EVERYTHING IN John D’Agata’s essay “What Happens There,” and in About A Mountain, the book it became, seems to exist at once: the height of the world’s tallest sign; the nine levels of Tae Kwan Do; a list of pinball machines named after television shows; the presence, or not, of the word “suicide” in a number of ancient tongues. Before we have finished contemplating a ban on lap dancing, we are offered the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco sauce. The story, one begins to suspect, is not these facts themselves, but something about the act of crowding, this packing-in of significance. Given the nature of this emporium, who would be surprised to discover that some of the goods D’Agata is peddling are dubious—counterfeit, or at the very least ersatz?
“What Happens There” revolved around the suicide of Levi Presley, a teenage boy in Las Vegas. It was commissioned by Harper’s but rejected over certain inaccuracies: D’Agata, it seemed, had more often than not chosen lyricism over a more pedestrian real. The Believer eventually adopted the piece, and it landed on the desk of a twenty-three-year-old intern by the name of Jim Fingal, who assumed the role of customs inspector to its questionable factual freight. “I’ll buy you a pack of red pens,” his editor said. Heroically (one assumes he was working unpaid for much of the time), Fingal spent seven itch-worthy years fact-checking the piece and engaging in back-and-forths with D’Agata—who not only put up significant resistance, but did not deign to hide his scorn.
Needless to say, something like an encounter narrative between two profoundly different genres called “nonfiction” emerged. This collaborative story has now been released as The Lifespan of a Fact. The book reprints D’Agata’s essay a paragraph or a phrase at a time, encircled by Fingal’s fact checking notes—red for disputed, black for confirmed—and his correspondence with the author. It amounts to a rousing and visually stunning debate over the negotiability of fact in nonfiction. A sampling:
Jim: Possible dispute: … The base of the tower is not, in other words, right at the intersection … So ‘near the base of the tower’ is probably more accurate. John, do you want to change this?
John: Nope. ‘At the base’ is sharper-sounding and more precise.
Jim: But it’s inaccurate. How could it be more precise?
Jim: I mean, what exactly gives you the authority to introduce half-baked legend as fact and sidestep questions of facticity?
John: It’s called art, dickhead.
Jim: That’s your excuse for everything.
Exchanges like these give Lifespan the appeal of a comic epistolary novel. The two men become characters capable of summoning and squandering readerly sympathy in quick succession. There is a real pathos to Jim’s highly principled quest for truth; a glutton for information, he bounds bright-eyed down the rabbit hole of sources and sources of sources of sources. His frustration at D’Agata’s recalcitrance is palpable: “Note to self: John is not a journalist. Also not a nonfiction writer. He is, however, a writer of journalistic-ish texts that are not necessarily fiction. Got it.” “John,” for his part, often comes off as, quite simply, a jerk: quick to anger, sarcastic, arch, taunting his poor interlocutor for his enthusiasm and treating the debate like a pissing contest. Yet the stakes are high for D’Agata as well, and when he tries to enumerate his relationship to truth he adopts the messianic tone of a John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness:
An essay is an attempt, Jim. Nothing else. … Even etymologically, “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. That’s what I want to be held accountable for as a writer; it’s how I want to be judged.
The vocabulary of the conversation—D’Agata’s “charge,” Fingal’s “shock”—betrays its urgency. Like any debate about the negotiability of fact in nonfiction this one invariably involves terms like “trust,” “moral contract,” “responsibility,” and “ethics.” The question that Lifespan approaches—though without attempting an answer exactly—is whether or not such terms have any place at all in a discussion about art.
As luck would have it, D’Agata’s essay itself is redolent with these sorts of questions, in subject as well as style. It emphasizes the “looseness of fact” surrounding Presley’s suicide, and part of D’Agata’s factual gaming is done in order to enact this point. It is true that D’Agata can seem to create meaning where there is none. Still, as he writes in the essay, “If I point to something seeming like significance there is the possibility that nothing real is there. Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information. Sometimes our wisdom too, in pursuit of what’s called knowledge.” Fingal responds (as any good reader must): “Touché.”
Readers, or at least critics, have historically been put-off by D’Agata’s peregrinations from accuracy to “truth.” But unlike, say, an investigative journalist or sociologist, D’Agata is not trying to prove anything; a good essay is a record of a mind engaged in the reconstruction of an idea, and D’Agata is trying to work something out using existing and almost-existing circumstances as pawns.
There are two ways to react to the discomfort this provokes: to insist that essays like his require a readership in on the joke—that is, make it a problem of genre—or else to consider that art which announces its parameters ahead of time is perhaps not the most interesting or valuable sort. D’Agata, for his part, seems to want it both ways. He claims, rightly, to have been “giving readers winks and nods” throughout his career—that what he writes is never labeled “nonfiction,” at least by him, and ends up in that category only because it’s not fiction either. But in the same breath he maintains that the responsibility of art is to “break us open, to make us raw ... to challenge us, and yes, even to trick us.”
If we take it for nonfiction and feel betrayed on discovering that it isn’t, quite, this can be a useful experience of its own, albeit one requiring that we allow ourselves to be more-or-less suckered by the work. In fact, the only reason the reader experiences betrayal is because D’Agata has constructed that experience for us: he does cop to certain embellishments, after the fact. In About A Mountain, he includes endnotes listing instances where he’s strayed, and Lifespan, likewise, is at once admission and proof, the whole book a kind of manifesto of the not-quite-non-fiction essay.
But to ask the question of whether or not D’Agata ought to alert us to his tricks is to approach his work the wrong way, applying ethical rather than aesthetic criteria to something that wants nothing to do with ethics. To judge D’Agata for his treatment of Levi Presley in moral terms is to diminish the aesthetic role that Presley serves in the essay. (This is not, of course, to minimize the value of pursuing precision where death is concerned—in fact, it is our insufficient capacity for precision in the face of death that is one of the truths D’Agata is working towards; the proceeds from Lifespan are being donated to a scholarship in Presley’s name.) It is the difference between what Vivian Gornick calls the “situation” and the “story”: one no more—and no less—than the opportunity for the other.
Lifespan is remarkable not only as an intellectual adventure, but for its portrayal of the search for these kinds of truths as a conversation. It is a high-stakes exercise not of surety but of anxiety. In that way it mirrors the essay form as D’Agata sees it, open to the production of wonder but equally to that of doubt, frustration, and betrayal.
The book trails on long after the conclusion of D’Agata’s essay as Fingal attempts, painstakingly, to reconstruct the sequence of its dramatic finale, searching for the place where either D’Agata or his sources erred in their timing of Levi’s death. It’s a heartrending effort, and what amounts to a mathematical essay of its own. Something’s awry, Fingal senses, and yet: “I don’t know.” In the end, the “why” remains elusive, even when the facts are sound. “Why,” it would seem, is the province of art.
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She was once a fact-checking intern at Bookforum magazine.