Questioning the Lyric Essay

May 18, 2010 § 3 Comments

Over at The Critical Flame book review site, Scott Esposito offers a lengthy review of John D’Agata’s new book, About a Mountain, and along the way also offers an interesting discussion of D’Agata’s other writing and editing projects.  Eventually, the review works its way into a critical examination of the lyric essay, asking whether the writer’s ability to place any two events or images side-by-side can “lead to a perfunctory, skin-deep composition.”  Part of the problem, it seems (and others have slammed D’Agata for this recently), is that he is writing an extended lyric essay about verifiable, well-chronicled facts, not about dim memories or subjective, personal impressions.

Here’s an excerpt:

Exactly where does fine rhetoric slide into manipulation? The strength of D’Agata’s essays in Halls of Fame was their collage-like use of appropriated texts: because of their inherent diffusion, one rarely felt that the author was building toward an argument. Rather, the opposite: these essays had so many implications that their weakness was not one of over-determination but under-determination.

About a Mountain suffers from no such lack; here, D’Agata’s prose is focused like a laser. The implication is difficult to miss when, for example, D’Agata draws us through this chain of facts: respected journalist Jim McManus authors a book that accuses Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman of ordering a hit on a judge; Goodman sues McManus; the Las Vegas Review-Journal jumps to Goodman’s defense with a suspect line of argumentation; McManus’s publisher issues a full-page apology in the New York Times Book Review; Nevada state senator representing Vegas, Dina Titus, is quoted as saying “if it’s a touch of reality that isn’t pretty, then we want to get rid of it”; Mike Figgis was not permitted to film his Oscar-winning movie Leaving Las Vegas — about a man who goes to Vegas to drink himself to death — within the city’s limits; the excessive rate of suicide in Vegas is something the city strains to hide.

In this truncated version D’Agata’s point is fairly clear — Las Vegas knows how to deal with any reality not to its liking. Reading it in its full glory in About a Mountain, one comes away feeling that Vegas has just been railroaded by an expert prosecutor. It may very well be that Las Vegas has a serious, festering problem about facing up to its own dirty laundry — that’s certainly the feeling one gets after reading D’Agata’s four-page romp — but what have we really learned? Correlation, after all, is not causation, and what we have just read is four pages of correlation. The items D’Agata documents here occurred across nearly 20 years of time, and I imagine that within that time span a similarly damning collection of facts could be gathered for any number of major American cities.

One of the major faults with About a Mountain — indeed with the kind of writing that D’Agata has engaged in throughout his career — is that it relies too heavily on this kind of “proof.” That’s not to say that D’Agata’s perceptions of the world are invalid; nor is it to say that he always relies on this kind of sophistry to get his point across. There are long stretches in both of his books where his claims are valid and proportionate to the research. At other points though — for instance, in the “scream” chapter — D’Agata’s quasi-fictive inhabiting of consciousness presents a kind of cultural criticism through magical reasoning. At these points, it’s clear that his interpretation is just one of many.

There is no reason to complain insofar as About a Mountain is an investigation into why a seemingly happy teenager would lead himself to a horrible death; nor insofar as it evokes the existential disaster that must exist when a nation tries to fill a mountain sitting next to a major, exploding metropolitan area with nuclear waste. The problem, as I see it, comes when D’Agata begins to direct specific charges at Las Vegas without doing the necessary background work to make those charges stick.

It is dishonest to lead readers through a few pages-worth of cherry-picked facts and leave them with the impression that something has been proven. D’Agata, for example, adjusted the dates of the Yucca Mountain vote and Presley’s suicide, asserting that they happened on the same day when they were really three days apart. No matter that D’Agata acknowledges this in the back matter: you cannot argue about the world when you are manipulating the facts. A novelist could be justified in conflating two events, arguing that they were attempting a metaphorical evocation of truth, but an essayist driving an argument based on fact has no such luxury.

… Innovative essay-writing that D’Agata has so ably demonstrated thus far in his career is vital, but his method also exposes an important flaw in the kind of “lyric” essay that writers like he and David Shields promote. The lyric essay is a powerful form, but D’Agata’s work too often shows that it can lead to a perfunctory, skin-deep composition.

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** The full review essay can be found here.

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