According to John D’Agata, the essay was birthed five thousand years ago from the soil nourished by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. As Sumerian civilization grew outward and upward, its huts and farmlands making way for primitive apartment blocks and crowded marketplaces, the use of cuneiform script spread steadily, rendering information as palpable and unyielding as the clay tablets on which it was imprinted. Sumerians entered into legal agreements, monitored the palpitations of their burgeoning economy, and built a society more complex than any that had preceded it. “Scholars agree that this is what finally did Sumer in,” D’Agata writes in the prologue of his anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay (2009). The gods, displeased with the teeming city that had arisen from those millions of marks on clay, opened up the heavens. The downpour did not cease until the Euphrates and Tigris had overrun their banks and drowned Sumer, leveling its buildings and markets and warehouses of commercial nonfiction, leaving the land just as it had been so many centuries before: flat, featureless, quiet.
One man, Ziusudra, weathered the storm. As he surveyed the terrain where Sumer had stood he spotted a piece of clay, and then a sharp rock. He thought of those who had perished and those who would someday inherit this fertile strip of land, and he decided to write something that might lessen the distance between them, and ensure that the wisdom and follies of his people would not be forgotten—accounting on a larger scale, and of a more abstract variety. He produced a list of instructions advising future generations on matters pedestrian (“Avoid the weekly sale of whores from the palace, for they are usually sold from the bottom of the barrel”) and philosophical (“Fate, dear friends, is like a wet bank. It is always going to make you slip.”) D’Agata determines Ziusudra’s list to be “the first essay in the world: it’s a mind’s inquisitive ramble through a place wiped clean of answers. It is trying to make a new shape where there previously was none.” It is the original alternative to that stale brand of nonfiction that binds two parties of a contract, or records the number of cows one farmer traded to another for however many talents of wheat—the beginning of individual expression trumping the communication of information. (Never mind that the list is actually part of an established genre called wisdom literature, or Mirrors for Princes, Ziusudra’s aphorisms being instructions imparted to him before the flood by his father, the ruler of one of the five antediluvian Mesopotamian kingdoms. The original text contains a repeating line that reminds the reader of this history, but D’Agata has excised it.)
All creation myths serve a purpose, and this one is no exception. D’Agata, who received MFAs from the University of Iowa in nonfiction and poetry, has published a collection of his own essays, Halls of Fame (2001), and edited The Next American Essay (2002), another anthology. But he is best known as the architect and primary exponent of the “lyric essay,” which he described in 1997 as giving “primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information, forsaking narrative line, discursiveness, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.” If The Lost Origins of the Essay has a point, it is that the essay has always been such an expressive art, one whose form—introspective, inconclusive, and exploratory—traces the patterns of human thought. The task of the essayist, D’Agata avers, is not to educate or dictate, not to make sense of the world or even get the facts right, but to take pen and paper out into the psychic wilderness.
What if the quarry of such a writerly expedition does not qualify as fiction or nonfiction? What is one to do? Is it possible to write nonfiction while maintaining an allegiance to art over fact, the Truth over the truth? Had you not read The Lost Origins of the Essay, which traces the development of the form from the ancient world to the 1970s, you might instinctively answer: Yes, of course, so long as one does not wantonly distort and fabricate, or at least notes such deviations. But for D’Agata and an increasingly vocal cadre of lyrically-oriented compatriots, such pussyfooting betrays the cause of literary art: Writers must be allowed the right to change things around as they please. The Lost Origins of the Essay at times reads like a bloated dossier of evidence, with exhibits ranging from the usual anthology fodder (Thomas Browne, Sei Shonagon, Thomas De Quincey) to a parabolic series of questions and answers from fourth-century South African tribesmen, the 18th-century British religious poet Christopher Smart’s “My Cat Jeoffry,” and Borges’s short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”—anything, it seems, that might challenge the epistemological basis of the nonfiction category…including fiction. Tradition-bound readers—the 1,729 people who joined a class-action lawsuit charging that James Frey had defrauded them should take note—must be disabused of the notion that any book that is not a novel “is merely a dispensary of data—not a true expression of one’s dreams, ideas, or fears,” D’Agata writes.
