three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
By: 
John D'Agata
user_rating: 
0

737316.pngIn 2010, John D’Agata, who teaches writing at the University of Iowa, published About a Mountain, an intricate examination of a nuclear-waste site at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. "What Happens There," one of the book’s essays, had a long and checkered past, the result of D’Agata’s ongoing feud with a fact-checker, Jim Fingal. The Lifespan of a Fact is a blow-by-blow account of that battle.

The Topic: In 2002, 16-year-old Levi Presley committed suicide by jumping off the 1,100-foot Stratosphere in Las Vegas. Writer John D’Agata used the incident as the focus for an essay originally intended for Harper’s; in 2003, the magazine turned down D’Agata’s work after discovering factual inconsistencies. The author submitted the piece to the literary journal The Believer, where fact-checker Jim Fingal continued to call the essay’s accuracy into question. The issue was moot for D’Agata, who claimed that the "lyrical essay" was not beholden to the same standards of fact as journalism. In reproduced manuscript pages showing Fingal’s notations in red—and through a back-and-forth between the two that reads more like an Internet flame war than professional correspondence (or is that just a feature of the book’s "meta" aspect?)—The Lifespan of a Fact illustrates the vast, often ignored chasm between "accuracy" and "truth" in writing.
Norton. 128 pages. $17.95. ISBN: 9780393340730

Daily Beast 4 of 5 Stars
"The idea that a book about fact-checking would itself be heavily embellished is of course ironic, but it gets at a recurrent element of D’Agata’s work, and another justification for his unorthodox approach. … Fittingly, the murky reality of their argument was hidden in order to highlight the more profound intractability of their disagreement." Josh Dzieza

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"What follows is an enthralling back-and-forth conversation over several months in which these two men dove deep into what it means to be a writer, what it means to call something ‘nonfiction’ and where the lines are between creativity and honesty. … Given that we live in a climate of spin, where everything is up for debate depending on how it is presented, this book provides essential and exciting reading for anyone interested in how we define ‘the truth.’" Matthew Tiffany

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Raising doubt about what’s real is the point of this collaboration between [D’Agata and Fingal]. Eventually I concluded that this debate about fact and art and accuracy is most likely true, as few people could make up anything this hard to believe." Leslie Rubinkowski

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Less a book than a knock-down, drag-out fight between two tenacious combatants, over questions of truth, belief, history, myth, memory and forgetting. … Lifespan is the scorecard from their bout, a reproduction of their correspondence over the course of five (or was it seven?) years of fact-checking." Jennifer B. McDonald

Salon 3 of 5 Stars
"If this face-off between a meticulous establisher of truth and a bold champion of poetic license strikes you as a bit contrived, then I say: well spotted… ! Many of Fingal’s quibbles—such as asking D’Agata for notes on a guided bus tour he took as a college student in 1994, or insisting that the mountains southeast of Vegas look ‘brownish’ to him, rather than ‘black’ as D’Agata described them—are so over-the-top that the writer’s snappishness becomes understandable." Laura Miller

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The Lifespan of a Fact attempts to illustrate the difference between ‘accuracy’ and ‘truth’ and to contemplate when is it OK to fudge one to achieve the other. … Casual readers are plopped right into the squabble without much introduction." Wendy McManamon

Critical Summary

In The Lifespan of a Fact, the dialogue between John D’Agata and Jim Fingal takes on a surreal quality. Do professionals really behave like this, or is their exchange the sort of self-conscious, agreed-upon conflict manufactured (and demanded) by a voyeuristic culture that threatens to diminish the fact of a young man’s death? The book makes its point abundantly clear—perhaps "truth" is a more admirable goal than "accuracy" for an essayist attempting to mine the deeper issues beneath the surface of a story. The book illustrates the authors’ dialogue in red in the margins; a paragraph of the actual manuscript appears in black. But readers might bristle at D’Agata’s suggestion that creative nonfiction has somehow been "terrorized by an unsophisticated reading public" and wonder whether there might have been a better way to reach the same conclusion.