John D’Agata’s About a Mountain is, among other things, a study of political myopia, nuclear threat and activism coalescing at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, 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 voice is as direct as his mental journeys 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, 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.