The discrepancies mount. The “Boston Saloon” becomes the “Bucket of Blood” because “ ‘Bucket of Blood’ is more interesting.” The name of Levi’s school is changed because the original is “too clunky. It has a comma in it; that’s ridiculous.” “Tweety Nails” becomes “Famous Nails” — a real mystery, for with a too-good-to-be-true name like “Tweety Nails,” why tweak it? A fleet of dog-grooming vans described in D’Agata’s notes as “pink” become “purple,” because “I needed the two beats in ‘purple.’ ”
Minor fibs? Maybe. But other fabrications are decidedly not. Another suicide-by-fall that occurred on the same day as Levi’s is transformed into a suicide-by-hanging, “because I wanted Levi’s death to be the only one from falling that day. I wanted his death to be more unique.”
If you fancy yourself a member of the reality-based community, here is where you might start feeling twitchy. Fingal certainly did. “You are writing what will probably become the de facto story of what happened to Levi,” he reminds D’Agata. “Don’t you think that the gravity of the situation demands an accuracy that you’re dismissing as incidental?”
No, D’Agata argues. His duty is not to accuracy, nor to Levi. His duty is to Truth. And when an artist works in service of Truth, fidelity to fact is irrelevant. So too is any sense of professional decency, it seems. Fingal approaches his task honorably and deferentially. “I’m new at this, so bear with me,” he tells D’Agata. But for having the audacity to do his job, he is subjected to a steady walloping of obscenity and condescension. D’Agata accuses Fingal of “ruining this essay” with “nit-picking.” He repeatedly calls Fingal “stupid” (and worse). It’s telling that in the heat of battle D’Agata resorts to playground taunts. When a dirty fighter realizes he has no legs left, he aims low.
Perhaps by now you’re asking, Who does this D’Agata think he is? For one, he is a writing teacher at the University of Iowa. He is also a self-appointed ambassador of the essay, a literary form he feels has for too long been “terrorized by an unsophisticated reading public.” He is quick to tell you he’s not a journalist (and that’s a fact). He is also, he explains, not running for office (thank goodness, although I’m sure he’d be great at it).
D’Agata asserts he didn’t “report” his essay from Vegas; he went to the city and did a little mind-meld with it. This, even though his techniques look suspiciously like those of a reporter: he immersed himself in a place, got to know its people, consulted documents, recorded his impressions, turned his material into a narrative. Not only that, but he loaded his essay with factually verifiable detail — dates, times, dimensions, directions, statistics, names, quotations from actual journalistic sources. He declares that as an essayist he shouldn’t be held to the same standards of correctness as a journalist. So fine, he’s not a journalist. He’s a wolf in journalist’s clothing.
His position, however, raises a question: Isn’t blowing off facts as if they were so much dandelion fluff antithetical to his stated purpose of essaying the Truth? D’Agata uses “facts” that aren’t facts to make a statement about a “reality” that is real for no one but himself, and relies on “coincidences” that aren’t coincidences to reveal something “profound” about Las Vegas, or the cosmos, that is not profound but rather an accidental accumulation of detail and event. He argues that in manipulating Levi’s story, he’s “making a better work of art — and thus a better and truer experience for the reader.” But would it have made the experience any less True to call those vans pink? To let Tweety Nails be Tweety Nails? To give that poor school its comma?
“I try to take control of something before it is lost entirely to chaos,” D’Agata writes, but what he creates is a mirage. He takes randomness and superimposes themes, gins up drama where it doesn’t exist, tries to convince us his embellishments are more vivid and revealing about a city, about human nature, about Truth, than reality could ever be.
In short, he plays God. (Recall: “I wanted his death to be more unique.”) But one could contend he’s merely making excuses to conceal his own laziness. As Fingal says: “Ars longa, vita brevis, no? Why not suck it up and do the work to get it right?”
D’Agata’s attachment to his precious words might be less exasperating were his defenses not so frequently flimsy. On one page, he changes the name of Levi’s tae kwon do school because it doesn’t contain the term “tae kwon do,” which could “suggest that someone wouldn’t be able to study tae kwon do there” and thus cause “unnecessary confusion.” (By this logic, the West Bronx Academy for the Future, in New York, must not include history in its curriculum.) On another page, he defends his inventions, assuming a tone of righteous indignation: “Do you think I’d just change this willy-nilly to suit some sort of literary trick I wanted to pull off?” Um. Yes!
