About a Mountain

By John D’Agata. Norton, $23.95

Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York / Issue 750 : Feb 8–17, 2010

John D’Agata’s About a Mountain is, among other things, a study of political myopia, nuclear threat and activism coalescing at Yucca Mountain, where, until very recently, the federal government planned to entomb high-level nuclear waste. If he had told the story with journalistic straightforwardness, the book could have been edifying and informative. But by choosing a labyrinthine structure, the author turns it into something transcendent. D’Agata sets out to understand the proposal to immure nuclear waste in a mountain not far from Las Vegas, but this soon becomes a project of epistemological concerns. The more he seeks to know about the mountain—encountering political bamboozling and scientific dissembling—the more the book becomes about knowing, about the difference between data and information, information and knowledge, knowledge and wisdom.

D’Agata’s obsessive approach could have easily become claustrophobic, but he brings so much wit, and so much of the world, into his quest. All sorts of arcana (the life spans of sunbeams, say, and why casino ceilings are kept so low) abound and merge with bigger branches of inquiry: the rate at which languages become extinct and why Edvard Munch’s The Scream will be so important to humanity when these extinctions occur. It’s a project of controlled circularity; digressions (particularly one about a Las Vegas suicide) ground the more abstract thoughts about Yucca and intersect with other complementary plot lines, lending the book a sense of moral heft.

D’Agata’s voice is as direct as his mental peregrinations are elaborate. He writes sentences of hard blunt beauty and seamlessly fits style to content: His descriptions of Las Vegas are filled with lists as arresting as neon signs. Given the book’s preoccupations with nuclear devastation and a young man’s suicide, it’s admirable how nimbly the author avoids sanctimony and sentimentality. This is an empathetic and virtuosic performance that invites us to live more bravely with, and think about, our uncertainties.

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