I am seeking a truth here,” John D’Agata boasts in an essay he wrote for Harper’s, “not necessarily accuracy.” The subject of the essay: Levi Presley, a Las Vegas teenage resident who jumped to an early death from the brink of the Stratosphere amid the blinding lights of downtown Vegas. However, due to the numerous discrepancies and uncomfortable with D’Agata’s stance, Harper’s rejected the essay they had commissioned. After Harper’s denied the draft, The Believer picked it up with enough shared reservations to stick a rookie fact-checker on it. In the battle that began between John D’Agata, author, and Jim Fingal, fact-checker, Levi’s story dissipates in D’Agata’s personal search for meaning and Final’s fight for truth. For seven years, they wrestled with more than D’Agata’s essay, but the nature of truth, lies, and the nonfiction writer’s search for meaning.
Harper’s rejection led D’Agata, along with Fingal, to publish both his essay and their debate in the book, Lifespan of a Fact, which has drawn more notice than his original essay ever would have on its own. D’Agata and Fingal’s joint work displays a new structural concept; on the page, D’Agata’s original essay appears in its entirety—section by section—blocked in the middle and framed by large margins of both Fingal’s fact-checking notes and transcripts of his and D’Agata’s email correspondence. There on the outskirts of the essay, the battle wages: Factual Dispute, Fingal writes again and again, picking apart D’Agata’s loose essay with meticulous and at times infuriating precision, often writing long paragraphs for one sentence, line, or even word of essay. Fingal breaks up part of a sentence into even shorter sections in order to confirm and explain why D’Agata’s observation that it was “a hot night” is accurate. He continues by quibbling that the “winds from the east” were actually from the northeast the night of Levi’s death and those winds were not even strong enough to blow what D’Agata described as “white palls of dust.” “…Let it go,” D’Agata tells him, “I don’t think it takes much wind to blow dust.” D’Agata sees the rookie as attacking and worse even, questioning his art. Brief clashes between him and D’Agata occasionally interrupts Fingal’s report. “Watch it, asshole,” he warns Fingal repeatedly. John’s derisive snap backs (“It’s called art, dickhead) and Fingal’s sarcasm (“…your precious words, which no doubt fell into the world from your pen fully formed and immaculate”) keep the reader hanging through the decidedly dull moments of fact-checking details. D’Agata occasionally offers a reason or explanation for the innumerous discrepancies between fact and fiction for which Fingal docks him. D’Agata will forgive inaccuracies for beauty because he “think[s] brackets are ugly,” or for art because “rules of any kind do not apply to art,” or because writers should have “a compulsion for meanings” that supersedes the nonfiction genre. D’Agata can’t seem to see truth as accuracy. For him, it is only ever “The Truth,” and any lie that lets him capture that is more than forgivable, it is necessary. For Fingal, there are not levels of lies—all inaccuracies are falsehoods that break the “social contract,” which he believes every nonfiction writer initiates. No wonder the battle lasted for years, no wonder it never resolved.
Still, D’Agata’s biggest problems are not the pink vans he changes to purple “for the extra beat,” the left turn instead of right, a slight variation in the strength of the wind the night Levi jumped, or the nine seconds he claims Levi fell (he eventually reveals the true number—eight). But he wants Levi to have fallen for nine because he can find more significance there, so he makes it nine. His claim after all is that the essay isn’t so much about meaning, but “the search for meaning,” and he is fairly open about his belief. His main problem is when he unleashes what Fingal calls “…a parade of easily verifiable and yet clearly manipulated facts…” he just gets lazy. Most writers will at least sympathize with the desire for strong syntax and beautiful words, but they won’t sympathize when D’Agata writes, “most sacred Buddhist temples” because he didn’t do enough research to realized the nine floors is only present in one temple, or that there are ten levels of clouds, not nine. But while this reader is willing to forgive many of D’Agata’s little white lies, most readers, in fact, probably the majority are siding with Fingal since the release of Lifespan. “Readers don’t want to be lied to,” Fingal claims, pointing to James Frey and the uproar his highly falsified memoir caused in 2009. D’Agata, however, defends Frey, roughly saying readers should suck it up and be thankful for the “experience” that A Million Little Pieces gave them, for an essay he claims, is just that, an experience.
Despite Fingal’s strong aversion to shaping the truth, in the end, even the red-pen-crazed fact-checker participates in a crafted version of a correspondence, which Lifespan, at least, presents as whole. I’m not suggesting that any of the emails were falsified, then again, James Prouge, who worked as a fact-checker for the New Yorker and is a writer himself calls it, “a smoothly edited and largely fabricated e-mail exchange.” Jim Fingal for all his factual disputes sees the debate between “The Truth” and all the little truths as important enough to fabricate exchanges with the same man he repeatedly called to account for his slack note taking in interviews. Does that mean D’Agata wins? Take away his lazy flubs, and perhaps the intentional intonations of truths and not-quite-truths do indeed create an art, an essay, and an experience that communicates a postmodern sort of “Truth” to a reading public whose hands D’Agata has no interest in holding.
The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 128 pages. $17.95, paper.
Jill Davis is a writer and teacher from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, now working in the Dayton, Ohio, area.
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