I’ve been holding off on writing about The Lifespan of a Fact until my new book club could discuss it – and also because I still have a lot of questions about the specific nature of the book.
Let me back up.
A couple of months ago, there were several interesting publishing stories in the news. Since I was ostensibly working for/with a publisher and since publishing was my dream job back in the day, these stories piqued my interest. First: the questions of intellectual property related to 50 Shades of Grey. Then Vanity Fair’s profile-cum-ebook on The Art of Fielding, both of which are on my To Read list. And finally, measuring truth versus fact in The Lifespan of a Fact.
The premise of The Lifespan of a Fact is this: in 2003, John D’Agata was commissioned to write an essay for Harper’s Magazine on the suicide of a teenager in Las Vegas. Jim Fingal was his fact-checker. The book presents the original essay, the verified and controverted facts, and a conversation between the two men spread over seven years as Fingal challenged the veracity of D’Agata’s work, and D’Agata in turn challenged the legitimacy of Fingal’s complaints.
The format of the book made knowing how to read it challenging. The original essay is in a square in the center of each page, with the fact-checking surrounding it in black (verified) and red (challenged). Fingal and D’Agata’s conversation follows in the appropriate color. I originally started reading the essay straight through, then cycling back to the beginning of each chapter to read the fact-checking, but eventually got into a flow of reading the two simultaneously, laughing out loud at the absurd things Fingal found to challenge:
“…archaeologists unearthed parts of the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco-brand sauce from underneath a bar called Buckets of Blood…” Factual Dispute: This happened on June 28, 2002, fifteen days before Levi Presley killed himself, so it wasn’t discovered the same day he died. In addition, the bottle was discovered in Virginia City, which is 20 miles southeast of Reno – about 450 miles away from Las Vegas. So the relevance of this bottle’s discovery to Las Vegas is a little specious.
“My mom was beading jewelry to make some extra cash.” Since he won’t give me his mother’s contact information, I can’t confirm this, nor whether or not she really has a cat, and a need for “some extra cash.” Though she must be quite the artist to be able to sell her handicrafts for extra cash.
D’Agata repeatedly pushes back on the challenges, often placing more weight on the “flow” of the narrative than on the truthfulness of the facts. And admittedly, he’s right. In one case, thirty-four flows better than thirty-one. Referencing the coroner as County Coroner – rather than the suggested “the former coroner” or “the then-coroner” – makes more sense to the reader, who frankly probably doesn’t care that the coronership has changed hands since the original interview.
But for the reader, these small untruths add up to an unsettling sense that all non-fiction is inherently fictitious. And we know this, right? We know that even if events are documented as they are happening, they are captured through a particular lens with a particular set of biases and values. Even the most uninvolved observer brings a part of themselves to the act of observation.
It’s just that we selectively ignore these facts when we’re reading non-fiction.
Because we’re adolescent when it comes to art. We’ve almost entirely disenfranchised art in our public schools, in our homes, in our culture at large. Of course we’re going to stomp our feet and scream when we’re suddenly thrown a curveball after emotionally opening ourselves up to something and then learning that that thing isn’t exactly what it seems. And of course that’s going to feel like a betrayal. Because we don’t have enough deep experiences with art to know that is what art is for: to break us open, to make us raw, to destabilize our understanding of ourselves and of our world so that we can experience both anew, with fresh eyes, and with therefore the possibility of recognizing something that we had not recognized before. Art is supposed to change us, to challenge us, and yes, even to trick us.
And that? That is why I loved this book. Because it reminded me that the lines between truth and fact and between art and artifice are inherently blurry, and that crossing that line should be painful and exhilarating.