Mishandling the Truth
I'm going to review John D'Agata's new book, Lifespan of a Fact, even though I haven't read it. But don't worry. I read D'Agata's two previous books, Halls of Fame and About a Mountain. And I read a chunk of his anthology The Next American Essay. I've also followed the review coverage of Lifespan and will be drawing textual quotes from those reviews — plus a few that I'm making up but that sound like something D'Agata would write. I've even interviewed some friends of mine who attend the University of Iowa, where D'Agata teaches, who filled me in on what he's like and what he thinks. Mind you, I didn't take any notes during our conversations since that's not my style. But again, don't worry. My friends are especially trustworthy people and my memory is sound. So I think between all that I'm perfectly fit to write about John D'Agata.
Okay, I actually did read Lifespan, but how many readers just became disgusted with me during that paragraph? Those who felt their stomach churn have now experienced a fairly good simulation of what it is like to read Lifespan of a Fact. The book is a sort of apparatus-laden expansion of "What Happens There," an essay D'Agata originally published in the McSweeney's magazine The Believer in January 2010, and subsequently released in greatly expanded form as the book About a Mountain the following month. The problem with the essay (and the book crafted from it) is that D'Agata makes up quite a lot of detail, even though both purport to be a soul-searching, nonfiction examination of millennial America through an investigation of its most extreme city — Las Vegas — and the suicide of a teen living there.
Lifespan of a Fact is marketed as a battle of wits between the man originally tasked to fact-check the piece for The Believer, Jim Fingal, and D'Agata. Such a venture opens the possibility of questioning notions of what we believe and why we believe it — no small matter in a world that is increasingly virtual — and it gives Fingal and D'Agata room to do their damndest to out-write one another. Alas, righteous indignation is about as good as this book gets: that stomach-churning sensation at the sight of D'Agata repeatedly reprimanding coauthor Jim Fingal for attempting to correct numerous inaccuracies that he purposely introduces — for no apparent reason — soon gives way to an even more intolerable sensation: boredom. The sad truth is that Lifespan of a Fact, a book whose authors actually admit is a faked amplification of the real-life altercation that inspired it, is an unbearably dull read. Dull, but still worth rehashing, if only to see how we arrived at this sorry state of affairs, and figure out what it all means.
Part of the problem is that whereas D'Agata (whatever you think of his ethics) is a very skilled writer, Fingal — who by all reports is a very decent, very smart person — is clearly not. Fingal's realm is facts, and he tosses out quite a lot of them throughout Lifespan of a Fact. With what is surely the zest that any good fact-checker requires, he endlessly regales D'Agata with the rational, patient, and extremely longwinded arguments that lead him to the conclusion that D'Agata is, to put it succinctly, full of it. Stretches such as this are not uncommon:
According to the website of the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska, "The frequency of planet-to-planet conjunctions is a function of the degree of the planets' separation, the time period under consideration, and the number of planets involved. Conjunctions can be quite unspectacular since planets can be more then 10 degrees apart while quasi-conjunctions can be less then 0.5 degree apart for many days." Also, in the "Mars-Jupiter Conjunctions" section of that website: "Conjunction pair is visible 26% of the time based on the period 1900-2078. Conjunction interval is: 794-832 days (91%). . . ."
Reading prose this leaden, one freshly admires the accomplishment of David Foster Wallace, who could turn bureaucratic statistics such as these into literature that rose to the heights of humor and pathos. Alas, Fingal is no David Foster Wallace. His prose rumbles along with all the determination, heft, and elegance of a fully loaded U-Haul van. One reads through the book dutifully, in the hope of finding something more than the repeated confirmation of D'Agata's bad faith, and is frustrated in those hopes.
Lifespan of a Fact becomes most interesting where D'Agata's transgressions against the truth touch upon areas that implicate other writers, who do respect the primacy of facts. For instance, in the middle of the essay in question, D'Agata asserts that "there was in fact no word for it [suicide] in the ancient Greek language," registering the same for Hebrew, Latin, and Chinese (plus English, "until three hundred years ago"). He implies that suicide is a modern phenomenon, a desperate reaction to extreme times, for which we have only just recently devised a word.
Except, it's not true. Fingal offers abundant proof to undermine D'Agata's assertion: the Chinese language has long had a word for suicide, the concept has been a familiar part of its culture for thousands of years; the Greeks, Jews, and Romans could all express the idea of killing oneself, and cultural remnants indicate that they did just that. This is one of many instances in which D'Agata uses the implication of half-truths to construct the criticisms of society that form the larger argument of his essay. D'Agata responds to Fingal's proofs with obvious bad-faith attempts to buffalo his way past the underlying issue: "Vulgate Latin is bullshit . . . Maybe someone at Yale knows."
What is interesting here is not yet another instance of D'Agata telling Fingal he can do whatever he wants, just because, but the fact that we all have read some trivia such as "the Greeks had no word for suicide" and stopped to wonder, Is that really true? This is possibly the most valuable aspect of Lifespan: the forced realization that all nonfiction is made up of small approximations and tiny untruths, which authors and fact-checkers probably pass off unknowingly. Even the most conscientious authors must rely on the work of others, who in turn have relied on the work of others as well, etc. There is no doubt that in that great chain of scholarship, people will have made mistakes and simplifications (to say nothing of the D'Agatas of the world who feel it is their right to run roughshod over facts).
