by Weston Cutter
True: seven years ago, one of the first books I ever got to review was John D’Agata’s stunning, mind-changing, genre-shifting/-defining Next American Essay. It’s one of maybe four essential anthologies I can think of; it’s for sure the best non-fiction anthology ever, and I can’t imagine the insanely great book that’d have to come along to unseat it.
Also true: I’ve read maybe ten graphic novels in my entire life, and I’m beginning to realize that I’ve held back on them because…well, I don’t know. Certainly something of it’s my BS snobbery re: pictures on the page of a book, but that’s not everything. I think, in all honesty, that I haven’t read graphic novels because, in a way, I haven’t known how.
And keeping to the truth thing: both John D’Agata and Josh Neufeld are, with their books The Lost Origins of the Essay and A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, involved in teaching readers how to read. If that sounds at all patronizing, I’d encourage you to try to remember the books that’ve meant the most to you, and to remember that almost all of them taught you something new not just about the world, or language, but about how to read to begin with.
D’Agata’s is the easier of the two to parse, at least for me: there may be nobody working better or harder to push at perceived notions of what an essay is. Just as intimidating biographical background: he’s edited two anthologies now; he wrote Halls of Fame and has a book coming about Yucca Mountain (his Iowa bio site [yes, he teaches Creative Nonfiction at the U of Iowa--the Writer's Workshop] says the book’ll be called The Lifespan of a Fact, but Amazon and the Norton catalog say it’ll be called About a Mountain); he’s an editor at Seneca Review.
All of which is impressive enough, but the trait that makes D’Agata a national treasure is his restlessness; not unlike dear old unstoppable Eliot Weinberger, D’Agata somehow perfectly balances the drive for novelty and strangeness—for experimentation—with an aesthetic appeal that makes his work, both as an author and as an editor (though it’d likely be more fair to call his task in the anthologies more akin to a curator) freakishly readable and fun. For those who haven’t dipped at all into the anthologies (both, for the record, published by the world’s best press), D’Agata writes directly to the reader, as guide, before each essay. From the first such entry in Lost Origins, titled “To The Reader”
“It’s embarrassing, of course, to think nonfiction destroyed the world, especially since some readers are still suspicious of the form: a genre that is merely a dispensary of data—not a true expression of one’s dreams, ideas, or fears. But I think this misperception is prevalent today because we haven’t yet laid claim to an alternative tradition. Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art? It’s not very clear sometimes. So this is a book that will try to offer the reader a clear objective: I am here in search of art. I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce.”
Take a second to sit back and gasp at the audacious honesty of that—D’Agata’s willingness to admit the lack of clarity inherent in reading nonfiction; the gutsy staking of a claim that is that last sentence. Take a second, if you want, to consider why you yourself read nonfiction, what you want from the form.
I don’t know if I’ve already had so much Kool-Aid that the conclusion’s foregone for me, but, honestly, D’Agata’s Lost Origins of the Essay seems as surprising and encouraging a book as I can conceive of. Like the best work (art or music or poetry or whatever), you’re somehow compelled, though the work, to wonder about stuff, and then you’re somehow given not answers but examples or ideas which resonate with the questions and curiosities you’ve been introduced to. That’s a dicey and convoluted way of saying: I’ve never read any Heraclitus before, but I have now, and somehow, pages and pages later, I felt some similar flame running through Yoshida Kenko’s In all things I yearn for the the past, and, even later, felt some shocking, wild and connecting element in Michael Butor’s Egypt (which might be the best essay in the book, if one was gonna get silly enough to try to even use that word).
Every single essay in this book is worth the price of the book itself, but the chief and cohesive magic, I think, is D’Agata’s. One of those dumb litmus tests that seems occasionally to be run is the question “what’ll be read in 50 years?” If it’s not D’Agata’s anthologies, we’ll be in bigger trouble than we need to be.
And then there’s Josh Neufeld‘s A.D., which was one of the best reads I’ve had in some time for all sorts of reasons. First and simplest, the thing’s just stunningly good-looking, is well-drawn and -put-together, has been given great treatment by Pantheon, etc.
And the story—who doesn’t still want to hear about Katrina? Without getting too political, has there been a greater source of domestic shame in the last decade plus? Could there be? I feel like the general awareness of what happened is “there was a big storm,” which, while certainly true, doesn’t come close to what happened there.
So, of course: thank god for Neufeld, and for Dave Eggers, and for everybody else doing good work to get all aspects of the narrative of that particular and horrific event disseminated. Here’s a dangerous and tricky question: what do you remember about Katrina? Remember people went to the Superdome? Remember that police at a bridge turned survivors away, forcing them to back to New Orleans? Remember the supposed roving bands of gangs and murderers and etc?
All of these questions and recollections: all of them are infinitely more complex than what’s officially recalled or recorded. Those bands of gangs and armed folks? Neufeld’s presenting them in a different view, a (maybe) new light. Those people who stayed in the city despite the Mayor’s urging for everyone to leave? They weren’t all hopelessly silly and dumb or anything else: they simply made decisions based on info anyone who wasn’t from NO couldn’t totally get.
Which is the real magic Neufeld’s pulled in his book: he’s giving the storm in a new (to me) context. It’s got lots to do with the fact that this is a graphic novel: the temptation to simply read the words and, therefore, digest the ‘story’ is fine, but flawed: the narrative—words and pictures—unfolds in such a meticulous, inter-woven way that I can’t imagine a straight non-fiction book coming close to packing the same whallop.
Plus there’s a question of speed. Graphic novels should, I thought, take less time to read than a regular novel would. While that’s to some degree true, I was awed by how Neufeld’s complex, engaging drawings forced me to move more slowly—how I was forced to quite honestly read more than I was used to reading (if you’re used to reading graphic novels, you already know all of this).