What is essential to the essay is not the articulation of knowledge but a representation of the mind in motion, charting the space between “that which understands the world, and that which never will.” Montaigne made this clear when in 1580 he gave the form its name—essai, meaning “an attempt”—and thus “turned inquiry officially inward,” D’Agata writes, “granting it the credentials to be recognized at last as what it has always been: art.” D’Agata thinks that the essay has since sunk into the mire of the nonfiction shelf, between social studies and memoir, even while other art forms relish their autonomy. In order to reestablish the essay as art, he argues, it is necessary to divorce it from that cretinous brand of nonfiction that puts forward theses and hurtles to conclusions. Halls of Fame did that in extremis: an essay composed of runic lists of things found, heard, experienced, or imagined at—or in relation to—the country’s most minor museums is juxtaposed with a meditation on the life and work of outsider artist Henry Darger, which is followed by an impressionistic account of the shaft of light beaming out from the apex of Las Vegas’s Luxor Hotel. The Lost Origins of the Essay elaborates on the distinction D’Agata poses between analytic writing, which is rooted in Plato, for whom knowledge was limited to what could be discerned by reason, and the essay, which follows Heraclitus, for whom all the world was flux.
“I’m not saying that essayists do not traffic in information,” D’Agata clarifies. “I’m saying that maybe that information is sometimes experienced, sometimes it is researched, and sometimes it’s inherited from a collective unconscious.” The observable world is perfectly fine as a source, but truth in writing—even nonfiction writing—is likely to be channeled from some ethereal source to which the unencumbered creative spirit has regular access.
D’Agata’s recent book, About a Mountain, is an essay concerning the protean nature of facts—or what we take to be facts for as long as it is convenient to do so. The subject is the most studied piece of rock in the world, Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, where the federal government for the last thirty years planned to build a repository for the country’s 130 million pounds of nuclear waste, which are now stored at ill-equipped and poorly secured reactor sites across the country. After spending $11 billion drilling a tunnel through the mountain, conducting innumerable feasibility studies, and producing millions of pages of reports on the site’s geologic and hydrologic characteristics, the Department of Energy moved to abandon the project in February, effectively admitting that Yucca—and the process by which it had been selected—was so flawed as to be irredeemable. About a Mountain chronicles Yucca’s convoluted history, transforming it from a pile of volcanic ash in the desert outside Las Vegas into a glaring emblem of the limits of our ability to know.
The book tells this story partly through the prism of another: that of Levi Presley, a 16-year-old who jumped to his death from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Tower—Las Vegas’s tallest structure—in the summer of 2002. At the time, D’Agata was helping his mother move to Las Vegas. He recounts becoming interested in Yucca Mountain one day in June, when the two of them were watching Nevada Senator Harry Reid deride the project during a floor debate on C-SPAN. The bill under consideration, which grants final approval to the repository, is passed; Presley ends his own life that evening. Over the months that follow, D’Agata investigates Presley’s death and Yucca Mountain simultaneously. He discovers that Las Vegas is both “The New All-American City” and the suicide capital of America. He finds that no one will broach the subject except for the county coroner, who tells him, “Suicide is the most threatening thing that we can encounter as a culture. It’s a manifestation of doubt, the ultimate unknowable.” He learns that a government panel has determined that nuclear waste would need to be stored at Yucca for 10,000 years, but only because that number sounds more reasonable than a million years, which is how long it would actually take for the radioactivity to dissipate. He volunteers at the Las Vegas Suicide Prevention Center, which bars him from asking callers why they’re considering killing themselves. “What I thought it would do,” he writes, “is give me something to say about Yucca Mountain.”
True to form, D’Agata’s story of nuclear waste, suicide, and life in America’s most patently unreal city “follows the patterns of the human thought process,” as he puts it in The Lost Origins of the Essay, “rather than the process of fulfilling a villanelle.” His two subjects are at times discrete, occupying separate chapters, and at times colloidal, the figure of the jumping boy infiltrating the image of the dusty peak in the space of a sentence. The book is full of looping digressions, quirky constructions, exhausting lists—of large numbers, florescent signs, words comprising a potential universal vocabulary—and abrupt shifts from one scene or idea to the next. Details are doled out in digressive sequences of sentence-long paragraphs, which seem to mock the journalistic assumption that all facts are wielded in service of a greater conclusion.
