Here We Go Again: NYT Reviewer Calls Out D’Agata on Composites and Conflation

March 1, 2010 § 1 Comment

This time around, the “how creative is creative nonfiction” question is being raised in reference to John D’Agata’s About a Mountain.  To be honest, we haven’t had the chance to read the book yet, but if the NYT review quoted below is accurate, changing the date of the poor kid’s suicide is an odd move indeed.   Surely this “composites and conflation” controversy will play out in the press, at AWP panels, and so forth, over the next year.  We are very curious to hear D’Agata respond, if he chooses to do so.

From the New York Times Review:

At the heart of a crucial section, D’Agata writes, “There is no explanation for the confluence that night of the Senate vote on Yucca Mountain and the death of a boy who jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino.” But the accompanying endnote reads: “I should clarify here that I am conflating the date of the Yucca debate and the suicide that occurred at the Stratosphere Hotel. In reality, these two events were separated by three days.”

Maybe there’s a claim that since the Obama administration is shutting down Yucca anyway, and since D’Agata is sensitive beyond a fault to the Presley family, and since the book is so aesthetically impressive, there’s no harm in doctoring the dates — especially since doing so gives the book a better hook, and thereby (perhaps) a better chance at finding readers and keeping Levi’s memory alive. And, absolutely, all kinds of licenses are taken in the name of creative nonfiction. As D’Agata himself writes, in his introduction to “The Lost Origins of the Essay”: “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.”

With “About a Mountain,” D’Agata goes further, attempting to create art through the exploration of what happens when we “misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.” But he shimmies too close to the flame. In pursuing his moral questions, he plays fast and loose with a verifiable historical date, one involving a kid’s suicide. He does this just for the sake of a tight narrative hook. To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites — a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.

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