The mountain as a massive metaphor

At the end of his exquisite new book, "About a Mountain," John D'Agata acknowledges that things are not exactly as they seem.

Ostensibly a story about Yucca Mountain, “About a Mountain” is really a meditation on the nature of fact and fantasy, a riff on Las Vegas that gets beneath the city’s layers of cliche. It is also a book that seeks to tell us a little something about time and understanding, even as it admits that these concepts are too big, too amorphous, for us to wrap our minds around.

And in “About a Mountain,” D’Agata has found a nearly perfect nexus to investigate our post-millennial concerns. Beginning with a bit of personal history, the book quickly shifts focus, detailing the battle over nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain while questioning whether such containment even can be safely accomplished.

The concept behind Yucca, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is to create a secure repository where waste will be stored for 10,000 years. The very notion of 10,000 years, then, is a leap of faith, a kind of temporal metaphor.

Metaphor, as it turns out, is what D’Agata is after, and after he gets going he finds it everywhere.

It emerges in the fact that Las Vegas, which is supposedly all about illusion, has the highest suicide rate in the United States, a statistic almost no official will discuss because of the negative image it portrays.

It emerges in the atomic history of the region, where nuclear tests were once viewed from resort hotels. Even the harshest realities have a metaphorical component, if only for what they say about the things we take for granted – about, again, our faith.

“About a Mountain,” or more accurately, for any endeavor that tries to make sense of the world, It’s all about interpretation, which is why it makes sense for D’Agata to conflate certain details in the service of a larger point of view. We are here and do not know why, nor do we know what the future holds.

“About a Mountain”

By John D’Agata

W.W. Norton

236 pages, $23.95