Two more D’Agatian principles, both outrageous, cannot go unmentioned. First is his notion about what writing branded “nonfiction” can and cannot do. “Nonfiction,” he has argued, “essentially means ‘not art,’ since the word fiction is derived from the Latin fictio, which itself means ‘to form, to shape, to arrange’ — a pretty fundamental activity in art. So by calling something ‘non-fiction’ you are saddling the genre with a label that means it’s incapable of doing what art is fundamentally supposed to do.”
To be sure, “nonfiction” is an inadequate term. And respected writers working in forms categorized as nonfiction have been massaging facts for centuries. But in many cases, these writers’ reputations have preceded them. And where not, those who change names or collapse time for narrative effect, and who care about their readers’ trust, know to disclose their adjustments up front.
D’Agata’s rejection of “nonfiction” still fails to support his conviction that fact and art are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, his implication that something calling itself “nonfiction” and trying to hew to fact cannot also rise to the level of literature is at the least confounding and at worst insulting to some of our finest writers.
Superb literary artists have managed to do their work while remaining precise about details D’Agata would dismiss as frivolous. What of Updike’s criticism and E. B. White’s essays and Joan Didion’s sociopolitical dispatches? More recently, what of the narrative journalism of Katherine Boo, Elif Batuman and Philip Gourevitch, or the essays and criticism of Jonathan Franzen, Pankaj Mishra and Zadie Smith? What of John McPhee, who three years ago in The New Yorker went so far as to write a lengthy ode to his fact checkers? Would D’Agata claim that these writers’ adherence to fact diminishes their art? That when working in “nonfiction,” they don’t weigh the same ingredients he does — structure, theme, resonance, rhythm — in order to wring something wondrous from the ordinary?
No text is sacred. The best writers know this. Fiction or nonfiction, poetry or reportage, it can all be endlessly tinkered with, buffed, polished, reshaped, rearranged. To create art out of fact, to be flexible and canny enough to elicit something sublime from an inconvenient detail, is itself an art. For D’Agata to argue otherwise — to insist that fact impedes the possibilities of literature, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is “unsophisticated” — betrays his limitations as a researcher and a writer, not our limitations as readers.
The Believer didn’t let D’Agata get away with everything, but its editors did let slide quite a lot. (To compare versions of his essay, you’ll have to request a back issue — “Lifespan” doesn’t include the finished work, which seems a missed opportunity.) Details disproved in “Lifespan” appear unchanged in the magazine. This makes for a surreal reading experience, as if history were slipping away before our eyes in a real-time enactment of Orwell’s observation: “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. . . . Lies will pass into history.”
This brings us to D’Agata’s other outrageous proposition — that one needn’t concern oneself with facts because rarely are facts reliable, and that belief alone should be considered as muscular as fact, even when the belief has been proved to be based on invention. As long as a story “is believed by somebody,” he writes, “I consider it a legitimate potential history.” Hogwash.
All storytelling is a form of manipulation, and all narrative may be subjective. But as Fingal notes, “Just because you’re open to new interpretations doesn’t mean that all interpretations are valid.” In publishing D’Agata’s essay without tipping off readers to his modus operandi, The Believer — which in its submission guidelines for writers explicitly says: “Please do not send fiction” — invites us down a slippery slope. For as soon as any detail can be called arbitrary, what faith are we to put in words at all? Suddenly there is no difference between essaying the Truth and essaying Truthiness.
D’Agata would say slapping a disclaimer on his writing is akin to “spoon-feeding” an infantile audience “afraid of accidentally venturing into terrain that can’t be footnoted and verified.” He’d argue that people who have read his work (though how many is that, really?) should understand what they’re getting into the moment they see his byline. He’d say that if you make it through his essay, you’ll grasp what he’s been building to all along: “At some point it came clear . . . that if I point to something seeming like significance there is the possibility that nothing real is there. Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information. Sometimes our wisdom, too, in pursuit of what’s called knowledge.” He would call this the essay’s great revelation. I would call it too facile, too late.
But let’s conclude on a positive note. I’m happy to report that if appearances are to be believed, D’Agata and Fingal didn’t kill each other at the end of those however-many years. They are shown together in a photograph on the back of this book. I suppose Photoshop could have achieved this trick, but the image implies that Fingal still walks among us. The galleys for the book had described him as a “writer”; now, we are told, he “designs software.” But in case he is writing, I have a very important message for him: Stay true, young Jim. Stay true.Continue reading the main story
THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT
By John D’Agata and Jim Fingal
123 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. Paper, $17.95.
И кто только распустил этот слух. Тело Колумба покоится здесь, в Испании. Вы ведь, кажется, сказали, что учились в университете. Беккер пожал плечами: - Наверное, в тот день я прогулял лекцию. - Испанская церковь гордится тем, что ей принадлежат его останки.