You Can't Handle the Truth
The Lifespan of a Fact Ignores the Big Questions About Writing Nonfiction
The Lifespan of a Fact
by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal
(W. W. Norton, $17.95)
In 2003, an essay by John D'Agata about a man who committed suicide in Las Vegas was sent to Believer intern Jim Fingal for fact-checking. The piece had already been rejected by another magazine for factual inaccuracies, and Fingal found four major errors in the first sentence alone. Rather than correct the errors, D'Agata said they were aesthetic choices and refused to amend a word. The Lifespan of a Fact presents the entire fact-checking process, and the dialogue between D'Agata and Fingal about truth in essays that ensued, as a series of margin notes alongside the essay in a 123-page book.
Unfortunately, this is not the rigorous examination of truth in nonfiction that the jacket copy promises. D'Agata is a prissy little diva throughout the fact-checking process. Here's that first sentence: "On the same day in Las Vegas when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-foot-high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, lap dancing was temporarily banned by the city in thirty-four licensed strip clubs in Vegas, archaeologists unearthed parts of the world's oldest bottle of Tabasco-brand sauce from underneath a bar called Bucket of Blood, and a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger in a thirty-five-minute-long game of tic-tac-toe."
Everything after the word "Casino" in that sentence is basically a lie: The number of strip clubs in which lap dancing was banned (31—not to mention that the ban wasn't actually passed that day), the name of the bar ("'Bucket of Blood' is more interesting than the 'Boston Saloon,'" where the Tabasco bottle was really found, D'Agata explains in the margins), and the tic-tac-toe game took place a full month after Presley jumped from the tower. D'Agata complains that the facts would interrupt the rhythm of his sentences. He whines when Fingal suggests that he use brackets to indicate things that people did not actually say in their quotes because he finds brackets to be visually unappealing. And throughout the middle of the book, he gives Fingal the silent treatment or just calls him names when he's taken to task for his errors.
D'Agata complains that he shouldn't be beholden to the truth because he's not a nonfiction writer; he considers himself to be an essayist. And Fingal, for his part, never convincingly argues that the reader has no contextual way of knowing that D'Agata is playing fast and loose with the facts. Last week's Mike Daisey scandal has inspired an onslaught of think pieces devoted to this very issue, and almost any of these blog posts or finger-wagging editorials are more substantial than this book.
The two seem more interested in playing at a precious kind of literary Odd Couple routine than in arguing their points, making the whole book a strange dual character sketch. Even the dialogue is untrue: Poynter.org recently pointed out that there's another level of factuality in question here, as the "correspondence" in the margins between D'Agata and Fingal was written (Poynter calls it "re-imagined and re-created") years after the fact-checking experience.
It's a shame that the book is too mannered to actually investigate the issues it's supposedly investigating. This is important stuff: When a writer is dealing with reality, shouldn't he or she be forced to make their prose work around the facts at hand? Sculpting art from reality—isn't that the craft of a nonfiction writer? Fingal and D'Agata never bother to answer the question; they're too busy being cute.