Lying About A Mountain

John D’Agata’s book About  A Mountain is a wide-ranging book that delves into the culture of Las Vegas during the time he helps his mother move there. At the same time, tons of controversy had been building up around Yucca Mountain potentially being used as a nuclear waste storage site. D’Agata weaves in vast amounts of research with a meandering narrative, covering topics such as the experiences of him and his mother during her move, the life of a boy who committed suicide in Las Vegas, and a school field trip to Yucca Mountain. But, in the end, D’Agata includes in his notes that he had “conflated time in this way for dramatic effect only” and “also changed subjects’ names or combined a number of subjects into a single ‘composite’ character.”

That being said, how might this statement about the exaggerated facts and characters change a a reader’s interpretation of this text? It is considered a work of non-fiction after all. Does this take away from the credibility of the writer’s authorial position? After reading D’Agata admit to his slight deviation from truth, I can’t deny that I was surprised. However, I also can’t say that it takes anything away from the book as a whole. In creative non-fiction, an author must choose what sort of liberties they may take in their writing in order to get their message out to the reader more clearly.

One instance where D’Agata merges several real people that he encountered to create one persona within the text was the real estate agent for his mother named Ethan. In the notes, it is revealed that Ethan was actually a composite character of two of the real estate agents that D’Agata and his mother interacted with. This is a fairly insignificant detail, but still one the had been altered. Another exaggerated detail is the time frame that the events in the book occur in. In the book, the entire narrative plays out during the course of the summer that D’Agata moves his mother out west when in reality, it took much longer. I think that John D’Agata takes necessary risks that improve his book’s immersive nature and provide a more coherent story that the audience can follow.

John D’Agata’s use of conflated details, and admitting to it, immediately made me think about Lauren Slater. In Slater’s “metaphorical memoir” called Lying, she mentions her compulsion to stretch the truth. Several times throughout her book, she turns the focus onto the validity of her own narrative and the ways in which she misconstrues the truth. With this in mind, D’Agata’s employment of hyperbole and slight misrepresentations seems almost trivial.

D’Agata only uses the narrative as a vessel in which to produce the facts he uncovered and his expansive research about Yucca Mountain and Las Vegas. The book is literally called About A Mountain, implying that just maybe this book will include something about a mountain. However, titles can be misleading at times, so it isn’t exactly obvious. Even with the shorten time frame and only one realtor instead of two, I found that D’Agata’s book was still able to portray a non-fictitious account  of Yucca Mountain and various aspects of life in Las Vegas. And if he hadn’t actually included his exaggeration in the notes, I still wouldn’t care. Worrying too much about the categorization of a work will only distract us and take away from its overall message.

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