Review: The Lifespan of a Fact

John D’Agata and Jim Fingal present The Lifespan of a Fact as an encapsulation of their lengthy struggle between fact-checker and essayist, but it’s quickly clear that most elements of Lifespan are open to interpretation.  On the surface, Lifespan is a version of an essay by D’Agata annotated by the conversation between him and Fingal as Fingal checks his facts.  But that’s not really believable.  Any conversation between author and checker is necessarily iterative, with the checker raising an issue and the author responding; this reads as though Fingal made one pass through the article with D’Agata responding at points.  So what we have is a piece of art that represents that interchange over time, which is about dissecting the same issues in an earlier essay.

That sounds pretty intellectual and abstract, but the pair do a nice job of breathing life into author and checker.  Though both have clear positions about what’s being discussed, to the point of embodying those positions on occasion, there are enough cracks in the symbolism to believe that these are people who hold positions. The interchange is generally snappy and engaging, even when arguing trivia.

But fairly quickly it becomes clear that checker and author inhabit completely different worlds.  It’s also clear that they are exemplars of their fields.   Fingal is often pointing out errors in the second or third significant figure and D’Agata is rejecting the correction of any but the most egregious errors.  Eventually there is a breaking point (conveniently at a point that makes a climax for the book) where the two have it out in a passionate and intellectual argument about relating objective facts and creating art about events that is well worth the reading.

And then we get a nice elegiac ending from Fingal, our fact-based proponent that is haunting and honest.

Underlying all this is the clear point that everything said about the essay in the book is true about the book itself.  It’s obvious that this is an interpretation of a struggle, but exactly what struggle is unclear.  Is it the struggle with a particular fact-checker? With publishing in general? A completely internal struggle in the author’s mind – or authors’ minds? No questions are answered on that front, but the point is to trust the reader to chew on it.  If you like to chew on such things, this is a powerful gateway to the issues.


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