What is Truth? What are Facts? A Review of “Lifespan of a Fact”

What is truth? What are facts? Who decides?

After three months on Broadway, “The Lifespan of a Fact” is closing this weekend. I am so happy we saw it today, literally just under the wire.

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Bobby Canavalle, and Cherry Jones, the play is an adaptation of the story of fact checker Jim Fingal and author John D’Agata, who battle deeply over every detail in an essay by D’Agata entitled “What Happens There” and published in the Believer in 2010. The real-life Fingal and D’Agata fought about this essay for five years, a conflict captured in their co-authored 2012 book also called The Lifespan of a Fact.

In the play, the conflict occurs over a single rushed weekend. Cherry Jones brilliantly plays D’Agata’s editor (and Fingal’s manager). It is ultimately her call about whether or not the essay will run, a decision we do not learn by the time the curtain closes.

In real life Fingal, a recent graduate of Harvard working as an intern at the Believer magazine, received the assignment to edit D’Agata’s piece about a tragic suicide in Las Vegas in which the victim plunged more than 1,000 feet to his death. (The play does not name the magazine.) By then D’Agata was already a writer of some renown, whereas Fingal was just starting out and still proving himself.

Fingal ran every specific claim D’Agata makes to ground, and found many discrepancies and embellishments. For example, D’Agata says there were 34 licensed “strip clubs” in Las Vegas on the day of the suicide — Fingal only finds 31. And D’Agata claims that a woman “from Mississippi” played and won a 35 minute game of tic-tac-toe with a chicken; Fingal learns that the woman has lived in Las Vegas for years. D’Agata claims that a traffic jam occurred near the scene of the suicide, while Fingal uses traffic maps to show that no such thing could have occurred.

D’Agata says that 34 sounds better than 31, and that the woman in question was indeed born in Mississippi. And he did have a source for that traffic jam claim — a homeless woman in the area, who told him that it happened.

Who is right? In a strict journalistic sense, clearly the answer is Fingal. If something did not actually occur in the exact way depicted in a story, that’s a betrayal of the reader and an insult to the truth. Either there were 34 strip clubs or 31. And there was a traffic jam or there wasn’t. Things happen, in order and over time, and it is the journalist’s job to get all the details right.

But wait — D’Agata never called himself a journalist. He’s an essayist, interested in bigger themes and deeper truths, not some two bit fact-monger. (D’Agata now directs the Nonfiction Writing program at the University of Iowa). All of this chicken scratching by Fingal is mere busywork — nothing more than nailing down meaningless details while missing the larger point. “What Happens Here” is not a police report or a court document. It is a meditation on how a particular suicide affected Las Vegas in the summer of 2002.

In the play D’Agata first tries to use Fingal’s youth against him, arguing that he is a mere pedant. “How old are you? You’re too young to understand,”and so forth. As someone who used to hear such remarks in my own workplaces, I bristled and was immediately on Fingal’s side. As the show continues Fingal holds his own, and by the end D’Agata treats him as an equal.

For in Fingal’s eyes this is no exercise in mere pedantry. The only way we can make sense of this world is to believe that facts matter. This is why knowing the number of legally licensed strip clubs on a 2002 day in Las Vegas is important— not for its own sake, but because making a willfully false claim is corrosive. In matters large and small, the pursuit of truth should be the only guide.

Fingal is right, but also inexperienced. As much as I hated to admit it, in some ways his youth does get in the way. There’s a “forest for the trees” quality to his incessant need to substantiate every claim. Fingal (at least as portrayed by Radcliffe) is categorical bordering on imperious, with no recognition that much of life is ambiguous and confusing.

A case in point: In the play D’Agata, citing the death of his own mother, argues that not everything can be proven and known with pure certainty. Did she die on her living room chair, as D’Agata believes? Or was it actually in the ambulance? How about at the hospital? If presented with the exact same set of facts reasonable people could disagree. So who is right, what is truth, and how can we ever know for sure anyway? Acknowledging these sorts of gray areas does get easier as we get older, and Fingal is just not there yet.

But Fingal is right, absolutely so, that readers deserve the literal truth if that is what a story purports to offer. D’Agata could easily have begun his piece with a simple disclaimer, and solved this whole problem: “While this essay is based on an actual event, some details are embellished and some of the timelines do not reflect the literal sequence of events. I am exploring themes of grief and loss in an American city, not filing a news story.” But D’Agata chose instead to plunge straight into the text, leading the reader astray while telling himself that he was pursuing a deeper truth. Despite his youthful earnestness, Fingal was right to call BS.