The Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"What is truth?" Pontius Pilate spits out that question, as much to himself as anyone, in the middle of his heated debate with Jesus Christ on the eve of his execution. The story is told every year during Holy Week, the most sacred seven days of the Christian calendar. It happened to be Holy Week as I read The Lifespan of a Fact, a short book that like Holy Week centers on a death and wrestles with the nature of truth. Unlike Holy Week, this story has no happy ending, no resurrection to redeem the tragedy. It's just two men arguing over the nature of truth while a third man leaps to his death.
OK, that's not exactly what the book is. A slim 123 pages of text, the book is based on an essay by John D'Agata about a young man's suicide in Las Vegas, written for a journal that employs interns and has them, among other things, serve as fact checkers for its content. Jim Fingal happily and naively (and a bit too familiarly) challenges some of the details in the opening lines of D'Agata's essay; D'Agata bristles at the cheekiness of the content and refuses to either defend or correct his loose use of facts; and the game is on. Fingal wants precision and clarity and coherence; D'Agata wants rhythmic sentences and thematic symmetry and literary beauty. They argue back and forth, their passions get the better of them, they bang their heads against each other's walls. They get nowhere with each other, raging back and forth while a young man muddles through a day that ends with him taking an elevator to the top of a casino, waving goodbye to a security guard and falling 9-make-that-8 seconds until landing on the ground below, dead.
The heart of the question between these two begins with the basic question of what the article is: is it essay-as-literature, as D'Agata contends, such that facts are secondary and modular utilities in the search for truth; or is it essay as explanation, which Fingal assumes and which, frankly, must have been the assumption of his boss as well, hence the assignment. D'Agata's casual relationship to factual precision is admittedly shocking, and he waits a frustratingly long time in the book to even begin to justify his approach and explain his writing ethic. Meanwhile Fingal is frustrating throughout, dissecting each detail of every sentence and passing judgment on it as only a punk intern can, trying to prove his mettle with the wrong set of proofs. We reach the impasse between these two within the first couple of pages, and wait nearly ninety pages before really broaching the question that plagued Pilate as he sentenced Jesus to death. And even then, we're haunted by the fact, undisputed on either side of the debate, that all 123 pages of back-and-forth have sprung from, and none of the 123 pages can remedy, the tragic death of a young man in a city that is far to resigned to the shocking numbers of suicides that plague its citizens year after year after year. As Fingal puts it, in a moment of moral clarity that is almost as tragic as the event itself, "Even if everything that's in question could be verified by unbiased third-party witnesses . . . well, then . . . I don't know. I'd have done my job. But wouldn't he still be dead?"
You will choose a side in this debate between D'Agata and Fingal, but it won't be easy, because both are clearly flawed characters, reacting out of their own insecurities and righteous indignation. They also both are great exemplars of their convictions; they confront each other with conviction and intellectual heft. It'll boil down to whether (a) you think an essay in a journal is a work of art or a piece of information and (b) you think truth is something that can be uncovered only by an amalgamation of facts or by the assertion of meaning. You might also be influenced by which of the debaters you find more obnoxious. D'Agata states his point concisely: "An essay is an attempt, Jim. Nothing else." Fingal states his conviction equally pungeantly: "You've got to ask yourself how far on the fringes of facticity someone is if not even Wikipedia agrees with them." And both of them ultimately fade to silence, appropriately, in the mutual acknowledgment that whether precise and accurate or mosaic and felt, unnecessary death is tragedy to be mourned and a wrong to be fought, never something to be trifled with.
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