Review: The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata & Jim Fingal

I. Of Facts and Truths

You are writing what will probably become the de facto story of what happened to Levi, and so every detail you choose to do that with shall become significant, because your account will be the one account anyone is ever likely to read about him. -Jim Fingal

 …the more important thing to highlight here is the search for meaning.  And an integral part of my search for that meaning is this attempt to reconstruct details in a way that makes them feel significant, even if that significance is one that doesn’t naturally occur in the event being described. –John D’Agata

I’m reminded of Moby Dick.

That slow burning hell of a text was the death of me in high school.  Despite a few passages that gleamed with certain virility, I was beset with angst throughout the process of discovering its beauty.

This of course came at the end as the last line of the book reads:

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

To this day it takes my breath away; has instructed many times with a way to be and where to go.  I love Moby Dick for this one line because it altered the course of my perceptions.  Suddenly the book was not only myth built upon facts, but it was truth.  It had weight that could inform my perceptions of the worlds around me.

The Lifespan of a Fact, a recently released text by John D’Agata (author) and Jim Fingal (fact-checker), presents their back and forth preparing an essay written by D’Agata, initially requested and rejected  by Harper’s Magazine, so The Believer could publish it.  Surrounding the published essay with their debates over facts and truths not only offers insight into the world of a published writer, but disentangles the essay from its thrown in the worlds of publication and brings it back to the blood, sweat, and tears of a writer who has something to say and the publisher trying to make it defendable.

It’s access to a conversation.  Like those weird moments at a party where the goings on do not require your existence yet compel your involvement via the truths (and value of presence) they will bestow.   

Classified as non-fiction, D’Agata wants nothing of it.

I’m not calling this “nonfiction,” and neither do I tend to call anything I write “nonfiction,” because I don’t accept that term as a useful description of anything that I value in literature.

D’Agata is an essayist with a particular view of writing that is after something more than simply a relay of facts.   

I’m seeking a truth here, but not necessarily accuracy.

And later on,

“essay” means “an attempt.”  And so, as a writer of essays, my interpretation of that charge is that I try – that I try – to take control of something before it is lost entirely to chaos.

He is not a journalist.  He doesn’t keep good notes and is not very much interested in the process most regard as professional.

This is hell for Fingal whose job is to fact check.  He has to confirm the ins and outs of D’Agata’s prose so that it might be possible to one day be seen in print and, because of D’Agata’s response to his probing, takes his detail further than some might consider necessary.  But, the presentation of their process is fantastic.  Their conversation exhibits the complication of truth.  The way we go about shaping it.  How we decide to internalize and understand it.

Truth is not self evident.  We do not step out into a world overwhelmed with reality, but realities.  Our world is built upon perception.  Each of us sees things slightly askew from another.  This is what makes things interesting.  Why we strive for new ways of being every day.

The assemblage of facts does not necessarily carry with it truth of experience.  Not to say that facts should not be valued, especially by those of the journalistic persuasion, but D’Agata is after something other than that.  He is shaping the world, and our view of it, and is not beholden to reporting from the scene.  Many find this appalling, but if you write it off there is a lot to miss.

At the end Fingal speaks without D’Agata, addressing the facts and their placement amongst the official.

I guess I have to wonder that if this one fact in the only existing document that officially records Levi Presley’s death is this significantly unreliable, to what extent can we trust the reliability of the Coroner’s Report as a whole, or the reliability of Levi’s parents themselves….Which of these sources can we trust as “the” authority if they all have demonstrated in one way or another the potential of inaccurately representing what actually happened that night.

And in the last moment the book allows for its Moby; Fingal’s last statement on the matter concerning the ever widening gap between fact and truth and how he can go about addressing the discrepancies inherent therein.

                I don’t know.  I’d have done my job.  But wouldn’t he still be dead?

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393340730
Binding: Softcover
Price: $17.95



And The Lifespan of a Fact has one more trick up its sleeve. The correspondence between D’Agata and Fingal, as it turns out, was largely invented for the sake of the book. And although Fingal swears that all of the fact-checking is real, much of it was done specifically for this project¹.

Go read it.  There is more going on here than simply a debate over fact and fiction and it goes beyond the text itself.  

  1. Travis Larchuk, ‘Lifespan’: What Are The Limits of Literary

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