Facts Are Stupid
An essayist and his fact-checker go to battle over the line between true and false.
In the end, this stuff matters. Trusting a writer matters. When I met Tim O’Brien, 20 years ago this month, I was 16, just like Levi Presley. I’d been freshly dumped by my girlfriend. Milwaukee has no building as spectacular as the 1,149-foot-tall Stratosphere Hotel tower in Vegas, which Levi Presley jumped from, but I’d come up with a good alternative—the Hoan Bridge, best known as the bridge that was half-finished when the Nazis drove over its edge in The Blues Brothers, 30 years ago, back in 1982. I wasn’t really considering suicide, but I did think a lot about how bad that would make my ex-girlfriend feel.
“I don’t know what to do,” I blurted as I shook Tim O’Brien’s hand.
“Just keep writing,” he said. And so I did.
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In a glib flourish toward the end of “What Happens There,” D’Agata acknowledges some of his manipulations of the facts. He admits that Levi probably fell for eight seconds, not nine. He says that he didn’t, as he’d previously claimed, talk to Levi on the phone the night he died. But he doesn’t own up to the scores of other errors, misquotes, and misrepresentations that pepper his essay; instead he writes, as if reprimanding us for foolishly believing him: “If I point to something like significance there is the possibility that nothing real is there.” In D’Agata’s work it reads like a cheat, not like art, not like life, not like story-truth. I can’t imagine 16-year-old me approaching John D’Agata and asking him for help. I don’t trust him.
Yet what is the difference between what D’Agata does and what O’Brien did? What is the difference between D’Agata’s elimination of brackets in a quote on Page 57 because, he says, “brackets are ugly,” and what I do every time I “edit and condense” a Q&A? The time a fact-checker saved me from litigation it wasn’t actually because I’d inaccurately described a subject’s bankruptcy; I made that example up because the mistake I made is far too embarrassing to reveal here. “Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information,” D’Agata wrote in “What Happens There.” “Sometimes our wisdom, too, in pursuit of what’s called knowledge.” The lines appear near the end of the two men’s argument, and all Fingal can write in response is, “Touché.”
If a good fact-checker, like Jim Fingal, went through my essay, he’d flag 32 falsehoods,* all inaccuracies of the sort that D’Agata argues for keeping in “What Happens There.” In writing this piece, I never met John D’Agata or Jim Fingal, but massaged quotes from other sources, giving the impression I did. The Things They Carried was actually published in 1990. In 1992 I was 17, not 16, not the age of Levi Presley, and though my girlfriend had dumped me I wasn’t considering suicide at all. That thing with the ice in the trees definitely happened several times while I was in high school, though I can’t remember whether it happened in February of ‘92. I remember what Tim O’Brien wore but I don’t remember what I said to him.
Whether you will be delighted or disgusted by The Lifespan of a Fact depends on what kind of reader you are. Are my misquotes, misrepresentations, and lies OK because, though I’ve never met John D’Agata or Jim Fingal, after reading this enraging, fascinating, singular book, I feel as though I know them? Is this review a clever trick or a cheat, a critique or an appreciation? Is it a work of art or am I a lying sack of shit? Are those the only options?
The book’s unexpected, touching conclusion coincides with the end of D’Agata’s essay and the end of Levi’s life. The section is fiercely powerful, despite the fact that Fingal is picking it apart in real time in the margins. Did Levi Presley deserve better than this? Maybe so. Or maybe these maddening questions are the tribute due a boy who takes his own life without telling anyone why. Proceeds from the book go, according to an afterword, to a scholarship in Levi’s name at the Tae Kwon Do dojo run by Levi’s best friend. I hope that’s true.
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To see the 32 falsehoods embedded in this essay, read the "Facts Are Stupid" fact-check.*
Correction, Feb. 16, 2012: This piece initially claimed to have 30 falsehoods. Actually, it has 32. D'Agata teaches at the nonfiction program at the University of Iowa, not the Iowa Writers' Workshop. And the essay as it appears in the book is slightly different from the one that appeared in the magazine. (Return.)
Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.