The elasticity of storytelling, the ambiguity inherent to the reader-writer relationship, the lies that tell the truth: these are but a few of the many phenomena that underscore the chaos and depth of creative nonfiction. As a result, when we pursue literary order—a complex nonfictional typology in this case, if you will—we meet a certain arbitrariness in our classification of what may or may not preclude texts from the genre of nonfiction to begin with.
Take, for instance, from beginning to end, the many occurrences surrounding John D’Agata’s trip to Las Vegas with his mother. It is undoubted that he experienced unimportant and even contradictory moments that would harm About a Mountain if included in a final publication, and it should be obvious why he doesn’t use them—because he is constructing a narrative, and a narrative doesn’t exist in the world without our attribution of it, so we are forced to pick and choose our individual world of textual storytelling. As a result, he leaves out details that might harm its continuity, its meaning, its basic nature as a story. A question then emerges: where do we draw the line between nonfiction and fiction in regards to the included, excluded, and manipulated details of a particular text? To avoid randomness, such a line must depend on a criterion, and a criterion concerning nonfiction should, of course, concern truth. But what the hell is truth then? The question cannot be answered without dipping our feet into the sphere of ambiguity and subjectivity—instead, as I see it, it’s more intellectually honest to show examples of truth rather than define it right out, which in the end gives us more tangible leeway for discussion.
This then leads us back to D’Agata, who, in his conflation of time and character, forsakes parts of his overarching textual truth for a more tight-knit, lucid narration that gets to the reader in a more profound and illustrative manner than otherwise. Exaggeration of particular phenomena is unavoidable as an author, whether that be in regards to underestimating or overestimating the details explored in a story: this is because narratives are wholly dependent on their narrators, and each of us are products of what we see, what we don’t see, and what we ultimately choose to document in the grand scheme of our artistic ventures. We can’t include everything, and what we do include must be concise and sincere to the experiences behind us. That “Ethan” and “Wally” are composite characters of the same respective occupation does not betray the nature of Las Vegas realtors and Yucca Mountain tour guides; that some of D’Agata’s interviews took place over the course of two sessions instead of one does not betray the knowledge ascertained; that he spent three months as a volunteer for the suicide prevention line in Las Vegas instead of a lesser amount of time does not betray his experience, his perception, and the story that branches from there. Anyways, that D’Agata provides a disclaimer at the end of About a Mountain telling us of this conflation, in my mind, reconciles any manipulation in the first place because it is puts the subsequent step in our hands; that is, it allows us to reframe the story in the more strict and literal light, as it occurred, when it occurred, dismantling any claims of dishonesty on his part.