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.