The Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata, author, and Jim Fingal, fact checker; Norton, 123 pages ($17.95 paperback original). We are currently in a brilliant, if seldom remarked-upon, wave of truly extraordinary books examining just what narrative, especially nonfiction narrative, is -- what it should be, can be, shouldn't be or can never be and how little people know about all of it. Here is the fascinating result of no less than seven years of back and forth between an essayist and a fact checker for The Believer Magazine over what was written in an essay and what the fact checker discovers to be inaccurate or, at the very least, nonfactual.
It began when a magazine commissioned John D'Agata -- who significantly teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa -- to write an essay about the very real Las Vegas suicide of 16-year old Levis Presley. The essay is rejected for its lack of strictest factual scruple in search of a larger "truth." So D'Agata expands it into a book called "About a Mountain" and the original piece is picked up by The Believer Magazine but only after The Believer's 23-year-old fact-checker Jim Fingal has vetted it with a virtual electron microscope for fact.
The purported seven-year result has lunatic moments when it almost sounds as if Percy Bysshe Shelley and Gradgrind from Dickens' "Hard Times" were wrestling in public over literary propriety. Underneath, of course, is a story of our time -- the drift of journalistic orthodoxy into an intolerant, arrogant ethic that refuses to understand, much less sympathize, with anything that isn't itself, and a "poetic license" in nonfiction invention called "art" and passed off as higher truth suitable for battering others over the head.
At one point, fact-checker Fingal asks "what exactly gives you the authority to introduce half-baked legend as fact and sidestep questions of factuality?" D'Agata replies "It's called art, d----head." "That's your excuse for everything" replies Fingal. "It's not an excuse. . It's how I approach everything."
An ancient dichotomy is presented in a wild and arresting "new" way.
-- Jeff Simon