Monday, April 23, 2012

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

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In 2010, The Believer magazine published a short piece by John D'Agata called "What Happens There," the story of Levi Presley, a real teenager who really killed himself by jumping off of the Stratosphere, a real hotel in Las Vegas. The piece (essay) had already been rejected once after failing to pass through the fact-checking process of the very magazine that had commissioned it. Believer picked it up, as you can see from the link, and published it, but not after finding out why the essay had already failed research 101. Maybe, D'Agata won writing 101, though, because "The Lifespan of a Fact" is the resulting book: Jim Fingal and D'Agata's back and forth about the facts (mostly fictions) are compiled around the essay- literally, the essay takes up the center of the page surrounded by the email exchanges- in a new, wonderful book. From the very first paragraph, Jim Fingal runs into problems. D'Agata's first paragraph (not, the same, you'll note as on The Believer's website) reads:
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.


mamagotcha said...

This makes me think of the This American Life Mike Daisey mess (where they broadcast part of his stand-up show on Apple manufacturing plants in China as journalism, but very publicly retracted after they found significant fabrications in his story). Mike Daisey never did see a problem with what he did (the retraction show gave him ample opportunity to explain himself, and he clearly was trying to find a way to apologize to Ira Glass' satisfaction while simultaneously defending his creative decisions, ie blatant falsehoods), while Glass was just as clearly incensed almost beyond reason... the two extremes were fascinating to observe, and totally independent of the actual story matter. Not sure if I could choose a side... I'm a huge TAL fan, but Daisey's performance was indeed captivating and served its original purpose (of educating Americans about some of the horrific conditions surrounding the manufacturing of their beloved toys) admirably. I suppose I took the original broadcast in stride... it felt like storytelling... and was a bit surprised that Glass felt it was presented as straight-up fact (not all TAL programs are straight-edge factual journalism). Still... slippery redefinitions and linguistic gymnastics can diminish the power of a writer's work. Don't be a dick, kids!