Agata’s laziness over facts and citations in About a Mountain and earlier works.

Alexander Provan makes a good argument, but it’s clear that he didn’t like the book, and I think picking apart the D’Agata’s “embellishments, distortions, and inventions” isn’t really the point. I liked the book, so it’s possible that there’s no agreement to be reached. But About a Mountain isn’t A Million Little Pieces. Not only does D’Agata painstakingly cite his sources and point out instances of factual inaccuracy in over thirty pages of notes, his book isn’t being sold on the idea that it is true. Provan seems disdainful of D’Agata’s definition of the essay as different from non-fiction, but it is an important distinction.

D’Agata isn’t selling the book as a memoir, or an expose, or a piece of journalism. And while the appeal of the book is based partly on the political relevance of it’s subject, it doesn’t have a political or social agenda. It is a piece of creative writing.

This opens up a sort of grey area of genre, one that David Shields has recently managed to make a minor controversy out of. I think it’s primarily a question of economics. James Frey pissed people off because his story loses impact as a work of fiction. I doubt D’Agata’s book would suffer a similar reaction. It seems likely that the same number of people would be likely to shell out the $24 for About a Mountain regardless of the genre attached to it. You wouldn’t call D’Agata a con artist, even if you didn’t like his writing.

Still, it has the ring of a conspiracy theorist’s logic, where any coincidence can become a fact or a cause. D’Agata doesn’t present any particular argument, or call for action, or accusation against the government, but he is, admittedly, conflating fact and fiction for the sake of form and narrative. Which is basically what I think makes the book cool. Provan argues that it is a crutch. He writes,

While one never doubts that the debate over Yucca Mountain and Levi’s suicide act as genuine mirrors in D’Agata’s mind, his fudging of the date reinforces how much of the correlation hinges on coincidence.

But I don’t think that the juxtaposition of Yucca Mountain and Levi Presley is based on correlation or coincidence. I don’t think it’s possible to pin down exactly what D’Agata finds interesting about these two events, but one can’t deny that they are both fascinating, and their juxtaposition creates an eerie and artful evocation of Las Vegas. In this case the essay is working in a mode that used to belong solely to the novel, without the conventional contrivances of plot, and Provan is aware of the diminishing importance of genre in today’s prose market. I guess I do agree with most of his analysis of the book, but disagree with his fundamental argument, that writers have nothing to gain from making stuff up, or “that doing so is justified by self-expression.”