The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 128 pp

John D’Agata is the author of About a Mountain and Halls of Fame, and editor of The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay. He teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he lives.

Jim Fingal worked for several years as a fact-checker at The Believer and McSweeney’s, where he worked on the titles What Is the What, Surviving Justice, Voices from the Storm, and others. He currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he designs software.

Evaluating Truth

Recently, I engaged in an existential debate regarding the meaning of book evaluation. My considerations began in December as I compiled my year-end lists. Surprisingly, I found that I rate fiction higher than nonfiction. As I explored the reasons behind my presuppositions, I learned that the rating scale is calibrated differently per genre. On fiction’s side, I rated a book on entertainment value, quality of language, and character development. On nonfiction’s side, I based my rating on the truth value of the thesis. The more closely I found a nonfiction work aligned with my view of reality, the higher I rated the book.

This debate of art versus fact becomes realized in John D’Agata’s and Jim Fingal’s, The Lifespan of a Fact. The tome announces the dialogue around a rejected essay submission on a teenager who committed suicide in Las Vegas. In 2003, an essay by John D’Agata was rejected by the magazine that commissioned it due to factual inaccuracies. In The Lifespan of a Fact, that essay appears in full with the argument between D’Agata and fact-checker, Jim Fingal, dotting the margins.

Accuracy and the Meaning of Suicide 

The essay, in short, speaks of Levi Presley, a teenager who committed suicide in 2002 by jumping off the Stratosphere in Las Vegas. While detailing a true story, D’Agata’s essay flows impressionistically around the cultural climate of Las Vegas and the meaning of suicide.

The text of The Lifespan of a Fact
By privileging artistic expression, factual accuracy becomes a secondary concern. For example, Fingal and D’Agata argue about the number of seconds it took Levi to fall from the tower:

“’We therefore know that when Levi Presley jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel at 6:01:43 p.m.—eventually hitting the ground at 6:01:52…’ Factual Dispute: Although the incident did happen at ’18:01,’ according to the Coroner’s Report, Levi Presley’s fall supposedly only took eight seconds, not nine. So the actual time frame would be more like ‘6:01:43-6:01:51.’
John: Yeah, I fudged that. It doesn’t seem like it should be that big a deal, though. It’s only a second. And I needed him to fall for nine seconds rather than eight in order to help make some of the later themes in the essay work.
Jim: John, changing details about stuff like Tobasco sauce bottles and thermometers is one thing, but it seems a tad unethical to fiddle with details that relate directly to this kid’s death. In my book, it just seems wrong, especially since the coroner clearly states that Presley’s fall only took eight seconds.
John: I don’t think it’s unethical, particularly because I wasn’t alone in assuming that his fall took nine seconds. For a while his parents also assumed that he had fallen for nine seconds. In fact, that’s where I initially got the number from. Do you think I’d just change this willy-nilly to suit some sort of literary trick I wanted to pull off? His parents and I had a fairly explicit conversation about these nine seconds with Levi’s old Tae Kwon Do coach. So with that little bit of information, I began thinking about some of the ways that the number nine could play a thematic role in the essay.
Jim: OK, I’ll grant you that at one point you didn’t know the correct number, but now you do know better, so shouldn’t it change?
John: ‘Nine’ is too integral a part of the essay at this point. And I admit that I’m wrong about ‘nine’ later on anyway. So the essay’s not changing. It would ruin the essay.
Jim: It would ‘ruin’ it to make it more accurate?
John: Yup” (19).

Must History Be Accurate? 

Photo by O Palsson

Strikingly, D’Agata finds the artistic representation of the number nine more important in the essay than the fact that the actual event occurred differently. Depending on your view of art and the purpose of truth in communication, your response to such an idea will differ. For some, the truth factor matters above all else because the event is real. Fingal, the fact checker, takes this stance:

“I don’t disagree that these facts are trifling, John, but don’t you think that the gravity of the situation demands an accuracy that you’re dismissing as incidental? This isn’t just about the name of one slot machine. I mean, even if there was no inherent meaning in these details, you’re giving them meaning by calling attention to them… You are writing what will probably become the de facto story of what happened to Levi, and so every detail you choose to [alter] will become significant, because your account will be the one account anyone is ever likely to read about him. And that’s why to me this is serious business, because the record you’re creating now, however minor, will be regarded as the authoritative one, if only because there is no competing narrative anyone else is likely to read or write about this kid” (107).

Artistic License Draws Upon Deeper Themes in Life?

Others more inclined to the thematic artfulness of creative writing will contend that the truthfulness of the event does not change. Whether Levi fell for eight seconds or nine seconds, he still committed suicide. D’Agata would argue that through an essay, a life can be memorialized whether or not it tells the story with accuracy to the second.

“An essay is not a vehicle for facts, in other words, nor for information, nor verifiable experience. An essay is an experience, and a very human one at that” (111).

Ultimately, I find it difficult to choose between the two sides. Accuracy matters. Nonfiction as a genre prospers on the foundation of truthfulness. To intentionally alter facts with artistic license is to insert falsity into a true story. Yet, the narrative function of a story requires emotion. When accuracy forces a story into clunky prose and too much detail to qualify a story’s progression, is not artfulness capable of maintaining the theme and keeping a story readable?

The Lifespan of a Fact: More Dadaist, Less Rembrandt

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

For me, The Lifespan of a Fact feels like some of the early 20th century dadaist art. Much like Duchamp’s Fountain or In Advance of the Broken Arm, The Lifespan of a Fact elicits an intellectual response. In my mind, I laugh and say, “I get it.” But that response about covers the topic. The Lifespan of a Fact does not offer the depth of an intricate Rembrandt painting where each subsection of the piece carries interest to the smallest brushstroke.

My evaluation of literature remains schismatic. Fiction leans toward evaluative tactics that require consideration of writing technique and plot development. Nonfiction needs a level of truthfulness. But, The Lifespan of a Fact alters my perception in the principle of accuracy versus truthfulness. Levi Presely tragically chose to commit suicide in 2002. If D’Agata’s essay sheds light on his life in a respectable manner (of note, all profits from this book go to Levi’s family), I’m at peace with sacrificing accuracy.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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