Jimmy's Reviews > About a Mountain

About a Mountain by John D'Agata
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's review
Jan 20, 2011

did not like it
bookshelves: poetic-essay, male, year-2010s
Recommended to Jimmy by: Ben Marcus
Read from June 09 to 11, 2011

Update 2/16/2012: Wow I just read this Slate article about John D'Agata and his fact checker. Apparently they had heated debates over whether facts matter. D'Agata throws the word 'art' around like some trump-card and was generally acting like an asshole. I don't disagree with his point: facts can be changed in the service of art. However, I don't think D'Agata can justify that what he wrote is art! I read the essay in question (it's actually the last chapter of this here book) and I would say that he didn't change facts in the service of art, but in the service of sensationalism! Besides, his writing style is atrocious. I have no problem with other artists fudging the truth, when they are actually making good art: Ryszard Kapuściński, Geoff Dyer, Gontran de Poncis, etc. Or filmmakers: Herzog, Erroll Morris, Kiarostami, etc. But a hack job like D'Agata? Give me a break! Sorry for the rant, but this article just pissed me off.

Original Review: John D'Agata is no writer. He may be smart and he may have his eye on the pulse of new innovative writing and he may even be able to talk intelligently about it, but he is no writer. There is a simple explanation for this. John D'Agata has no ear for language.

At this point, you may be flabbergasted. You may be wondering "but Jimmy, how can you say that about someone who is admired by Ben Marcus, Blake Butler, David Ulin and many other innovative trendsetting writers?" Easy, they are wrong. It is easy to be caught up in a provocative subject, presented in an innovative new way.

But the sentences! The words! Even the most fact-driven boring newspaper writer should have an ear for language, a sense of how to create rhythm and sounds for a desired effect. Or for the opposite of that effect, to shatter rhythm and sound in an attempt to undermine poetry. But here there is no sustained strategy in either direction. Each sentence clunks against my ear, each syllable losing flight in the dead air.

In a book not so much about a mountain, but about a form (the form of a mountain? the form of language?) you would think John D'Agata would try to pay some attention to his words, sentences, paragraphs. This is all the more heinous given that John D'Agata is supposed to be the artful essay writer, as opposed to the un-artful essay writers who care too much about subject matter and not enough about 'style'. And yet, I will take many other essay writers concerned about subject matter over John D'Agata. At least most of them have no pretensions of literary value. And some of them can actually write a good sentence.

John D'Agata's sentences, when they are short and declarative are transparent in the way they are trying to build momentum. And yet no momentum is built. The air goes straight out. The rhythm is decidedly off, and the details are trite, even predictable. There is a particular art to writing a good list, of the predictable vs. the unpredictable, the length and rhythm and sound of the words. John D'Agata does not know anything about this art.

When his sentences are long, they end up tripping all over themselves. You have a sense that John D’Agata has no idea why he is writing a long sentence over a short sentence or vice versa. You have a sense that he is just throwing “style” on the page when he has no idea what it is, or how it works. And yet I would also argue that this book is completely style-less. Style must exist organically. What we have here is an attempt to write an unconventional essay. But what's evident is that John D’Agata doesn’t have that much to say. So he inflates the pages with words, with lists of words that may have associative ties to the subject at hand, in the hopes of hitting an emotional register or two. This strategy might be bearable if John D’Agata could write.

Dare I say the word “sloppy”? Yes, there is something sloppy in this mess of a book. I was expecting so much from it because the subject matter was so interesting. Yet John D’Agata manages to take this premise and make it mind numbingly boring, brushing over its surface with his obvious observations. His writing approaches the superficiality of the city of Las Vegas itself. His attempts to relate it back to his life, his mother, the suicide victim, etc. were just that: attempts. I could only feel the excruciating effort in these attempts, not an opening up to the possibility of discovery through language but a feeling of closed-up-ness. There is no excitement, no depth, and no connection to any of the characters or even to the writer’s own voice at all.

Just for the record, I have nothing against the new essay or the blending of personal and historical, fact and fiction, etc. In fact, I have been reading an anthology that John D'Agata himself edited: The Next American Essay. And I really like some of the pieces so far (Joan Didion's piece in the book does something similar to what John D'Agata is trying to do here, but much more effectively). I even have a shelf of poetic essays. So what I object to is not the form, but how it is executed.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Eh?Eh! (new) - added it

Eh?Eh! Yes, so many lists.

message 2: by Eddie (new)

Eddie Watkins I'd love to read some of these bad sentences, if you can stomach typing them out.

message 3: by Jimmy (last edited Jun 13, 2011 09:10AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Jimmy I thought about including some excerpts. But the thing is that they aren't all so bad taken individually. It's just that over the course of the book, over many mediocre sentences, you realize that there is an aimlessness in them, they don't work together to build anything. Or they build for a while and then drop the ball. Their mediocrity builds up, but the momentum of its totality continues deflating.

That said, here's an example of a long sentence, obviously crafted, but awkward with effort:
And [the Las Vegas community] would come together later, in the culmination of the city's centennial celebrations, in order to watch the implosion of the Stardust Hotel, the oldest remaining casino on the Las Vegas Strip, an event that attracted three TV news copters, two dozen articles in local newspapers, special rates for hotel rooms overlooking the implosion, a six-course Implosion Dinner-for-Two, and 19,462 more people than the 538 Summerlin neighbors who convened that sunny morning in a green bushy park in order to prove that Vegas had community spirit, an effort that they made on behalf of the city, but without the news copters or the dinners-for-two or the 363 extra group huggers that they needed to unseat the current record-holding huggers, the 900 employees of Goldman Sachs in New York.
And here are some boring facts about what will have to be replaced or abandoned in the case of a nuclear disaster (the list is very long):
The bolts connecting each sign to the spaghetti bowl’s sides.
Every nut that secures the bolts.
Every washer that goes between them.
Every traffic lamp and bulb and post.
Every sidewalk square and concrete curb.
Every newspaper stand.
Every call girl ad.
Also, I didn’t mention this in the review, but something is very smug in the author’s voice. He is making a point but not directly saying it. He is showing it with his examples that are supposed to be subtle but are in fact completely transparent and obvious. You know exactly where he is going with them. His points are hammered home so hard that I found them to be practically didactic, not from any overt telling, but from his smug tone.

message 4: by Eddie (new)

Eddie Watkins I know nothing about this book, or even this author, but is it possible he was trying to "embody" the nature of Las Vegas - the pointless visual superfluity and the tedium of gambling itself - in his writing of it?

Jimmy I'm not sure. It's certainly possible, though. I think that's called the pathetic fallacy, i.e. writing about boredom by being as boring as possible. Not sure if that strategy ever really works, unless the reader is particularly masochistic.

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