by Hugh Gilmore
I saw a theater review in the New Yorker last fall (October 22, 2018) for a play called “The Lifespan of a Fact.” That title sounded nasty and funny, and was supposedly based on a true story. In this age of fake news accusations, I thought I should read the review.
The review said, “Lifespan,” as played for the stage, centered around the conflict between a journalist under deadline for a magazine piece and a young intern assigned to fact-check his details.
John D’Agata, the real-life writer, is portrayed as himself, as is the intern, Jim Fingal. D’Agata’s article was about a young man who’d committed suicide by jumping off a hotel roof in Las Vegas. He wanted the piece to be a psycho-sociological meditation that would indict the corrupt modern world in general, and the especially rotten, indifferent world of Las Vegas in particular. According to him, those influences led to the 16-year-old’s fatal leap. Fingal clashes with D’Agata’s almost immediately.
For example, where D’Agata has written that Las Vegas had 34 strip clubs at the time of the suicide, Fingal’s research says 31. D’Agata says 34 has a better rhythm. And furthermore, he is not writing an “article,” as Fingal says, but an essay. As the play evolves, their disagreements escalate into bitter clashes. Fingal is presented as merely doing his job, though perhaps a bit too zealously. D’Agata is portrayed as an egotist and slob who nonetheless has some valid points to make. Each of them has a different take on how to present the “truth.”
The stage version is not the only way to read this story, though. D’Agata originally wrote this essay for Harper’s Magazine, which rejected it in 2003 because of its many factual inaccuracies. It sat until 2010, when he incorporated it into his highly acclaimed book, “About A Mountain,” which described the federal government’s attempts to build a nuclear waste facility at a place called Yucca Mountain in a desert range near Las Vegas.
Without explicitly asserting causation, D’Agata again used the story of the young man’s suicide as an event to be linked to the problem of managing the monstrous problem of nuclear waste storage and environmental poisoning. The New York Times called it “a breathtaking piece of writing” and nominated it for one of the best books of the year. The Los Angeles Times wrote: “Exquisite … This is … contemporary narrative nonfiction” and that told the story like a novel, operating on many levels at once.
D’Agata’s take on the young man’s suicide (his name was Levi Presley and he was 16) received a third iteration when another magazine, The Believer, offered to publish it. That’s when Fingal, the interning fact checker, came aboard and their now-famous (among people who care about these issues) email exchange started. After a year of wrangling, the piece was published in 2010 with the title “What Happens There” (Vegas, of course).
Early on, D’Agata writes: “On the day that Levi Presley died, five others died from two types of cancer, four from heart attacks, three because of strokes. It was a day of two suicides by gunshot as well. The day of yet another suicide from falling, too.”
Each of those sentences is factually inaccurate, said Fingal, having checked with the Coroner’s Office and the Police Department. D’Agata defended them by saying he was not a reporter, but an essayist, and was chasing another level of truth.
Soon after, D’Agata invited Fingal to write a book with him about their experience. D’Agata would use his memory and Fingal would use his 100-plus pages of notes to both reconstruct and shape their attempts to make sense to one another. And so, the fourth version of the story of Levi Presley’s suicide would appear in “The Lifespan of a Fact,” published as a 127-page paperback original by W. W. Norton & Company in 2012. From thence, “Lifespan” went to the New York stage, where it was hailed as a comedy, its website quoting a reviewer who called it “A smart, rib-bustingly funny play.”
As for D’Agata, he, not surprisingly, teaches creative writing at the renowned University of Iowa Writer’s Program and – no surprise – directs the Graduate Nonfiction Writing program. One might expect that such a responsible, national-spotlight position would not be given to a writer who plays so fast and loose with the nonfictional facts. But he’s been given several important foundations fellowships and talks a very good “writing theory” game. He’s edited two books about essay writing. His position for years is that he is writing “essays” in the original way that Montaigne is credited with having invented them in 1580. He means that he is “attempting” to discover the truth about his subject in an artful and honest way. Such higher truths are not dependent on facts.
Of course, if you believe that the medium tells us how to interpret the message, the appearance of his work in a magazine or newspaper, covered in all the trappings of journalism, tends to rile people, especially editors and fact-checkers. Not enough, though, to prevent Harper’s, which originally rejected the essay, from publishing an excerpt in February of 2012.
I enjoyed reading “The Lifespan of a Fact” in the book version. It simultaneously contains the entire essay of “What Happens There,” together with Fingal’s alternating interjections. The point-counterpoint layout is both funny and thought-provoking as it toddles along.