The World Is Not Tidy: Liz Stephens on the D’Agata Dust-Up

February 16, 2012 § 12 Comments

Former Brevity Managing Editor Liz Stephens weighs in with her thoughts on fact and nonfiction:

I am a person who would not cheat at solitaire if it were the Apocalypse. Even as the light lowered, I would either see the win coming or just have to take the lesson in the loss at light speed. To cheat, even if I were the last person in the world, would be – who cares? Shuffling the cards after the tidy inevitable ending, I would feel as if I cheated myself. We all know anybody can win, by pretending the eight is a seven.

I’m not saying I’m holier than anybody. But I like a challenge.

Now, to play solitaire at the same time as I played canasta, with a side game of Mexican Train, and to make up a set of rules I’d laid for myself in joining the three of them together – this game I could play. Even if it was a new game, and I alone held the cards and dominoes and the key to the pattern of winning.

So which of these is John D’Agata doing?

In a recent dust-up over fact checking, John D’Agata’s response to being confronted with his own potential misuse of facts in About a Mountain, he released a whole text of the debate he and the fact checker had over the information as its own book, The Lifespan of a Fact. I love this in-your-face rebuttal, for the same reasons I love nonfiction itself. Transparency, full-on fact-grappling truth, is fascinating, and challenging by its very nature, untidy and discomfiting; social media, the malleability of screen saves of text, twitters from the front, all thrill me in their ubiquity of personal expression, their squirrelly irrepressible human warmth, and possibilities of the possibility of even more challenging conversations. As such, I adore the meta-ness of the very premise of The Lifespan of a Fact. I love, and am induced to consider from all angles, the title itself. I even think the cover is cool, very cool. But D’Agata, no matter how eloquent the rebuttal, could be perceived as on the defensive here.

I believe that D’Agata is articulate, and interesting. His comments on his work, if not his more journalistic work itself, have made me think about the facts in nonfiction in yet another new way. Listening to him riff on nonfiction is to hear or read the kinetic thinking of a well-educated zealot, the kind of energy newly religious people bring to the table; I think when he is in that mode, his out-of-the-box thinking serves him, and us, well. But his narrative nonfiction itself has lost my trust. In all the ways in which D’Agata’s theories of nonfiction are illuminated by being read in conjunction with examples by other writers, his own narrative nonfiction, in this category of truthiness, suffers at the comparison. By way of just two examples, I look here at David Shields’s Reality Hunger, and Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life.”

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, as many of you know, is a massive work of collage, a repurposing of the works of others into a new monstrous Frankenstein of meaning. In Reality Hunger, we saw truth strong-armed, manipulated top to bottom for the (new) author’s intention, and yet, even still, every word was true. We were forced to think about truth in its meta-narrative sense; we were pushed straight out of the narrative itself by it’s shape, and its opacity of intention. We are generally forced to read the work for its effect on us, and for its future purpose, to make us think. We are occasionally lulled by it into experiencing it as a present reading, but never do we forget it is constructed. And regardless of how any of the words were used in this massive work of collage, it was all true. Because if any word in it were found to be untrue, it’s postmodern shape has already given us the wink on that. We have already signed on for that possibility. This way, if the pieces have a narrative frisson, so be it; if they resist meaning next to each other, that’s true too. This work of making meaning from true things becomes, accrues, into Shields’ whole point.

Conversely, Cheryl Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life,” is a more linear, traditionally shaped narrative than Shields’. Here, every bit is true as well, and it certainly fulfilled D’Agata’s expressed mission statement of making a reader uncomfortable, and furthermore, in a more experimental way that’s relevant here, we were in some ways led to be confused by the story’s intention, just as D’Agata has implied serves as a higher purpose in art.  Its higher purpose is muddied by sleeping around, lying, and full-out bitterness, in all their sleazy detail (If you haven’t read it, know that Strayed is meaner to herself with the details than anyone else would have been to her.). I thought about that essay for weeks, because when I closed the page where I’d read it, all I was left with as a reader was an overwhelming sense of love and loss. It was like an optical illusion, where you stare at the picture and see vases and you look away from the picture and see men’s profiles…remember this one? I felt more open, as D’Agata mandates of ideal nonfiction, “to possibilities in the world we hadn’t earlier considered.” And yet it was all true, every word, and every word’s order, and every word’s use, and context. The trick is not in the information; it is in what the recounting of her past makes us feel, on both a conscious level and an unconscious one, and the baggage we bring to the room ourselves, our inherited sense of loss, of mother’s love, of partner’s faith. The piece uses us against ourselves, and in league with the author. It is in essence a very high level sleight of hand, one which brings us to the edge of sympathy, but blindfolded.

And as to D’Agata’s assertion that “it’s art’s job to trick us,” a broad assertion about which a whole other dissertation could be wrought, think please of Anne Carson’s “Foam (Essay with Rhapsody): On the Sublime in Longinus and Antonioni.  This is a work in which one moves through the piece believing it is true, having been habituated to the form of essay now as an audience, and primed in fact by her actually calling it essay – outright lying, really – until the piece falls in on itself with little tremors of dissonance (really, you think as you read, the man did that?) until it utterly exploded into a circus of unreality. That’s a trick. That’s a trick that teaches me something about the way I read reality, not to mention the ways I physically read journals, books, and material objects by their labels and form and directed by my expectations.

D’Agata’s explanation of his own tricks, in comparison, one town for another, one night for another most crucial, most memorable night of another family’s history, reads rather like a smart boy caught out. Why? Because anyone can pretend the eight card is a seven card. That’s easy. And while I often love the charisma of cheaters, after a while I don’t play with them anymore. Their stakes are simply not high enough.

I tell my students, when they are tempted to do this sort of thing, that I am so much more interested in their desire for the information to line up differently, than I am in making those facts line up. I am so interested in their wish that the world be tidy, or even that information be purely informational. Beyond that, I want to know more about what bedtime story, what ingrained narrative, makes them believe that humans believe in “story” playing out a certain way.

In truth, memory’s great betrayal, that it will not lie intact in wait for us, is lament enough to revisit in every generation. This is what I go to nonfiction for, the way we pick at the scab, poke our finger in the wound of memory’s fickle and existential transience, and the inconvenience of our desire to make things whole and right. I am not so interested in the prettiness of the red/black/red/black of solitaire as I am at the process of trying to marshall the cards against the odds into shape, the rush of happening to hold the cards the one time the percentages, with my full attention, can be made to go my way. If there were no odds, I would not care, or try.

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