by Whet Moser
I was surprised and heartened to see that John D'Agata is making two appearances today as part of Creative Nonfiction Week: 3:30 at Film Row Cinema, 1104 S. Wabash, eighth floor (panel discussion), and 6:30 PM, Ferguson Auditorium, 600 S. Michigan (reading). If you're really looking for creative nonfiction, he's a great choice. A great choice for better or worse; let me explain:
His collection of original essays, Halls of Fame, is a difficult book, sometimes frustrating, sometimes rewarding. One of the things I appreciate most about D'Agata, even when I wonder why he's doing a certain thing, is that he's obsessed with the form of the essay and really trying to push the boundaries of the genre. And the essay is an interesting thing, right now, to be an expert in. One one hand, you could argue that the genre is dying; on the other, you could argue that, with the rise of electronic media, more people are reading essays (broadly defined, but that's always been the case) than ever. And D'Agata is on the vanguard of how the genre is defined and conceived.
For instance: "Notes towards the making of a whole human being:" is a five-page essay about one of my alma maters, Deep Springs College, consisting of one run-on (but well-composed) sentence (technically one sentence with a five-page parenthetical). The conceit is that Deep Springs is a weird place (true) attended by odd, ambitious, sometimes pretentious people (true) who speak and write at length as part of the performative act of being a student there (true), "as if there were a fear in the desert like the fear at both ends of America since it started that if we were to pause to breathe, take a photo, send a postcard, set up camp for a spell in the middle of this great American periodic sentence westward, then we would lose our place on the trail...."
And D'Agata - who was a student there - captures a lot about the school. You could make the same point without the conceit, and as much as I like to write long sentences I wouldn't have used that approach, but it still works.
It is probably worth noting here that one of Deep Springs's most famous alumni is William Vollmann, whose encyclopedic, showy, obsessive style and peripatetic subject matter reminds me of D'Agata. In other words: I think D'Agata really does capture something about the school.
Another example: The title essay, "Halls of Fame: An Essay About the Ways In Which We Matter," has several pages of barbed wire brand names as part of the subsection "National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum of Freedom." Again, it's showy, encyclopedic, and a conceit - but that doesn't mean it doesn't work. Perhaps even better than actually writing about the significance of barbed wire in the settling of the West.
If Halls of Fame sounds a little too bonkers for you, he's also edited The Next American Essay (which I've read) and The Lost Origins of the Essay (which I haven't but it's on the list). The former has a good range, from stuff you've probably read (Joan Didion, John McPhee, Annie Dillard, David Foster Wallace) to people who you probably haven't, or at least I hadn't (Thalia Field, Mary Ruefle).
He has a new book due out next year, about Yucca Mountain, where I've been. One of the grains of salt you should take this with is that I share some of the same experiences and interests as D'Agata, so I'm going to be more inclined to find his work fascinating.
You might just think he's not a good writer. I think Sarah Vowell's take is reasonable:
"Like I said, there should be books like this—like D'Agata's Halls of Fame. I'm not sure how many of them I can stand to read. But it must be a testament to D'Agata's ingenuity that I've never felt quite so protective of a book that gets on my nerves."
I guess what I'm saying is: if you're interested in nonfiction, and particularly essays, he knows a lot, and will probably say interesting things today.