From Publishers Weekly
An exemplar of the literary movement toward linking the genres of poetry and the essay, D'Agata, a recent University of Iowa nonfiction and poetry MFA graduate, blends both to create an inviting, elliptical puzzle of American life. In seven pieces (which have appeared previously in such journals as Paris Review and Ploughshares), D'Agata examines disparate American subjects that include the revered (Hoover Dam), the unknown (outsider artist Henry Darger) and the merely spectacular (the beam of light at Las Vegas's Luxor Hotel). Most of the lyric essays are structured as journeys, in which the melancholy narrator searches for meaning through others, like the founder of the Flat Earth Society and the Luxor light guide. But he finds their offerings limited and unsatisfactory: they explain different ways the world works but provide little solace. Similarly, "an essay about the ways in which we matter" surveys America's approximately 3,000 Halls of Fame, including the Billiards Hall of Fame and the Shuffleboard Hall of Fame, revealing longing and family discord. Although D'Agata's Hoover Dam essay pays homage to Joan Didion's "At the Dam," and his "Collage History of Art, by Henry Darger" spurs thoughts of Joseph Mitchell's "Joe Gould's Secret," D'Agata eschews the structure of the traditional essay, in which meaning accrues from paragraphs of prose. Instead, he offers a work that can and should be reentered several times from various points to generate effect, whether unsettledness about the world or pleasure at D'Agata's artistry. Like poetry, all of what D'Agata offers takes a while to sink in. (Jan.) Forecast: Blurbed by writers as diverse as Annie Dillard and John Grisham, this book may gain an MFA-school following, in which case mounds of imitators will be leaving lots of white space in their essays attempting to achieve what D'Agata does seemingly without effort. An author reading tour and national advertising will help bring this title to the attention of readers who like to keep up with the cutting edge of literature.
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The essay is an endlessly malleable form, and D'Agata, a young writer with stellar credentials, stretches and tweaks it until it is more poetry than prose. Playful and bright, he riffs on the theme of fame with what sounds like irony but which is actually camouflage for a poignancy born of D'Agata's openness to all that he sees and eagerness to decode it. He alternates between quirky lists of wonders of the world, gentle personal musings, and accounts of cross-country jaunts to visit various curiosities, including obscure halls of fame (ventriloquists, drag races), a Nevada town obsessed with aliens, and such odd individuals as the president of the Flat Earth Society. Greek myths engage him deeply, and his cubist word-portrait of Martha Graham is fresh and surprisingly tender. D'Agata also ponders the bizarre creations of Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger and turns a visit to Las Vegas' Luxor Hotel into a meandering inquiry into our animal needs for light and sleep. D'Agata's poetic essays reveal a keen sensibility and promise even finer writings in the future. Donna SeamanCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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