Truth, Fiction, and Fiction That’s Presented as Truth

A very interesting book review of The Lifespan of a Fact:

“The Lifespan of a Fact[]” … is less a book than a knock-down, drag-out fight between two tenacious combatants, over questions of truth, belief, history, myth, memory and forgetting. In one corner is Jim Fingal, who as an intern for the literary magazine The Believer in 2005 (or it might have been 2003 — sources disagree) signed on for what he must have thought would be a straightforward task: fact-checking a 15-page article. In the other corner is D’Agata, who thought he had made a deal with The Believer to publish not just an article but a work of Art — an essay already rejected by Harper’s Magazine because of “factual inaccuracies” — that would find its way to print unmolested by any challenge to its veracity. “Lifespan” is the scorecard from their bout, a reproduction of their correspondence over the course of five (or was it seven?) years of fact-checking.

The book presents, line by line, D’Agata’s original essay, as well as Fingal’s staggeringly meticulous annotations. The essay, finally published in 2010 and threaded into D’Agata’s book “About a Mountain,” tells the story of a boy named Levi Presley who in 2002 jumped to his death from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas. D’Agata used that episode to meditate on ideas about, among other things, suicide and Las Vegas, the stories Vegas tells about itself, the stories visitors tell themselves about Vegas, and what a city built on artifice might tell us about the human condition.

“You don’t want to come in contact with reality when you’re here for a fantasy,” D’Agata quotes a Nevada state senator as saying. “Lifespan” flips that platitude on its head and asks: Do we want to come in contact with fantasy when we’re here for reality?

From D’Agata’s first sentence, which says that at the time of Levi’s death there were “34 licensed strip clubs in Vegas,” Fingal detects trouble. D’Agata has supplied The Believer with a source suggesting the city had just 31 such clubs. Fingal asks D’Agata how he arrived at “34.” D’Agata replies in dubious fashion: “Because the rhythm of ‘34’ works better in that sentence than the rhythm of ‘31.’” …

For more, see Fortune‘s The Weekly Read and The New Yorker‘s The Book Bench. Thanks to Prof. Mark Liberman (Language Log) for the pointer.