D’Agata, however, is at his best when he sheds the artifice of the lyric essay and writes straightforwardly about Yucca Mountain. He adroitly parses the project’s byzantine network of claims and counter-claims, reports and rejoinders, assurances and recriminations, risk assessments and ten-thousand-year forecasts—the endless generation of facts to supplant facts. He chronicles the confused attempt to create a sign that will communicate the danger of Yucca Mountain to whomever might come across it in 10,000 years, by which time, he infers, language will have changed so dramatically that “the English in the message would only have retained 11 percent of its significance, and therefore of its meaning.”
Given the richness of the subject matter, it is surprising to learn, upon reaching the notes at the end of About a Mountain, that D’Agata has taken the liberty of combining many trips he took to Las Vegas over the years into one five-month period; that Levi Presley did not commit suicide on the same day as the Yucca Mountain debate; that some characters are in fact composites of multiple people; that numerous other embellishments, distortions, and inventions have been made “for dramatic effect.” (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.) D’Agata proclaims to have duly recorded each instance in the notes at the end of the book. For example, in a rumination on the number nine—Levi ostensibly fell for nine seconds—he writes that “God resides in the ninth order of heaven,” then admits that, while this is not true, “at the time I thought He did”; he writes that “Nine people, says the Bible, will be stoned on Judgement Day,” only to reveal that, while this may not be true either, “the Bible says a lot of things.” All it takes is Google and access to a database of academic journals to find the falsehoods D’Agata has not bothered to mark—among them fabricated quotes attributed to Carl Jung and Jackson Pollock and recollections of C-SPAN coverage that bear little resemblance to the transcripts.
I can’t trace the failings of About a Mountain to D’Agata’s casual treatment of facts, but neither can I see how the book has benefited. The same goes for The Lost Origins of the Essay, which is rife with made-up quotations, false attributions, and elisions that alter the meaning of the texts in the anthology. In the introduction to Thomas Browne’s “Hydriotaphia,” a piece of antique, serpentine prose, as much Latin as English, with deeply subordinated syntactical structures, D’Agata credits George Orwell with this line: “It is Browne’s introspection which has shifted us from the outside world of rhetoric, to the inner and private world of mystery and wonder.” When I first read this, I imagined it to be a bad joke; there is no evidence that Orwell said or wrote anything of the sort, and his fixation on pellucidity in writing makes him an unlikely advocate of Browne. But eventually I understood it to be an example of D’Agata practicing what he preaches. Elsewhere, while discussing the Japanese zuihitsu genre, which came into being during a period of intense conflict, D’Agata recalls how “one literary critic once wrote of this form: ‘The finished work is, in times and climates of anguish, a lie.’” That unnamed critic is George Steiner, who was in fact paraphrasing Theodor Adorno, and speaking not of zuihitsu but of the Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa (whose work is also included in The Lost Origins of the Essay). These slight fabrications abound as D’Agata quotes anonymous critic after unnamed historian, and their cumulative effect is to undermine his credibility—as a writer of nonfiction or fiction or whatever lies between. This is not a matter of flouting convention, or even of disingenuousness, but, I think, of mistaking artfulness for art.
About a Mountain reflects D’Agata’s understanding of the essay as a synthesis of poetry, aphorisms, fragments, and even fictions. But in so stridently distinguishing the essay from the nonfiction of newspapers and bestselling memoirs and book reviews, he loses sight of what makes a piece of writing good. D’Agata’s stylistic flourishes tend to draw attention away from the subject and toward the author’s craftsmanship; if making up quotations and manipulating information has somehow enhanced the “dramatic effect,” it’s not apparent. One might look to The Lost Origins of the Essay for a serious argument on behalf of these aesthetic choices, a philosophy of the form. But instead it offers examples of artful writing—aphorisms, travelogues, prose-poems, and satires—as proof that the essay is art and, as such, should enjoy autonomy from the stuffy standards of nonfiction. While the tradition of experimentation D’Agata sketches out is absorbing, he fails to do much more than burnish it with an air of inquiry, asking questions such as, “Where do we draw the line between texts that want merely to inform their readers, and those that attempt to transform us?”
