Some Questions Asked to/about a Book I Need to Read Soon

John D’Agata writes books in and about nonfiction that get me very interested in and excited for the genre. After the first generation of “New Journalists” who just decided to get out and write great, engaging, personal, subjective nonfiction without dickering over the name of this genre, and then after their 2nd-gen acolytes who made their careers precisely through such careful dickering and promulgation, here’s our 3rd-gen go-to guy, whose nonfiction work seems so smartly disinterested in what (other than its author’s own assertion) makes it nonfiction. And yet his work is so journalistic. By blending and maybe even disregarding genre, D’Agata’s found a way to move the genre forward.

His new book seeks connections between two public events in Nevada: the U.S. Senate’s debate on whether to use Yucca Mountain as the dumping ground for our nation’s nuclear waste, and a 16-year-old’s suicide accomplished by jumping from the observation tower of a Vegas hotel. There is, of course, no connection between these events. The boy’s suicide was not a call against nuclear energy. And yet this is the job of the writer: to look around and make some sense by piecing elements together.

The suicide came three days after the Senate vote, or maybe three days before. D’Agata made the decision, in writing his book, to set them on the same day. An endnote reveals “the truth of the matter,” but all the same, New York’s literary Wunderkind for Q’s 1 & 2 of 2008, Charles Bock, sees this as “a problem” in his Times review of the book:

In pursuing his moral questions, [D’Agata] plays fast and loose with a verifiable historical date, one involving a kid’s suicide. He does this just for the sake of a tight narrative hook. To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites — a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.

The problem is Bock’s, right? I haven’t read this book yet, but I can’t imagine that D’Agata’s seeking to capitalize off readers not knowing what to think. Instead he’s probably trying to think a way through some events that happened someplace, and the clearest way to present these thoughts, for him, was by shifting a date a few days.

It’s a puzzle worth thinking toward a solution for. Two events at the heart of your book happen three days apart. What do you gain by asserting they happened on the same day? Maybe nothing other than the comforting aura of coincidence that is so much the stuff of fiction. But what do you lose? Readers like Bock, I guess, who I want to argue are coming to nonfiction for the wrong reasons. A Google search is all it takes to tell you when these events took place and how many days apart. If handed the responsibility of presenting its readers with facts and nothing but, nonfiction can only stumble into a quick obsolescence.

I don’t know what to think…. Pandora’s box is wide open. C’mon, Charles. It’s not a move I’m comfortable with as a nonfiction writer, but I’d never fault a nonfiction book for conflating two contemporaneous dates. I don’t read nonfiction for “the” truth, I read it for the writer’s.

2 thoughts on “Some Questions Asked to/about a Book I Need to Read Soon”

  1. there is a version of the truth that d’agata found by fudging the dates, but another version of the truth would be found if he simply acknowledged and explored the three-day gap. I’m partial to the latter, because I think it is a more interesting, more challenging exercise. There is great value in constraints, and sticking to verifiable facts is a worthwhile, fruitful constraint.

  2. Oh, and maybe don’t write off my whole generation of nonfiction writers in one sentence, okay? We’re not dead yet. (Insert smile here.)

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