JOHN D'AGATA IS an excellent writer (Halls of Fame, About a Mountain), a superb anthologist (The Next American Essay, The Lost Origins of the Essay), and the leading evangelist for the literary essay as a form of art (that is, emphatically not journalism). Jim Fingal was D'Agata's fact-checker (a job that sounds like a punchline, as in "Richard Nixon's joke-writer" or "Mitt Romney's charisma coach") for "What Happens There," an essay that forms the core of About a Mountain and was published by The Believer in January 2010.
The Lifespan of a Fact reprints both that essay and the (I assume) email exchanges between D'Agata and Finley over the many, many facts about Las Vegas and the suicide of teenager Levi Presley that D'Agata revised, rearranged, streamlined or otherwise altered in order to get at what he wanted to get at; true to his calling, he grants himself the same latitude with fact that a poet, playwright, or fiction writer routinely enjoys. Fingal, true to his own calling, calls him on every single revision, rearrangement, streamlining, unattributed statistic, fudged number, and so on. He suggests a variety of qualifications, exceptions, rephrasings, all of them so plumply doughy (e.g., "in certain circumstances") that they would sink D'Agata's sentences without a trace. D'Agata curtly nixes them all. Eventually things get testy, then ludicrous. Are bricks red or brown? Is it okay to say a pink car was purple?
Lydia Davis's blurb calls this exchange a "fascinating and dramatic power struggle over the intriguing question of what nonfiction should, or can, be," but for long stretches it's just a good old fashioned pissing contest. Author and fact-checker sometimes take the high road (D'Agata: "If a mirror were a sufficient means of handling human experience, I doubt that our species would have invented literature"; Fingal: "Basically it sounds like you're saying that an essayist can write things with arbitrary truth-value and make quotations out of whole cloth that are attributed to real people who live in the real world. Is that right?"). Sometimes, they just get down and dirty (Fingal: "OK, so now I understand. The rules are: There are no rules, just as long as you make it pretty"; D'Agata: "It's called art, dickhead.")
Typographically, The Lifespan of a Fact resembles the Talmud, a block of D'Agata's essay centered on the page, surrounded by a moat of rabbinical hair-splitting in a smaller font, Fingal's challenges to the essay's claims and D'Agata's responses to those challenges in red ink.
As so often with the rabbis, you come away with the feeling that, impossibly, both are right, especially in chapter 9, which covers the final section of "What Happens There."
In that section, D'Agata reconstructs where Levi Presley may have walked and what he may have seen on his way to the top of the Stratosphere Hotel, from which he jumped to his death. Consistent with his own convictions, he pays more attention to overall effect than to literal accuracy. Fingal protests: "You are writing what will probably become the de facto story of what happened to Levi, and so every detail you choose to do that with will become significant because your account will be the one account anyone is ever likely to read about him."
This comment moves D'Agata pass the snarky condescension into which he too easily slips and he lays out as carefully as clearly as he can what he is trying to do; Fingal understands, but disagrees, and gives his own candid, articulate response. For both men, one senses, what matters is the truth about Levi, but they have opposed ideas of how that truth could be conveyed--opposed ideas that, if Rancière is right (I'm four-sevenths through Mute Speech, to be Fingalianly precise), share the same root in the Romantic overturning of classic representation. But we'll have to get to that on another day.
Chapter 9 justifies the publication of the book, I think. It's well worth reading the whole thing to get to it.