How To Tell a Story, Wrongly

This week’s New York Times Book Review has an utterly disturbing cover story. It’s about a writer’s tale of 16-year-old Levi Presley who, in 2002, jumped to his death from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas.

The writer, though, has no allegiance to factual accuracy. Instead, he changes facts in the story to suit his artistic musings about suicide, Las Vegas and storytelling itself.

You may ask, how can the story be believable if there is no fidelity to facts? Ah, that’s what landed a most unusual book, The Lifespan of a Fact, on the cover of the Times Book Review.

Let’s start at the beginning. An English professor at the University of Iowa, John D’Agata, wrote an essay on Levi’s death for Harper’s, and it was rejected because of “factual inaccuracies.” The author then submitted a 15-page article to a literary magazine titled The Believer, and the magazine assigned an intern, Jim Fingal, to be the fact-checker.

The Lifespan of a Fact presents D’Agata’s original essay as well as what The Times calls “Fingal’s staggeringly meticulous annotations.” For instance, the first sentence of the essay refers to Vegas having 34 licensed strip clubs at the time of Levi’s death. Source material said 31. When Fingal asked D’Agata why it says 34, the writer replied, “Because the rhythm of ’34’ works better in that sentence.”

And it’s downhill from there. D’Agata changes the name of Levi’s school because he didn’t like it. He changes the color of a fleet of dog-grooming vans because he wanted the double-beat of “purple” rather than the factually accurate “pink.” He changes another suicide-by-jump that same day to a suicide-by-hanging “because I wanted Levi’s death to be the only one from falling that day. I wanted his death to be more unique.”

Fingal gamely tried at first to understand this literary license, but couldn’t shake his belief in accuracy. At one point he reminds D’Agata: “You are writing what will probably become the de facto story of what happened to Levi. Don’t you think that the gravity of the situation demands an accuracy that you’re dismissing as incidental?”

D’Agata responds that Fingal’s “nitpicking” is ruining his essay. In manipulating Levi’s story, the writer argues that he is “making a better work of art — and thus a better and truer experience for the reader.”

Uh-huh. Right. Sure.

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