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.