The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal
Reviewed by Gabriel I. Sistare
February 21, 2013
The chair of my college’s History and Political Science department had a favorite explanation for the practice of history. No matter the course level – HIS 120 Western Civilization Ancient Greece to 1450; HIS 270 Modern German History; or HIS 340 Conflict and Community in Early America; he would offer up the same scenario: “If I asked you all to e-mail me a description of the first day of class,” he told us, “I would receive twenty-five different accounts of what happened today.” I’m sure some of us thought our hyper-aware attitudes would trump those of our classmates – that out of everyone, we would produce the most lucid and authoritative assessment of that very first day. But, the scenario was meant to explain certain things about narrative fallibility and the inevitable bias people have built into their ideas about life.
The Lifespan of a Fact, an annotated edition of John D’Agata’s essay on Levi Presley’s suicidal leap from Las Vegas’ Stratosphere Hotel in 2002, features a debate about certain ethical boundaries of the essay as a literary form—a debate between D’Agata and Jim Fingal, the fact-checker assigned to the essay by editors at The Believer, the magazine that adopted publication of the essay after Harper’s rejected it for factual inaccuracies. At times heart-quickening, incredibly boring, enraging, and sad, The Lifespan of a Fact delivers tight examples of the failures of historical authority, the struggle of making something beautiful without damaging trust, and the attempt of certain professional narrators (essayists, historians, journalists, philosophers) to derive coherence from billions of unique perspectives.
Where do we start?
What is a fact? Who can claim fact, and who can assert something as capital-t True? And, to what extent is something an important fact or just minutia? In certain sections of the book, Fingal insists that D’Agata revise his prose to better approach this thing called “fact.” To the point of anal-retention, Fingal argues for so much specificity that if his detail were included in the essay, we’d be lost in trivia. In one section, Fingal extrapolates on the inaccuracy of D’Agata’s description of the Stratosphere’s construction.
“I’m pretty sure he’s talking about the tower here, although it’s a little ambiguous whether this figure includes what went into building the hotel and casino, or just the tower. I can find no exact figure on the amount of concrete used to construct it, but I can confirm that the tower as a whole weighs about a hundred million pounds—1,600 tons of which (i.e. 3.2 million pounds) is steel. The rest of it isn’t all concrete, although the weight must come from somewhere. According to the website of Reade Advanced materials, concrete is generally about 140-150 pounds per cubic foot. I guess I have no idea what the typical proportion is of concrete to steel in a tower, especially in a very concrete-heavy building like the Stratosphere, and I am also not sure what “several” means here in John’s claim of “several hundred thousand.” If we interpret “several” as being anywhere between three and ten, then the only useful information John’s offering in his claim of “several hundred thousand cubic feet” is that it’s in the range of 42 million pounds and 150 million pounds of concrete. That’s pretty vague, and therefore I think it could be considered an inaccurate statement.”
If D’Agata were writing for an architecture journal, Fingal’s dispute would be reasonable. But D’Agata attempts to understand why a teenage boy with all superficial signs of wellness jumped from a thousand-foot tower (or more precisely, 1,149 feet or 350.2 meters. But Google’s search calculator indicates the total tower height at 1148 feet or 350 meters. But 1148 feet, according to Wolfram|Alpha’s calculator is not a round 350 meters but 349.9 meters. But my own calculations, given that one foot is equivalent to 0.3048 meters, suggest that the total tower height is 350.2152 meters. So what is the truth, and who has it? Google? Wolfram|Alpha? Me, via my computer’s freely licensed calculator written in the C programming language by at least four people and with possible contributions from hundreds more?) in a city that runs on human indulgence and glorifies the motto “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas,” a phrase that advocates a certain deliberate forgetting and ignorance. Would we have a clearer emotional resolution to Levi Presley’s suicide if D’Agata was more specific than the Stratosphere consisting of “several hundred thousand” cubic feet of concrete?
This professor of mine also liked to remind us that history is an argument, not fact. Shirking the kind of finality of something like capital-f Fact, history as an argument implies process, evolution, something imperfect and unfinished. Historians quibble with each other, revisit the same notes, photos, freight manifests, and diaries, and restate what they think is a better attempt at “what happened” than all the other historians have made. Amazon.com has at least 2,725 works focusing on the American Revolution. It’s likely that each of these books has at least two to five quotations on the back jacket praising the lucidity of so-and-so’s scrutiny of the American founding. Better yet, geologists would observe that the United States, a very abstract set of socio-political boundaries, is part of a pile of rock that is at least 3 billion years old, so any geological narrative of an American “founding” would predate the popular story of minutemen and redcoats by a few decades. So who’s right? Who claims Truth and Fact?
D’Agata was interested in Levi Presley’s suicide because he thought he talked to Presley while volunteering for a suicide-prevention hotline. It turned out D’Agata never spoke to him. So at least in the context of Fingal’s fact-checking parameters, the essay started from something that never happened. But why should it be that because D’Agata never talked to Presley on the phone he shouldn’t think about what motivated the boy to jump? And why should we dismiss D’Agata as a broken narrator who betrayed our trust because he preferred an “inquiry of mind,” as he refers to the essay, to a recitation of data?
“It was clear as I left Vegas that some other boy had called.
Clear that 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.”
In the really tremendous and just plain old sad ending to The Lifespan of a Fact, Fingal realizes that his fact checking might be futile. Like D’Agata wrote, “sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.” Our obsession with accuracy is pointless at some level.
“I mean, even if everything that’s in question could be verified by unbiased third-party witnesses, and even if I could definitively determine to a fraction of a second exactly when it was that Levi left his house and from how high it was that he jumped and in what direction the wind happened to be blowing—and how hard, and at what temperature, and whether there was dust or not—when he dove off the tower at 6:01:53 p.m, and plummeted for a total of 8 seconds onto a sidewalk of herringbone…well, then…I don’t know. I’d have done my job. But wouldn’t he still be dead?”
History never tries to bring back the dead; it just tries to help us remember.
Gabriel Sistare is a writer and editor most comfortable steaming vegetables or sitting in the public library. He prefers to sit next to the oversized Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture and write about his philosophical opposition to the automobile.