The surprising truth about The Lifespan of a Fact
A few weeks ago, I wrote a highly critical post about The Lifespan of a Fact, the record of the epic seven-year battle between author John D’Agata and factchecker Jim Fingal over a literary essay finally published in The Believer. At the time, like many of those who weighed in on the debate over D’Agata’s tendency to alter the facts for the sake of rhythm or elegance, I hadn’t read the book itself. Well, now I have, and I find myself forced to admit The Lifespan of a Fact is, amazingly, a fascinating work, even to those with little sympathy for the author’s case. When I first heard about this project, I couldn’t see what D’Agata was hoping to gain from its publication, since he could only come off badly—as he has, unfailingly, in almost every review. In reality, however, the book is far more interesting than the insidery debate that its back cover promises, and D’Agata has some surprising tricks up his sleeve.
It’s true that D’Agata’s original essay, which centers on the suicide of a teenager named Levi Presley, who jumped from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas on July 13, 2002, has a lot of problems. While the essay is expertly crafted, its familiar beats—the lists of curious information, the eye for incongruous detail—are artfully arranged to cover up the fact that the author doesn’t have much to say about Levi’s death. Yet the book that D’Agata has constructed around it is exactly what the essay tried and failed to be: a hybrid form, a centaur, that challenges and rewards the attentive reader. And the differences here are revealing. The original article was disguised as a piece of journalism, but the book comes to us explicitly as something new: its ambitions are visible at a glance, and it clearly lays out its own rules and constraints, even as it quietly undermines them.
The first twist is that Fingal, the factchecker, who has generally been portrayed as a calm voice of reason, often comes off as equally unhinged. Fingal’s notes, along with D’Agata’s responses, are printed in Talmudic fashion around the text of the original essay, and even early on, many of the concerns raised by Fingal—over whether the mountains around Las Vegas are “brownish” rather than “black,” for instance—are manifestly unreasonable. When he expresses doubt over whether or not D’Agata’s mother really owns a cat, it’s hard not to sympathize with the author’s response: “Tread very carefully, asshole.” And even if one thinks that Fingal is simply doing his job, it’s hard to square this with the book’s extraordinary closing section, in which Fingal questions the accuracy of the coroner’s report, of news accounts, and even of the testimony of Levi’s own parents. In the end, he’s factchecking the world itself, which can only lead to madness.
Which leads to an even greater surprise, which is that while the book sheds predictably little light on the boundary between fiction and nonfiction, it’s curiously moving on the subject of Levi Presley’s suicide. Levi is a shadowy figure in the original article, but he’s there, unforgettably, in the notes, which obsessively unpack the few known details of his short, sad life. (The notes have also been carefully restructured to unfold in parallel to the essay, so that the most heated exchange on the nature of nonfiction coincides perfectly with the article’s climax, as the subject heads inexorably to his own death.) Near the end, when the density of the commentary crowds all but a line or two of the essay off the page, the effect is to hasten Levi helplessly toward his destruction. Finally, the notes spill past the text altogether, leaving a gap in the center, a hole in the world caused by Levi’s absence. The result is an inspired, affecting work of art. And as hard as that is to believe, it’s true.