2/3 Book Challenge: How a Person Should Be

So if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all, right? What nice things can I say about How a Person Should Be?

It was a quick read, and parts made me laugh out loud. My book club chose it because one of us had heard it was controversial, and while ‘controversial’ is a bit strong, it was definitely polarizing.

But beyond that? The New York Times reports that “the novel’s (occasional) action and (incessant) dialogue are largely, though not entirely, factual”, which makes me even more sad about the main characters’ miserable lives. Oh, and you should know that there’s a chapter called “Interlude for Fucking”, and it’s just that: eleven pages dedicated to the worship of the narrator/author’s lover’s cock.

Pretty terrible. I’m glad we decided not to discuss it.

This is the thirteenth of at least 15 books that I plan to read in the next year for my friend Mark’s 2/3 Challenge.

2/3 Book Challenge: Evidence of Things Unseen

Wherever love comes from, whatever is its genesis, it isn’t like a quantity of gold or diamonds, even water, in the earth – a fixed quantity, Fos thought. You can’t use up love, deplete it at its source. Love exists beyond fixed limits, beyond what you can see or count. It isn’t something measurable, something you can say okay, this is love from here to here. But if you take that river down there, Fos was thinking, you know darn well despite the tricks it plays to make you think it’s something that can last forever.

My book club read Evidence of Things Unseen on the recommendation of my friend Angie, who wrote in her Goodreads review that the book “had [her] crying on public transit a bit more than I’d like — as often for the glory of the language as for the heart-wrenching aspects of the story.”

For the last month I’ve been carrying the book back and forth between work and home, intending to chip away at this review, intending to copy down the many excerpts from dog-eared pages that made me gasp, gave me painful goosebumps, pricked my eyes with the beginnings of hot tears. Back and forth in my bag and on my bike, pulled out and set on the desk, then dropped on the coffeetable, waiting for my attention.

He believed there was an order and a method in the ultimate design of things but he believed that that design was the end result of a lot of trial and error. Trial and error as a fact of life was the first thing Fos expected every time he put on his shoes, turned the tap on, lit a match. Statistically he knew the odds were in his favor that his shoes would fit, water would come out of the tap, and combustion would occur – but he also knew that for no reason there existed chances that the opposite might happen. No use asking why or how: why and how were part of the design. As soon as you construct a thing you give its opposite a license to exist – you build a tower then you also build the chance it will fall. You fall in love with safety then you also fall prey to its failure to prevent the necessary trial and error. To think of life as foolproof is a fallacy of fools, he thought. Things happen, he believed, and there’s nothing you can do to keep them from occurring without taking out the magic spark plug, the genius of invention that ignited the adventure in the first place.

Evidence of Things Unseen is a love story. It is small and domestic, but it is also about science and technology and the ways those things disrupt and transform. It is about two very ordinary people who meet at the cusp of an era. The jacket description alludes to lawlessness and heartbreak, and while these things are present, they are in many ways incidental to the rest of the novel, to the interior monologues of Fos, Opal, and their child.

You come to know a person, you live together every day, you’re not really conscious of the changes taking place. Parenthood had come to them like a sudden shower or a gust that, unexpectedly, overstayed like climate, and in a blinking of an eye, without their ever knowing it, Lightfoot had become the context of their day, of every word they spoke, of every look they shared. But now Fos saw a way where they could be together again, and what she saw in his expression when he realized this was the sparkle of relief. He’d missed her…In the sunshine, once, beside a stream that gave into the Little Tennessee where they had stopped to stretch their legs and have some lunch on their way to Fos’s next assignment, Opal hitched her skirt around her waist to wade into the stream to wash the plates and Fos’s heart had skipped a beat. He’d never thought of her as someone who could turn heads, but as he stood there on the bank looking at her body, at her legs, he realized what a fragile thing possession is, how no one person ever owns another, how tenuous our hold is on another…

I found myself thinking about The Wild Palms as I read this book – not because I think Marianne Wiggins is an heir to Faulkner, or because I can make any comparative value judgement on the two novels. Rather, the similarities in time period and geography and selected events made me reflect on the differences in the way intimacy is written – whether they were artifacts of the author’s style or gender or time period or life experience. I tried to quantify this for my book club but couldn’t, not quite, perhaps because both rang true for me in subtly different ways.

This is the tenth of at least 15 books that I plan to read in the next year for my friend Mark’s 2/3 Challenge.

2/3 Book Challenge: The Lifespan of a Fact

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.

Also:

“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.

This is the fifth of at least 15 books that I plan to read in the next year for my friend Mark’s 2/3 Challenge.