Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Brain Is Wider Than The Sky (D'Agata and the Essay)

At this point I will refrain from adding much more to the D'Agata/Fingal debate: we're beginning to repeat ourselves, and anyway we're probably too close to the book's appearance to judge its worth. I will say this: The Lifespan of a Fact is a tremendous book about the tyranny of genres and the murderous intent of categories. Jim Fingal's fact-checking becomes willfully absurd fairly early in the book. Once John D'Agata makes his argument that what he's creating is art, not journalism, that he's writing an essay, not a nonfiction account—and he makes this argument early in their correspondence—then Fingal's insistent, sometimes niggling checking and queries to D'Agata (many of which have been aired online) look silly, forced, and winkingly self-aware. That is: both men appear to be in on the game, Fingal playing the dutiful character, D'Agata the frustrated one. I don't know what kind of collaborative deal outside of this book the two men struck, but it feels a bit like a game from the outset, a theatrics of absurdity for which both men have memorized their well-written lines.

That's not to say that The Lifespan of a Fact isn't funny, smart, or, finally, a great read. There are two books, really: the text itself, which gets too cute too soon, and could have been trimmed, and the issues the text raises, which are endlessly interesting and profound. Pages 107 to 112 and the run-up to the final moment in the book are beautiful, edgy, best of all intelligent and mature: a discussion between Fingal and D'Agata wherein the stage clothes and snarky asides and jibes fall away and what we have is the real occasion of the book. D'Agata's passionate defense of art and essays is supremely valuable, and Fingal wisely cedes the stage, commenting as devil's advocate throughout and letting D'Agata argue against genre, category, and narrow ways of experiencing and representing the world, arguing for—as an artist's native response—the blend of memory, imagination, and the intellect that the essay prizes. I kept hearing Huxley in the back of my mind while I read this book: the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.

Near the end of the book, Fingal—in one of many such pleas—begs D'Agata to classify his piece as fiction, not history. D'Agata replies, smartly:
Jim, have you ever stopped to consider that maybe those aren't the only two options available? That maybe there is a third (or even a fourth or fifth or sixth) alternative? That our understanding of the world can't be categorized into either "fictional" or "historical" slots—with nothing in between? We all believe in emotional truths that could never hold water, but we still cling to them and insist on their relevance.
What The Lifespan of a Fact insists on in its back-and-forth is a new way of describing things. That's all, and that's everything. Above all else, The Lifespan of a Fact is a book about the essay, its possibilities, its limitations, its history, its value, its necessity. The book is not about nonfiction or biography or history. What D'Agata's asking us to do is to consider the multiple (endless) variation of imaginative expression without having to consign that expression to genre. And ultimately I think that that's a good thing, artistically, emotionally, culturally, politically, etc.. I think that D'Agata sees essaying as the world filtered through self. Wallace Stevens said that poetry must originate in the real world, a world composed of facts—and impressions after facts. What D'Agata is doing with the lyric essay, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, is closer to Impressionism and Expressionism in painting than anything else. (And if you're not crazy about Impressionism, there are more representational work in another wing.)

"The brain is wider than the sky," wrote Emily Dickinson. Far wider than what genre distinctions and categories can pretend to contain. Fingal seems to recognize this in the powerful final moments of the book, when he takes his fact-checking to consciously absurd lengths, exposing both the value and the futility of insisting on objective truths within the chaos of our lives.



"Truth exists. Only lies are invented." Georges Braque

"Nothing is true and everything is permitted." William S. Burroughs

"Truth disappears with the telling of it." Lawrence Durrell


If I were blessed/burdened with someone who fact-checked the many autobiographical essays I've written about growing up in Wheaton, Maryland, I'd likely be horrified at what she discovered. I'm certain that there are many instances where facts collide with my memories of them, because once something is a fact it doesn't stay a fact: we sympathize with it, quarrel with it, flee from it, embrace it, filter it through all manner of retelling, coveting it for what it—now covered with our fingertips, breathed upon with our panting—now stands for, now says. Young Levi Presley, as D'Agata says in The Lifespan of a Fact, is less a fact than a symbol for what D'Agata sees and feels when D'Agata essays Las Vegas. Let's call his essay that, and not anything else.

Here's an interesting interview with D'Agata and Fingal at the Kenyon Review blog, and a conversation with D'Agata at NPR's Morning Edition.


Dinah said...

Hi Joe. What a great post. I guess my problem isn’t with THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT, but with the original material, yup--

thanks for bringing me here, though, makes me want to read the book, in part because it sounds like a real and ultimately serious conversation about things that matter to me.


Joe Bonomo said...

Dinah, the book is that, ultimately, I think. And important for that reason. This will certainly be a divisive book, but that's part of the fun.