(Maybe Strange) New Waves

by Weston Cutter

I’ve rhapsodized about John D’Agata already, but I’d like to do so now with specificity: his new book, About a Mountain, is in several ways great even if, yes, it may be frustrating for its conflation of certain factual events (Brock’s Sunday NYTimes half-takedown, for instance)(but if you’re gonna read Brock, too, you’ve got to read Gilbert, here, as tonic)(I get Brock’s frustration, but I think he’s off; I think he’s trying to use a logical appeal to an emotional/structural question, and that, at least rhetorically, seems unfair).

What’s most important to know about D’Agata’s book is that regardless of the objective slipperiness you may or may not feel, the burning central question he’s addressing in his book is riveting and worth all of our attention, and that question is: how does info get transmitted, get communicated? (see here–a recent interview) Ostensibly about Yucca Mountain and spent nuclear waste and whatever system will need to be invented to hip future generations to the fact that there’s wildly, hugely dangerous stuff buried within (imagine a life-almost-ending catastrophe and consider our present responsibility to the future to let them know about the nuclear shit we’re unable to clean up; imagine what the sign would have to say, or look like, and/or in what language[s]). Of course this stuff has to do with semantics and symbols, has to do with information encoded and transmitted in certain ways…

…which has everything to do with the darker, harder part of D’Agata’s book, which is threaded throughout (the whole book’s threaded: D’Agata’s not a straight-line-follower; things meander, and satisfyingly/beautifully) his considerations of Yucca, of the government’s decision-making process about Yucca, about Vegas and its birthday, and that darker/harder part has everything to do with the fact that Las Vegas has the highest suicide rate in the country. And of course the photographed and understood feel of Vegas is basically anti-suicidal (especially if we’re thinking Greek, thinking Eros/Thanatos), but so then why? What info is being transmitted or telegraphed to citizens of that city that ups the odds of fatal jumps, of swerved vehicles, of etc.?

There is of course no answer. More important, the answer itself (even if there was one) wouldn’t matter—the glory of D’Agata’s book is how he crafts his question and consideration. It’s a stunning book, and for anyone who isn’t aware, the new generation of nonfiction masters (if we’re looking at Conover and Vollmann and LeBlanc and Wallace and Weschler as the last generation) is here, and D’Agata’s right at the very front of the pack (tied, I’d argue, with Monson, who’s Vanishing Point‘ll be here covered closer to publication date).

And away entirely from those suicides and that spent nuclear fuel, there’s Paul Austin’s Something for the Pain, subtitled Compassion and Burnout in the E.R. It actually may be a book you could imagine or see coming: Austin’s been an E.R. doctor for decades, and he writes with a ton of grace and decency and awareness about his limits—as Dr., as person—and the variables that absolutely/occasionally F his self equation.

What was fascinating, in reading Austin’s book in the same spell I’ve been reading lots of other interesting nonfiction (Monson, Conover, Shields, D’Agata, Z. Smith), is how much Austin’s book can be read as a step one to Shields’s or Monson’s step two: Austin’s book, of course, gathers its strength and steam based personal narrative, based on Austin’s reflections and recollections and stories. It’s literally impossible (or was for me, anyway) to read the book in the shadows of the other nonfiction I’ve been lately imbibing without fundamentally asking questions of self, of how meaning and info’s transmitted, etc.

All of this probably is way harrier than it needs to be: Austin’s book is so damn good it’s hard to not just be sucked along—not just because of compelling stories (which, how could they not be? they’re connected by emergency), but because Austin’s decent, and kind, and he listens and cares. Even just sitting here, picking it up and paging through, I’m caught re-reading stuff I’ve already read and liked. The juke of the joint is this: Austin’s takes and tales from inside the E.R. are incredible, and touching, and if there’s any evidence necessary that MDs should be given courses in understanding illness as narrative and in treating people as whole stories instead of just as the results of batteries and tests, it’s Austin’s Something for the Pain. We’re living in a rich moment for medical writing—Gawande, Groopman, as ever the granddaddy Sacks—and Austin’s a jewel in the bunch, and this book’s necessary and redeeming in more ways than any reader or hospital-goer may have the audacity to even hope for.

And finally there’s Shields, whose Reality Hunger is (it says it right there on the cover) a manifesto. I don’t know what I can say about this book—plenty’s already been said, plus it’s a book which seems almost designed and intended to resist any sort of reviewerly impulse. The book’s idea/message seems somehow both revelatory and obvious: Shields’s text is basically a rocket directed at reviewers or those tempted toward taking umbrage at things like, well, at things like D’Agata conflating certain facts in his book (or, maybe, in the story of this 17 year old German girl and her ‘mixing’ or plaigarism, depending on your footing).

What’s great about Shields’s book is that the argument’s propulsive and strong, and the book’s shattered and organized in textlet-bits, bite-sized, and the numbered sections carry the reader quickly and forcefully (in good ways) while also allowing us (and forcing us, sort of) to make imaginative/intellectual leaps along with Shields. And the bulk of the book’s purpose centers on the distinction between self and text, between what we are and what we write, between authorship and authenticity and ownership (one of the reasons this book feels like an oh, obviously type thing is because, for instance, we’ve read Paul Malizewski’s Fakers within the past year). Of course a book like this is necessary and key in mammoth ways: in Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, though there’s unfortunately no reprinting of the essay she wrote for the Guardian (Fail Better, here), there’s plenty that lets the reader in on the idea that an author’s self, an author’s ability to be a fully present and empathetic person, haseverything to do with that author’s execution of a novel or piece of nonfiction which can e- or solicit the same empathy from us, and of course Wallace said similar stuff, ditto Gardner and etc. etc. back forever. Shields is involved with something similar, though less morally loaded: just that our notions of ‘ownership’ and ‘authenticity’ are a bit antiquated, both calendrically and culturally, and it’s probably time to let ourselves move on.

The point is: Shields’s book is somehow both a great wake-up shout and simultaneously a yeah, of course shrug. We need new forms; in this age of selfhood being the ultimate trump (a facebook page and people reading yr tweets as a form of existence), we need to let go of some of the harder-drawn and sharper lines we’ve used in our classification systems. Shields’s Reality Hunger is likely gonna be just the first of many molotov cocktails tossed toward the aging edifice of our present forms.