Poor Jim Fingal. The industrious-to-a-fault fact checker for the Believer magazine really had no idea what he was getting into when he volunteered to work on John D’Agata’s essay about suicide in Las Vegas. D’Agata, it turns out, has a habit of bending the facts in service of his larger, more abstract visions. In fact, he actively despises the term nonfiction and all its baggage, preferring instead the simpler etymological definition of essay: to try, to attempt.
This proves to be bad news for Fingal, who finds four inaccuracies in the article’s very first sentence. It only gets worse from there.
The Lifespan of a Fact lays out D’Agata’s essay, as submitted (it was eventually expanded into a very good book, About a Mountain, in 2010), in the centre of the page. But the bulk of the text comes from Fingal’s meticulous notes, as well as his increasingly tense correspondence with D’Agata on the finer points, which fill the surrounding margins. The result is not only an ingenious dissection of the sausage factory that is magazine reporting, although it is most definitely that—it’s also an investigation into the limits of truth and art, albeit one quietly smuggled in under the guise of an argument about, among other things, the colour of some dog-grooming vans.
D’Agata takes the side of art and its fundamental duty to disrupt and challenge its audience, specifics be damned; Fingal is sworn to uphold the value of facts for their own sake. Readers will undoubtedly start off on Fingal’s side, but by the end, it’s really anyone’s game.
Both men are so deep in their convictions that they lash out at a moment’s notice. Here’s D’Agata, in a not-unrepresentative response to a request for more information: “Really, Jim, respectfully, you’re worrying about very stupid shit.” And sometimes he really is. By the time Fingal is searching online for photos of a coroner to verify whether he actually had a beard to scratch, as D’Agata claims, you start to think that maybe an occasional walk outside would do him good.
Of course, there’s another obvious question baiting the reader throughout: is this really the true account? That’s the whole premise, but are we meant to believe that these two professionals really speak to one another like this, cursing and insulting and making uncalled-for insinuations about certain mothers?
My instinct is to say yes—if only because there’s simply no way a guy like Jim Fingal would’ve signed off on it otherwise.
Either way, the first great book of 2012 is here.
W.W. Norton, 160 pp, $19, softcover
(review originally appeared in the Georgia Straight, March 1, 2012)Feb 29, 2012