By: Tucker Worrall
John D’Agata spoke at Salem State on March 28th, reading from his nonfiction book About a Mountain and his translation of a consolation letter written by Plutarch in the 6th century BCE. It was an emotionally impactful reading, that dealt with difficult content. However, the pair of writings could be seen as objectionable to some.
The excerpt from About a Mountain concerned a teenager that committed suicide in Las Vegas. D’Agata was working on a suicide hotline the night that it happened, and wondered if he had spoken to the young man, he sought out information about a suicide that had happened in public. Levi Presley jumped from the top of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas. He didn’t leave behind a note, and his parents were left searching for answers. Upon learning that the police had a spliced together surveillance video of Presley’s last hour, they tried to get the authorities to show it to them. They were refused. In the reading, there is a long painstaking account of everything Levi did before he ended his life. His drive to the hotel, his walk through the busy hotel, his elevator ride up to the observation deck. D’AGata then described the moment that Presley jumped:
“It was a Saturday and early evening and an alarm was ringing in the hotel’s security office. Levi sat on the ledge for forty-eight seconds before anyone on the deck walked by. Now the sun was gone. Saturday was night. And the valley in which Levy had grown up became bright and it stayed bright, all the way to the invisible black mountains around it, the wall that would keep the city forever the shape it now was. Security officer Frank then approached Levi from the left, the east, and said, “Hey,” or he said, “Hey, kid,” or he said, “Kid, no,” or he said nothing, and it was his presence alone that caused Levi to turn his head t0 the left, stand up on the ledge, wave to the security officer, who does not appear on the screen of the video on which Levi is waving, and jumped.”
This is the end of the book, and during the reading D’Agata paused for a long moment here, letting the moment sink in. It was extremely effective. It forced the audience to reflect on what they had just heard. After it was over, the author explained that he had read one a consolation letter that was written by Plutarch. He had liked it so much, that he had made his own translation of it. The letter is addressed to Plutarch’s wife, and is about the death of their two year old daughter. Before he started D’Agata warned that some found the letter’s contents to be offensive. During the reading of the letter it was clear why. In the letter Plutarch was arguing against overly histrionic shows of grief. To some, including some in the room who I spoke to, this suggests that they should not mourn their children. The letter, popularly titled Consolatio ad Uxorem, actually begins with a plea for his wife not to be overly mournful. “Only, my dear wife, in your emotion keep me as well as yourself within bounds. For I know and can set a measure to the magnitude of our loss, taken by itself; but if I find any extravagance of distress in you, this will be more grievous to me than what has happened.”
It seems a strange thing to say to a wife, who has just lost a child, from a husband who is just a day’s journey away, but who you refuse to return to. Furthermore, it was a strange piece to put after a reading where an underage teenager died, and after D’AGata had explained how difficult Levi’s death had been on his parents. Why then, would he couple that emotionally charged reading, with another that seemed to be saying the mourning children amounted to vanity? I don’t know. Though his translation of Plutarch was beautiful, in my mind it clashed with the emotions that the piece from About a Mountain was trying to invoke. Though the reading presented some amazing writing, and John D’AGata read wonderfully, I was left confused. D’Agata himself was seemingly uncomfortable discussing the topic, and didn’t answer questions about how he collected his information for the book, and didn’t talk about how the pieces were connected other than that they both concerned the death of a child. I enjoyed the reading, but was left with the question: what was the point?