Review: The Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal

The Lifespan of a Fact 

John D’Agata and Jim Fingal

W W Norton, 128pp, £13.99

There’s no exact British equivalent for the grand American tradition of fact-checkers, the staff of newspapers and magazines who might spend a year ascertaining the truth status of every assertion in a writer’s work and who have the capacity to kill an article if it’s fudged or faked. In Britain, sub-editors check accuracy and spelling but they don’t possess anything like the righteous power of a fact-checker.

Their role positions them at the centre of a debate raging in American letters: on just how fictional non-fiction is allowed to be. In March, National Public Radio admitted to insufficient fact-checking when Mike Daisey’s show on the human rights abuses at Chinese factories making Apple products was found to be partially fabricated. And in October 2011, Jonathan Franzen suggested that his late friend David Foster Wallace made up conversations in what purport to be non-fiction essays, commenting in an interview with the New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, that they would never have been passed by that august publication’s staff.

John D’Agata is, depending upon your stance, either a serial offender or a crusader for the writer’s right to reorder the skeleton of the real into a more artistically pleasing shape. The Life­span of a Fact has its origins in an essay he wrote for Harper’s, which was rejected for playing too fast and loose with the verifiable. It subsequently went to the Believer, where it was handed over to a rookie fact-checker, Jim Fingal. The book document the pair’s negotiations, as the punctilious Fingal struggles to deal with D’Agata’s idiosyncratic notions of just how far a writer is permitted to stretch the truth.

The subject of the essay, reprinted in its entirety here (the discussion appears in the margins), was the suicide of Levi Presley, a teenaged boy in Las Vegas. In the very first sentence, Fingal finds four errors and D’Agata’s irritable response sets the tone for the lengthy debate that follows. “Being precise would be less dramatic and would sound a lot clunkier,” he explains testily. “The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as ‘facts’. The work they’re doing is a lot more image-based than information-based.” Later, he elaborates this defence into a mission statement for his particular brand of “intellectual anarchy”, reminding Fingal of the difference between the “hard research of journalism and the kind of inquiry of mind that characterises the essay”.

To this self-aggrandising claim, Fingal replies flatly: “Basically it sounds like you’re saying that an essayist can write things with arbitrary truth value and make quotations out of whole cloth that are attributed to real people who live in the real world . . . If so, isn’t that what people call fiction?”

Any representation of reality is going to involve ordering and selection of some kind, and the space between actuality and art has been occupied by better writers than D’Agata, among them Bruce Chatwin and Ryszard Kapuscinski. But what’s notable about his approach is how heavily it depends for its effects on the anchoring power of what would normally be termed “facts”. He likes to list precise details about buildings, the direction of the wind, the phase of the moon – all torqued away from accuracy by cod-aesthetic demands such as “streamlining”, rhythm or “syntactical resonance”.

This is nothing like the high-stakes blurring of fact and fiction carried out by W G Sebald, or the undermining of objectivity that Janet Malcolm regularly achieves. Instead, it’s a sequence of cheap tricks, its power siphoned from the tragedy it’s purporting to record. In this world, it doesn’t matter if you change the time of Presley’s fall from eight seconds to nine. As even Fingal asks, in a final, misguided cri de coeur: “Wouldn’t he still be dead?”

There’s no mention in the text itself but reports suggest that Lifespan is itself a snow job: a re-enactment concocted by Fingal and D’Agata that gestures towards the process they went through but isn’t anything like as stable or documentarily exact as it seems. I suppose D’Agata’s point is that truth isn’t a solid object, to be caught in a net and pinned down on the page. Any literature undergrad knows that but one can’t help thinking how much more interesting his work would be if he paid a little attention to the world, rather than recording what he thinks it might have been intellectually impressive or poetically resonant to see.

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis