The Lifespan of a Fact

John D'Agata, Author, Jim Fingal, Author
John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. Norton, $17.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-0-393-34073-0
Reviewed on: 12/12/2011
Release date: 02/01/2012
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An essayist (D’Agata) and his exasperated fact-checker (Fingal) debate the line between art and reality in this inventive fencing match. The text reproduces D’Agata’s article (published in The Believer after another magazine killed it) about a teenager who leapt to his death from a Las Vegas hotel (an expanded version became the book About a Mountain), Fingal’s Talmudic fact-checking commentary (reflected in the book’s equally Talmudic design), and the authors’ barbed e-exchanges on everything from the number of strip clubs in Vegas to the origins of tae kwon do and the existence of D’Agata’s mother’s cat. Invoking poetic “rhythm” and “emotional truth,” D’Agata cheerfully admits to embroidering the story with factoids; meanwhile, Fingal’s efforts to verify them, which required seven years and the help of medical journals, academic linguists, satellite photos, and field research, get wrapped up in their own crazed erudition and nit-picking while opening a fascinating window into the fact-checker’s ingenious craft. In their lively, labyrinthine argument, Fingal seems the dogged conscience to D’Agata’s preening writerly ego—until Fingal realizes there may not be a reliable factual record to check. Very à propos in our era of spruced-up autobiography and fabricated reporting, this is a whip-smart, mordantly funny, thought-provoking rumination on journalistic responsibility and literary license. Agent: Matt McGowan, Frances Goldin Literary Agency. (Feb.)
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