Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Lifespan of a Fact

The surprising truth about The Lifespan of a Fact

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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.

Written by nevalalee

April 10, 2012 at 9:57 am

When reality isn’t good enough

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Is reality a bore? Well, it depends on who you ask. Edward R. Tufte, in his wonderful book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, devotes many pages to combating the assumption that data and statistics, being inherently dull, need to be dressed up with graphics and bright colors to catch the reader’s eye. The result, Tufte argues, is chartjunk, ink wasted on flashy design elements that have nothing to do with the information presented. Instead of investing resources in tarting up uninformative numbers, he says, one’s time is much better spent unearthing and analyzing relevant information. The best data, presented simply, will inspire surprise and curiosity, but only if the numbers are interesting and accurate, which requires its own kind of skill, ingenuity, and patience. Tufte sums up his case magnificently: “If the statistics are boring, then you’ve got the wrong numbers. Finding the right numbers requires as much specialized skill—statistical skill—and hard work as creating a beautiful design or covering a complex news story.”

Replace “statistics” with “stories,” and “numbers” with “facts,” and Tufte’s sound advice applies equally well to authors of nonfiction. It rings especially true in light of a number of recent controversies, both of which center on the question of when, if ever, reality should be manipulated for artistic reasons. One is the release of The Lifespan of a Fact, a book chronicling the five-year struggle between essayist John D’Agata and factchecker Jim Fingal over the accuracy of an essay finally published by The Believer. The other, of course, is the furor over a recent episode of This American Life, in which Mike Daisey’s account of his visit to a Chinese factory making components for Apple was revealed to have substantial fabrications. These are very different cases, of course, each with its own underlying motivations, but both are rooted in the assumption that reality, by itself, isn’t good enough. This led D’Agata and Daisey to embellish their stories with what might, at best, be termed “artistic” truth, but which can also be seen as the prose equivalent of chartjunk: falsehoods inserted to punch up the uncolorful facts.

D’Agata’s case is arguably the more instructive, because it’s founded on what appears to be a genuine artistic interest in blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction. The original version of his essay, which uses the real suicide of a young man named Levi Presley as a means of exploring the culture of Las Vegas, contained countless departures from the facts, all purportedly for artistic reasons. Some were minor, such as changing the color of some vans from pink to purple because it scanned better, while others were fundamental: in his first paragraph, D’Agata refers to a series of strange events that occurred on the day of Presley’s suicide, including a tic-tac-toe contest against a chicken—none of which actually took place on the day in question. In other words, his list of unbelievable facts is literally unbelievable, because he made them up. In D’Agata’s hands, truth isn’t stranger than fiction; instead, fiction is exactly as strange as fiction, which raises the question of why we should care. In the end, his inability to find the real Las Vegas sufficiently colorful comes off as a failure of will, and the fact that he embellishes facts throughout the essay while keeping Levi Presley’s real name—presumably to gain a free artistic frisson from the circumstances of an actual suicide—seems like a particularly unfortunate case of wanting to have it both ways.

At least D’Agata has some kind of literary philosophy, however misguided, to justify his deviations from the truth (although it should be noted that most readers of The Believer presumably read his article as straight journalism). The same can’t be said of Mike Daisey, who altered the facts in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to make it sound as if he personally witnessed events that occurred a thousand miles away, and to manufacture completely imaginary incidents for the sake of manipulating the audience. (In retrospect, it’s especially horrifying to hear Daisey’s voice grow soft and choked as he describes an injured factory worker’s first encounter with an iPad, a fictional incident that he describes as if it actually took place.) Daisey’s excuse, unlike D’Agata’s, is an emotional one: he wanted the audience to feel something, to be touched, implying that the true facts of his trip weren’t moving enough. Meanwhile, the legitimate journalism on Chinese factory conditions, as conducted by such reporters as Charles Duhigg and David Barboza of the New York Times, is far more fascinating, and it doesn’t depend on fabricated melodrama to make an impact.

As Tufte says, if the facts are boring, you’re using the wrong facts. But isn’t there a place for the judicious mingling of reality with fiction? Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about this, and the importance of truth in labeling.

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