The better question, which I asked myself with increasing frustration while reading these books: Why worry? Readers are sensitive to being deceived, but they are not so philistine as to be unable—or unwilling—to accept deviations from the norm. (True, no one expects conceptual artists to apply genre labels to their work, but that is a matter of the divergent economic models of galleries and publishing houses.) In fact, there’s an argument to be made that people engage with new literary forms with greater frequency and ease than ever before, reading more widely, variously, and open-mindedly. The Internet has produced a generation of readers more accustomed to fragments, diaristic tidbits, momentary observations, piquant asides, and rambling digressions—the very characteristics of the essay that D’Agata exalts.
Where, then, is the locus of this anxiety about the status of the essay? Look no further than the university writing workshop. In The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009), Mark McGurl argues that books have long been “considered ‘literary’ to the degree that their value does not seem reducible to the information they convey, and an author is in fact distinct from the typical information worker to the extent that she is an independent producer and owner of the fruits of her labor.” In today’s crowded information-commodity marketplace, writers must do all the more to distinguish themselves as artists. The MFA program encourages them to “develop an intensely personal relation to literary value,” McGurl observes, one that emphasizes an “immediate identification with the charisma of authorship.”
It is often difficult to shake the feeling that D’Agata is addressing those who have paid a large sum of money to have their creative personas validated. He is both a product of the MFA system and one of its current darlings: he teaches at his alma mater, Iowa, and his essays—and now anthologies—are read widely and praised loudly by students and instructors across the country. In this context, D’Agata’s curiously anachronistic emphasis on the artist-genius and the struggle of literary invention makes sense. If you’re going to shell out $80,000 for a degree that is unlikely to have any lasting impact on your success as a writer, you’ll be pleased to at least have the sanctity of your endeavor to express yourself confirmed, however incoherently. And you’ll very likely be compelled to purchase one or more of D’Agata’s books by a creative-writing teacher. There is no better audience than MFA students for the poet Edmond Jabés’s description of the creative process, quoted by D’Agata in The Lost Origins of the Essay: “To drain all blood from the voice. The voice is the straight way. It follows the tracks of the letters. It is the book’s blood. You have no more voice. You have given your blood. You have written.”
D’Agata endorses the work of Petrarch and Antonin Artaud, William Blake and Clarice Lispector, applauding self-regarding poetics one moment and “the rhetoric of wanting something that language cannot achieve” the next. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course—writing is always an assertion of one’s presence in the world as well as an admission of its paltriness—but D’Agata is too quick to reconcile them. Though he includes Beckett’s short prose piece “Fizzle 3: Afar a Bird,” he sidesteps the ambivalence found in the Dubliner’s credo: “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” And he seems to forget that the inability of language or representations to capture our experience of the world is a signal problem of art in the modern era, not just a characteristic of the essay—and that tackling this aporia does not in itself qualify something as art, nor make it interesting.
There is an argument to be made on behalf of formalism, an honest accounting of what is lost when the exigencies of art are sacrificed at the altar of argument, or traded for the temporary satisfaction of a point well made. (“If, of course, one wants to be a publicist for something,” William Gass has written, “then, by all means, write your bad poems, your insufferable fictions, enjoy the fame that easy ideas often offer, ride the flatulent winds of change, fly like the latest fad to the nearest dead tree; but do not try to count the seasons of your oblivion.”) But this is not D’Agata’s concern. Rather, he is fixated on the elementary point that what can be observed is not always what is most true, and therefore verisimilitude should not be the essayist’s chief responsibility.
In both About a Mountain and The Lost Origins of the Essay, D’Agata offers plenty of rationalizations: there is no objective world to represent, anyway; the writer’s obligation is to empyreal truths, not mundane reality, especially since the real is, more than ever, just an amalgam of fictions. But none of these suggest that writers have much to gain by making things up, or that doing so is justified by self-expression. (The line of reasoning eventually devolves into children’s-book fare: “If information alone were what we considered ‘art,’ wouldn’t the encyclopedia be the world’s greatest book?”) Instead, they remind us that the art of the essay is not just a matter of formal invention or authorial cleverness but of the tension between fact and form, the observable world and the writer’s efforts to shape it.