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On the same day in Las Vegas when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-foot-high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, lap dancing was temporarily banned by the city in thirty-four licensed strip clubs in Vegas, archaeologists unearthed parts of the world's oldest bottle of Tabasco-brand sauce from underneath a bar called Buckets of Blood, and a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger in a thirty-five-minute-long game of tic-tac-toe.Lap dancing wasn't banned, it was considered being banned. There weren't 34 strip clubs, the Tabasco discovery came on a different day, 450 miles away, near Buckets of Blood, but not underneath it. The tic-tac-toe game happened a month after the suicide and the woman wasn't really from Mississippi. The book continues apace. A couple things come up here: D'Agata is writing an essay based on some one's life, and not just on their life but on their tragic death. The moral of the essay (though I confess that I found the essay lacking substance) is supposed to be about the tragedy of suicide. The style of the essay is to really make the reader feel he is there, through a stream of facts that take you exactly to the hot day in Vegas. The problem? The facts are fiction, or half-facts, or sorta-facts based on interviews that may have happened, or not, or press releases that contain almost the same information, or not, or coroner's reports that are adapted for the sake of "streamlining" or "rhythm."
I suggest you listen to this short piece of the guys back and forth to get a sense of the book- the tone is not really friendly, as each feels the other is missing the point entirely.
D'Agata, for his part, thinks that the "essay" is a different project entirely than journalism, and Fingal thinks that D'Agata is abusing his post as an authoritative truth-teller. Sure, I would never know that the tic-tac-toe game occurred after Levi's death if I hadn't read the annotated version, but Fingal believes that D'Agata is manipulating the truth. Not far into it, he makes a "Note to self: John is not a journalist. Also not a nonfiction writer. He is, however, a writer of journalistic-ish texts that are not necessarily fiction. Got it." The tension is palpable. Each paragraph is as "fact"-filled as the one I've included, and both John and Jim are exceptionally frustrated with being a) perceived as nit-picked or b) perceived as lied to. As their relationship progresses, Jim gets more nitpicky, and John gets more into his argument. "I am not a journalist," he tells Jim. "I'm an essayist. OK? And this is a genre that has existed for a few thousand years. (Ever heard of Cicero?) So these 'rules' that I'm working under are not mine, but rather were established by writers who recognized a difference between the hard research of journalism and the kind inquiry of mind that characterizes the essay."
The back and forth of the book comes to a surprising end. I feel unresolved, and a little shaken up, as a reader of nonfiction- both in books and magazines. One has to wonder exactly how much each author considers oneself an "essayist" as opposed to a "journalist." And one has to wonder how many publishers consider themselves purveyors of "fact" as opposed to fact. If I had to chose, I'd probably fall on the side of Jim, especially when one reads an article like this, by Mac McClelland, who we already know themacinator has a mini-crush on. It seems that there is something slightly skeevy about using a fact, and using it incorrectly. Like taking some one's life in vain, and taking advantage of the reader. There's nothing wrong with fiction. On the other hand, there's the pesky essay.