Instead of watching the Oscars last night, I picked up this longform essay, an often beautiful, obsessive examination of the plans to bury nuclear waste in Yucca mountain, outside Las Vegas.*
Of course, it's not really
about the mountain. Aboutness is a problem interrogated in the book, which emerges as a central narrative suspense for the book, too. D'Agata loves to let (mis)information collide -- watching CSPAN coverage of the debate around Yucca, he records the serial assertion of numbers and data, all contradictory, all of it thrown into the record as fact. His narrative often brilliantly juxtaposes a public rhetoric (the docent "educator" at a Yucca information site, expounding to touring schoolchildren about safety measures) with the researcher's revelations (one extended attempt to discover where they'd come up with the claim that 10,000 years is the necessary period for safety).** One could easily delight in--or work up a lathering indignant rage about--D'Agata's incisive deconstruction of our our political approach to public welfare.
But it is also a lovely exploration of the culture of Las Vegas, of the complexities of language (another extended riff engages the problem of putting a warning sign on the mountain, a sign meant to last--i.e., be understood--for 10,000 years), and--ultimately--of the complexities of understanding death.
He reconstructs a line from T.S. Eliot toward the end, about the ways we confuse information with knowledge, and knowledge with wisdom -- and the book enacts such difficulties, but artfully shapes our discoveries. Great writing, very good book.
*Insert gag comparing nuclear waste and the polluting effects of Hollywood puffery and p.r.
**One of the many delights of the book is to trace D'Agata's discoveries -- to get caught in asking person, after person, after person. So I'm hesitant to spoil things. But what he discovers, after many people refuse to engage, is that 10,000 was more a rhetorical device than a scientific fact. The scientists had, in fact, argued the necessity of securing the place for 1,000,000 years. But that's a scary number, while 10,000 is appropriately stern and effectively large enough--to make people feel like the issues are being taken seriously. Which they aren't--the patent absurdities (the impossibility of securing this waste for 10,000 years, let alone 1,000,000; the thinking which leads to public assertions of 'fact'--thereafter tossed about with foolish confidence, in foolish contexts) are pursued with deadpan clarity by D'Agata.