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A Non-review Combined With Thoughts On Vanishing Buildings
I started reading John D'Agata's HALLS OF FAME (Graywolf Press, 2001) before the vicious events of September 11th. It is a collection of essays that I was not certain I would be able to finish. The first section, Round Trip, focuses on the Hoover Dam, and not just the dam itself, but the dam as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Hold that idea a moment.

As far as HALLS OF FAME being non-fiction, you might as well toss any ideas you hold dear of what is meant by essay and non-fiction. We are in that tricky terrain of experimental writing once again, so all definitions are off. As the borders between essay and lyricism, journalistic writing and memoir blur, the chances of becoming lost increase. At times HALLS OF FAME reads distinctly like personalized fiction. I have begun to think that two patterns might apply to experimental writing in general: (1) try not to be clear wherever possible (2) make the reader work right up to the edge of alienation in order to understand the text.

The other complication is that John D'Agata may really be a poet. The book, though, is billed as essay. Poetry is the genre of paring away to reach the essential. Take Robert Frost's poem, Fire And Ice, "Some say the world will end in fire, some say ice..." Instantly, you are placed within the poem. An essay, though, invites elaboration. Phillip Lopate praises Mr. D'Agata on the book's jacket--a maximalist's intelligence with a minimalist's style. But I often felt left out, as if I'd been strung off on a tangent of impressions without the supporting facts as to where I was, what I was supposed to be considering or coming to see.

But when Mr. D'Agata hunkers down to a particular local, takes us with him on a readerly journey to places like, August Hall Of Fame: An Afterward On Heat, Baker, California (the world's tallest thermometer) or the Hall Of Fame Of Groom, Groom, Texas (home to the world's second largest cross), or the Hall Of Fame Of Them; Rachel, Nevada (aliens in the desert), or The American Police Hall of Fame, Miami, Florida (1881, Judge Roy Bean sentencing a Chicano to be hung, his corpse left to the vultures--ethnic slurs included), he's right on target in his own idiosyncratic take on the hard-to-believe-reality of out there America--hall of fame style.

Which brings me back to the Hoover Dam, a phenomenon worthy of anybody's list of wonders. Seen through that context, the sheer vastness of the engineering marvel comes home. We are notified of the original seven wonders through Antipater of Sidon (from his lost guidebook, c. 120 BC): "...and I tell you, as a scholar and as a wanderer and as a man devoted to the gods, they are and always will be the Seven Greatest Liberties man will ever take with Nature." That, centuries ahead of liberties like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Apollo Space Program, the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, Hoover Dam and, of course, the World Trade Center. Most of D'Agata's interviewees included the Twin Towers on their list of the seven modern wonders of the world. Remember, I read that part before September 11th. By that date, I had gone on to the rather murky section, Martha Graham, Audio Description Of. (Audio?)

With Martha, I had slowed down to the point of sleep. I apologize, but if I have to work that hard to read a book, my eye lids begin to take on poundage. I gathered Ms Graham had a thing with drink and that she treated her men badly. She had this bit with a red scarf that she spun in--famously--in one of her ballets, and maybe John D'Agata saw her perform the red scarf spin as a boy sometime around the time his mother left his father, but maybe he didn't and maybe his mother didn't leave his father. I was lost and tired and confused and at that moment I just didn't care.

Two high-jacked planes had sliced into the World Trade Towers like they were big, stacked cubes of soft, silver cheese. My aunt called me with the news. I was dragging a cup of coffee up to my desk when she phoned from her high rise in Manhattan. From the perch of my small roof garden I was able to see two long ribbons of black smoke exhaling from wounds in either tower. My view was of the top third of them beyond the Williamsburg Bridge. The gashes did not yet seem mortal. But then came big licks of flame and I thought, this is going to be ugly. Some of the black smoke turned white and began to billow from below, and when it cleared for a few seconds it became stunningly clear that only one tower was standing. Soon the other one sucked its breath and fell too; no fuss, no blow-out, no big bang, just folded up like a house of cards and was gone.

After that it was days before I could concentrate.

I couldn't figure out what to think. I'd look outside and see this toxic plume where the Trades used to poke into my skyscape. I never liked them, architecturally speaking. They were such ridiculously high buildings, and the WTC was not part of my stream. I swim the world of art, they were the epitome of world commerce. Also, I had a fear of the sheer height; nothing could ever induce go to the top, let alone work in the towers. But on Tuesday I kept imagining all those people inside that did.

A friend told me of a friend whose job is watering plants in business offices. A freelance waterer. (Apparently they can't lift a watering to their own potted greenery.) This fellow's day to water at the World Trade was Tuesday. He got a call on Friday asking if by any chance he could do the watering on Monday-- Now, see, watering plants is something I could do, and even feel good about, and maybe, just maybe I might have been convinced to do so in the World Trades--for a vast sum of money--though I'd have gripped the elevator walls the whole way up, and back down, palms sweating, breath irregular each time I did, and no way would I have even glanced out a window. Anyhow, the friend's friend saw to the plants on Monday, September 10th, so they were well-watered on their last day of life.

On the morning of maybe the fourth day into the new reality, I thought of a brand new hall of fame for John D'Agata: Vanishing Buildings.

After the part on Martha Graham comes, Flat Earth Map: An Essay. There is a society, headed by an eccentric who lives in the Mojave desert, that believes the earth is flat. Sincerely. I wondered, after reading it, if the flat earth folk know that the World Trade were dug seventeen stories into the earth--each--and that the stuffing that came out of the trenches make up the landfill upon which now sit much of Battery Park?

The next section is about kouros, those early Greek figures, Hall of Fame: An Essay About The Ways in Which We Matter. I found this section hopelessly inconclusive. Hall of Me also left me blank. Notes at the back of the book, explaining that D'Agata work at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, sperm depository while he was a student, didn't help.

My favorite piece was the last, And There Was Evening And There Was Morning. It takes place in Las Vegas, and is about light. This section is brilliant, no pun. The Luxor Hotel and Casino boasts a light so bright, that shoots so far into the sky, astronauts can read by its light when they pass overhead. There is no sunset in Vegas, we learn, only a slightly noticeable dimming of natural light all but canceled out when the lights of the casinos rip on. Bigger, better, brighter, an artificial world based in the most powerful force of all--let there be light. Party more, drink more, gamble more, sex more; cease sleep. Life is light, the theory in the desert oasis goes. PS: Las Vegas is also home to the largest number of sleep disorder clinics in the world.

I walked through Times Square the other evening at around dusk. I happened to be in the area with some friends and we decided to walk instead of jumping on the subway. The artificial lights did blot out the sense of a setting sun, and people did seem less weighty in their gait. I almost forgot about the wreck downtown until I remembered Robert Frost's poem, "I think I know enough of hate to say that for destruction ice is also great and would suffice."

The lights on Broadway, post apocalyptic-Tuesday: I mused over the wisdom of bigger brighter better. From HALLS OF FAME, "If you want, you can trace the etymology of fame back to "famish," to the Latin word for hunger. Fames. A thirst. But most likely fame has its roots in "to speak." Latin Fama." I lied a little up top, I once gave a reading at the World Trade Borders Books, under the towers in the mall. I was there, and in my way I had my own fling with the WTC. The firemen say the books are still intact under the fallen debris of cement and steel, marble and flesh.

I guess some bigger brighter thinker better gear up now that there are only six wonders of the modern world. But don't halls of fame everywhere begin to look sort of silly?

©J Stefan-Cole, October 2001

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