John D’Agata’s exploration of Yucca Mountain—maybe the most studied rock on Earth—is about much more than a mountain. In a carefully drawn, book-length essay, D’Agata questions our capacity to know things, and asks what misunderstanding that capacity will do to our tenure on the planet.
“Suicide,” said Las Vegas Coroner Ron Flud, “is the most threatening thing that we can encounter as a culture. It’s a manifestation of doubt, the ultimate unknowable.” When John D’Agata volunteered to answer distress calls for a suicide hotline, he was told that there are four essential questions to ask the caller: “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where.” You do not want, he was told, to know “why.”
About a Mountain is interested in “why.” In fact, D’Agata titles his final three chapters with the word, and he uses it to pry apart two stories: the story of Yucca Mountain, the site outside Las Vegas proposed for storing the nation’s spent nuclear waste, and a teenage boy’s inexplicable suicide leap from the top of Vegas’ tallest hotel. D’Agata ushers us through these stories with a dizzying amount of information, some of which seems to contradict and double back on itself until it stops making sense. We learn, for instance, that nuclear waste carted into Yucca will remain radioactive for 10,000 years—a number that turns out to be more rhetorical than scientific. We hear of the forceful, unfounded optimism of Las Vegas—a place with an unmistakably shrinking water supply that still doesn’t “take ‘no’ for an answer”; a place where you can pay to watch hotels implode over six-course dinners. And we’re ushered through a thicket of conflicting reports and official deliberations on Yucca’s safety—all of which erode in the face of that number: 10,000.