There should be books like this. There should be sketchy essay collections of lyrical lists previously published in journals called Fourth Genre. They should be written by young adventurers like John D’Agata who want “to explore the terrain between poems and essays,” even though that terrain turns out to be the University of Iowa campus. These adventurers should be up for anything—seeking out Vegas lighting engineers, enumerating the loopy details of that school out West where the students engage in ranching and self-government. They should be up for cramming entire pages with italicized results from a Library of Congress card catalog search for the phrase wonders of, such as The Golden West: Being a Graphic Elucidation of a Thousand Marvelous Spectacles Witnessed in Crossing the Continent in a Palace Car. Like I said, there should be books like this—like D’Agata’s Halls of Fame. I’m not sure how many of them I can stand to read. But it must be a testament to D’Agata’s ingenuity that I’ve never felt quite so protective of a book that gets on my nerves.
Halls of Fame has a twitchy 1918 quality because it’s obsessed with collage. One of the weirder, more disjointed sections here is devoted to dispatches from the room of Henry Darger, the late Chicago psychopath-artist who made evil assemblages involving little girls. And the book isn’t just taken with the notion of collages—it wants to be one, too. Here’s all of page 189: “A CROWD IS NOT COMPANY, and faces are but a gallery, and talk a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.” This turns out to be “cut” from Francis Bacon’s essay “On Friendship” and “pasted” here, i.e., D’Agata is making a collage while commenting on the collage artist’s isolation. Which is a neat trick. Very clever. And the page looks good like that, being mostly empty.
One of the other list-essays, “Martha Graham, Audio Description Of,” includes an anecdote about the night D’Agata described a dance performance to the blind. His job was to report—just the facts—what it looked like. “Which means I’m their eyes, the head usher reminds me,” he writes, “but not their interpreter. Which means words like scary and boring and like and therefore are out of the question. And the same goes for which reminds me of, though it’s what I’m thinking, can’t stop thinking of.” D’Agata treats the reader this way, like a blind person. He doesn’t interpret his adventures or organize them into narratives. He kind of points around America, sentence by sentence, and the reader comes away feeling like something very interesting happened, just not sure what.
Reading Halls of Fame is a lot like bargain hunting. If you’re willing to spend the time looking through piles of nonsensical detritus, there are real finds. “Round Trip,” in which D’Agata tours Hoover Dam, is broken up into bits. D’Agata’s crazy for bits. No transitions allowed. The fourth bit of “Round Trip” recounts, in the words of Isaac, a 12-year-old boy on D’Agata’s tour bus, the world of his favorite video game. It is marvelous—a true, original rendering of kid logic in kid lingo. The game requires the player to invent civilization from scratch—everything from shelter to social structure. “Like if you want to have babies at a certain time or if you wanna be a hunter and gatherer or start farming and all that,” the boy says, about getting started.
So at the same time the computer has its own family that it‘s starting and you have to be in competition with them. So you start your family and all that and you become a village and . . . that‘s all the boring stuff. . . . So before you know it you‘re like the leader and everything and people start gods and that kind of stuff and there‘s laws that you get to make up like if you want people to steal or how many wives you can have. And all of a sudden the computer calls war on you and you have to fight them ’cause if you don‘t then the game ends ’cause the computer can kill all your people.
This diatribe is hilarious and fascinating and succinctly sums up civilization, which is what the game is called.
It takes a great ear to recognize the power of that 12-year-old’s soliloquy. I’m clinging to that section because I have hopes for D’Agata. This book is a mess, but his next one doesn’t have to be. The point of these essays is freedom, to play with a mostly commercial form and turn it into art. But freedom is only half the point of art—constraint is the other. I’d like to see D’Agata broken. I’d be interested in reading him after he’d been bullied a bit by a good editor, an editor who made him quit playing around with the scissors and paste and pick up a pencil. I suspect D’Agata has some stories in him—the old-fashioned kind, in which funny or moving things happen in an engaging sequence that means something to someone. Collage can be clever. But stories are hard.