Halls of Fame Emily Banner Book Lovers

book Halls of Fame

reviewed by Emily Banner

Published in Issue No. 60 ~ May, 2002

John D’Agata, it must be said, is a talented,
insightful, erudite writer. He’s gifted with language; he has a subtle,
wry sense of humor; his scope ranges from the minute to the encyclopedic;
he has no fear of breaking rules. He’s also too clever by half.

Halls of Fame, his recent book of essays, provides ample demonstrations
of all these qualities, as D’Agata stretches the boundaries of the essay
format, to and occasionally past the breaking point. The author’s bio announces
that “he holds MFAs in both nonfiction and poetry,” and in his acknowledgments
he thanks his alma mater (the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop) for
allowing him “to explore the terrain between poems and essays.” This exploration
carries on in the seven pieces in his book, which are arranged symmetrically,
the first and last entries being the most traditional, and the long central
piece, “Hall of Fame: An Essay About the Ways in Which We Matter,” verging
on Gertrude Stein-esque incomprehensibility.

Which is something of a shame, because when he’s not going out of his
way to confound the reader, D’Agata writes some dazzling prose. By far
the best pieces in Halls of Fame – the most accessible, and the
most engaging – are the first and last. “Round Trip,” which gets us started,
uses a bus tour to Hoover Dam as an entry point into the larger themes
of time and recurring cycles, as well as drawing the reader into D’Agata’s
apparent fascination with `wonders,’ and the codified lists of wonders
(such as the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World,” of which the Hoover Dam
is one) that seem to crop up everywhere. (This fascination is woven throughout
of Fame
, with alphabetical lists of book titles culled from the Library
of Congress catalogue, all beginning with
The Wonders of…, appearing
between the essays. For example: “The Wonders of the Abacus; The Wonders
of Accounting; The Wonders of Acoustics…
and so
on.) The final piece in the collection, “And There Was Evening and There
Was Morning,” is set in Las Vegas and is an extended musing on light and
our cultural obsession with it (and, of course, with darkness, for light
necessarily implies its opposite). That essay culminates at the Luxor Hotel
and Casino, the gigantic black glass pyramid which promotes itself as “The
Next Wonder of the World,” and from whose apex shines the brightest light
on earth. Thus we begin and end in the Nevada desert, in the presence of
a Wonder. If all of Halls of Fame were as carefully constructed
as these two pieces, I’d use the term `wondrous’ to describe the entire

Not that there isn’t much that’s worthy in his more
challenging material. The second essay, “Martha Graham, Audio Description
Of,” takes on the task of communicating a visual and physical art form
through a verbal medium, and impressively mimics its subject, so that reading
it becomes as dizzying and frustrating and evocative an experience as trying
to understand Graham’s genius. “Collage History of Art, by Henry Darger,”
the penultimate piece, is itself a collage of history, images, ideas and
words. One of D’Agata’s strengths is in how he marries subject to style,
twisting and subverting the essay form to make it best express whatever
topic he chooses. Thus “Round Trip,” concerned with cycles, features cyclical
sentences and paragraphs; thus “And There Was Evening…” has a seven-part
structure that, when plotted out, resembles a pyramid. Yet D’Agata gets
seduced by his own cleverness, overplaying his hand, so that when his central
essay takes up the issue of incoherence, it becomes incoherent itself;
similarly, an essay about hyper-intelligent young men in love with their
own intelligence (essay number five: “Notes toward the making of a whole
human being…”) is, itself, over-achieving to the point of being precious.

The third and fourth pieces in Halls of Fame,
I’m sorry to say, did nothing whatsoever for me. Both have intriguing premises
– “Flat Earth Map: An Essay” is about the man who runs the International
Flat Earth Zetic Society, a group that maintains that the earth is flat
and that all of us who believe otherwise have been hoodwinked; the seventy-six
page “Halls of Fame…,” according to D’Agata’s endnotes, grew out of visits
to 79 of the roughly 3,000 halls of fame in the United States. Yet both
are written in choppy, disjointed styles – presumably towards the poetry
end of the “terrain between poems and essays,” although I found them unconvincing
as poems as well – that keep the reader from ever getting her bearings.
As I read these pieces I grew angry with D’Agata, because it seemed that
he was being inscrutable just for the sake of being inscrutable. I’m all
in favor of stylistic experimentation, and I see no reason why the lines
between poetry and essays can’t be blurred, but there’s also no reason
why experiments like this should come at the expense of clarity and readability.

To his credit, D’Agata is smart enough to not only
anticipate that complaint, but to present a means of getting past it. Towards
the end of “Flat Earth Map…,” in a section consisting only of asterisked
lines that resemble a bullet-point list, he writes:

* …An essay that becomes a lyric

* Is an essay that has killed itself. I don’t mean
it like that

* Exactly. I mean that everything you then do to
try to save that

* Essay – be it breadth, numbers, quotes, footnotes

* Etc. – will only make it elegy for what it’s

* Not

These are lovely lines, and true, and they go a long
way towards justifying what surrounds them. But not long enough. An elegy
for a dead essay, after all, is still not the same as a living piece of

account_box More About

Emily Banner is a co-founder of Inkberry, a nonprofit literary center in the Berkshires. She lives in western Massachusetts.