The book challenges us with difficult questions about what we know, what is a fact, and how we know the truth. I, for one, am comfortable admitting that many of the so-called truths that gird my daily life are nothing more than notions which we, as a society, have decided to agree are correct. Given that human perception is but one way of construing the universe, how could our notion of truth be any different? But to what extent are we willing to accept a head-scratching statement like "the Greeks had no word for suicide?" When do we challenge it? When do we let it go? And, most importantly, how much certainty can we afford to feel when we know that some assertions of fact, even those made in good faith, will be mere fabrications? This is the most threatening aspect of D'Agata's method. He pits his lonely voice against the commonly accepted norms of fact to which most of us adhere, compulsively, all through our daily lives.
Unfortunately, although the project of Lifespan raises interesting questions, the book remains a slog. In a volume so obsessed with hard facts, the prose lacks that squishy stuff known as humanity. Yes, D'Agata offers faux-emotion each time he calls Fingal a demeaning name; and Fingal provides faux-emotion each time he earnestly turns the other cheek — but these are only a mimicry of the things from which humans are made. Missing here is the outrage that a fact-checker should probably feel about D'Agata's caviler attitude toward the truth. Where is Fingal's frustration with the ever less–respectful sentences that begin, ironically, "With all due respect . . ."? Where is his evolving sense of disenchantment as he realizes that he is spending no small amount of time and effort to complete an assignment that, in all probability, will be swept under the rug by D'Agata and his editor? Indeed, rather disturbingly, a look at the original Believer article online indicates that D'Agata's lies were left in the final piece. Imbued with only a thin veneer of true human emotion, Lifespan of a Fact ignores that very element of emotional resonance that D'Agata claims is so important, enough to falsify, fabricate, and stretch what we nominally call the truth.
Not all confrontations over journalistic fact ring so false. This American Life was forced to face similarly disorienting questions about truth when it was discovered that actor Mike Daisey had fabricated large portions of his ostensibly fact-based one-man show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" (which was aired on the show as journalism). In the following on-air confrontation between host Ira Glass and Daisey, we find precisely the humanity that Lifespan of a Fact lacks. Even in the interview's transcript, the frustration and anger of host Ira Glass can be felt as well as the nervous caterwauling of Daisey:
Mike Daisey: And everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater has been toward that end — to make people care. I'm not going to say that I didn't take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work. My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it's not journalism. It's theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc and of that arc and of that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, Ira, and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is that it makes — has made — other people delve.
Ira Glass: So you're saying the story isn't true in the journalistic sense?
Mike Daisey: I am agreeing it is not up to the standards of journalism and that's why it was completely wrong for me to have it on your show. And that's something I deeply regret. And I regret that the people who are listening, the audience of This American Life who know that it is a journalistic enterprise, if they feel misled or betrayed, I regret to them as well.
Ira Glass: Right but you're saying that the only way you can get through emotionally to people is to mess around with the facts, but that isn't so.
Mike Daisey: I'm not saying that's the only way to get through to people emotionally. I'm just saying that this piece, in how it was built for the theater, follows those rules. I'm not saying it's the only way to do things.
Ira Glass: I guess I thought that you were going to come in and say that more if it wasn't true because, um, there are parts of it I just don't buy based on what you've said . . .
Glass and Daisey wrestle with the difference between theater and journalism, the question of whether "the facts" alone are enough to make people care about a cause. Daisey admits wrongdoing in some areas while remaining unrepentant in others, and Glass's anger mounts at Daisey's staunch adherence to claims that Glass simply does not believe to be true. They are two gears whose teeth mesh, miss, and occasionally bite in to one another—but it is only important that they are touching, for the drama of this real-life altercation exists in that friction. Fingal and D'Agata, by contrast, never get close enough for this kind of contact, and their arguments—both emotional and logical—suffer for the distance.
Furthermore, Daisey's defense of his show — as philosophically impoverished and self-serving as it may be — points to something omitted from Lifespan of a Fact: D'Agata's own defense of the so-called lyric essay. This is sorely missing because it is the star to which D'Agata has attached his literary reputation. It justifies, among other things, D'Agata's falsification of major details regarding the tragic suicide of a troubled teen. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Lee Gutkind, editor and founder of Creative Nonfiction, puts D'Agata's use of the lyric essay into perspective:
Fifteen years ago, D'Agata helped introduce the term "lyric essay" to university creative writing programs. He has vigorously promoted the lyric essay, and the term has acquired a bit of cachet; it is often included in essay writing classes. Interestingly, D'Agata's initial definition of the lyric essay conflicts with his current cavalier attitude toward facts. In 1997, D'Agata, along with his mentor, poet Deborah Tall, wrote in the Seneca Review (edited by Tall) that "the lyric essay has an overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form." Allegiance to the actual: that, to me, clearly implies a loyalty to truth and accuracy, which D'Agata seems to have now abandoned.
Indeed, D'Agata has traveled very far from this statement, and he has not given us another justification to fill the gap. Lifespan would seem to have been the perfect opportunity for D'Agata to define his theory of the lyric essay, explain why it permits him to falsify information, and describe the benefits of doing so. But no, dickwad, all we get are not-so-clever quips and mock-intellectual ham fisting from the lyric essay's most popular and fervent evangelist. Perhaps it is the case that D'Agata has wrestled with all these questions and has worked out fully resolved, internally consistent answers to them. If he has, then he is keeping them to himself. Until then, the emperor has no clothes. Victory: Fingal, and fact, by default.