Facts, And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them
When a bunch of incidental events happen in a short time period, the mind – mine, at least – works hard to connect them. (Sartre: “The episodes of one’s daily life are as multiple tangent lines stemming from the same circle.”) Some stuff occurred recently, and I’m unsure if it’s all as interrelated as I think it is, or if the connectivity between these events is a product of my memory’s tendencies toward consolidation. Nor am I even sure that matters. All I can say is that, in the last couple months, I was involved in a very sloppily conducted sociological study; a book review; a slightly antagonistic interview with that book’s author; and a near-romance; and all these things seemed, almost unnaturally, to cohere.
After enlisting to help my two CUNY-based statistician friends, and after they argued briefly but loudly in our apartment about whether game theory really was a relevant analytical model for the study I’d joined, I came to understand that nearly 75% of my Facebook activity is in some way geared toward getting laid. I can confirm that on two extremely isolated occasions it’s worked. That is, Facebook twice played a direct role in my being allowed to have sex; a few other times it’s played a role in my almost being allowed, but ultimately these occasions ended in solitude due to my overzealous bungling. Because their study isn’t yet published, my friends – who are friends both online and not – wouldn’t make all their gathered data accessible, but they assured me my prowling Facebook behavior was “on the high side of average” (“story of my life,” I said), and that by their metric they devote 66% and 68% of their Facebook time to getting laid, and can both enumerate dates and mornings-after that Facebook has facilitated. One of these friends is a girl. We decided that, being roommates (hearts filled with loneliness, freezer filled with rum) we would have hooked up regardless.
The measured criteria included how often we updated our statuses; which photos of ourselves we “tagged” and which we left “untagged”; there was a sort of negative-space measurement of photos we didn’t post at all; they measured proportion of same-sex “friends” to opposite sex, and how many of these friends we’d actively “friended”; proportion of “likes” on the posts of same sex friends vs. opposite; a slipperier-to-judge analysis of how many of our “favorite” movies, TV shows, etc, were actually favorites, and how many were, if honesty was involved, meant to project an idealized persona; most incriminatingly, we kept logs of our search histories, tracking whose profiles we visited, how often, and how many pictures we browsed – with an honor-system for approximating how many of these pictures were scrutinized for bikini potential or, in the case of the female among us, who has specific taste, and who hasn’t requested anonymity but to whom I grant it, Asian men rocking Under Armour. The results weren’t very surprising – I’m usually way too aware of and hopeful about my online flirtations; moreover, at times it seems the biological impulse to procreate is so overwhelming that everything everyone does is somehow tilted toward sex.
(Another reason I was wasn’t allowed to see the data is because my friends haven’t yet factored in “stickiness” – how long one stays on a particular FB-friend’s bikini-heavy profile – and are worried they’ll have to start their study from scratch. Also, people in couples were severe outliers, and were therefore discounted.)
What emerged, also not surpisingly, is that my Facebook profile depicts a skewed version of me. Sure I like Annie Hall (which I’ve listed as a favorite movie), but not as much as I like The Negotiator (which I haven’t); but nor do I like The Negotiator nearly so much as I like a flighty, underweight type of woman who likes Annie Hall and men named Max who (profess to) like Annie Hall. Savvy persons perusing my profile know they won’t learn much real information about me, but they will be able to deduce what characteristics I think most appeal to women. This in itself reveals a lot about me, and actually I’m a bit uncomfortable leaving that part of myself vulnerable to observation, and observation’s corollary: judgment. Is there anything more personal than allowing people to see how you go about mating? But it’s a necessary downside of using Facebook, as most single people evidently do, to connect with potential flings.
This month, Facebook will become a publicly traded company and, according to the New York Times, its value has been estimated to be as high as $100 billion. This is mostly because of all the information about us it holds – us: its 800 million-plus members – the thinking being that advertisers will leverage this information profitably. But of course a lot of this information is false, or if not false, falsified. Despite its several shortcomings, what my friends’ study makes apparent is that all Facebook really has are the semi-conjured personalities we put forth in the hopes of getting ass. No doubt this can also be profited from, but I wonder to what extent Facebook acknowledges the fallibility of its information. There’s what I consider the true, interior me (the questionable Max, with his overweight childhood and the ongoing addiction to jogging that’s resulted) and the Facebook me (all pectorals and bathing trunks), and both of these are indeed real. Meaning that, I think it’s probable my projections say as much about me, have equal market value, as my actual history. The space in between these two Maxes, a space that both separates and connects them: that’s maybe where the core of my character lies. How to stick a dipstick in this area to test its oil level – that’s the question. If Facebook could police this region – which would necessitate learning all our ugly stuff, and then learning how we hide and manipulate our ugly stuff – it could really bank. In most cases, though, I would assume that Facebook doesn’t know what gunk clogs our pipes, and therefore the site’s true worth must be somewhat less than its valuation.
Not very long after I participated in this study, I very willingly entered into another Facebook-based seduction. A girl I knew had recently moved to New York, and contacted me (“Just wanted to say hi! I moved to Brooklyn! What neighborhood are you in?”), presumably to hook up. We’d waited tables together in Minneapolis and now, while looking for a full-time branding gig, she was waitressing here. After a preliminary period of “likes” on each other’s Facebook wall, she finally got up the courage, in a private message, to ask me out. I’d responded with a date and time, she’d responded to say it didn’t work for her, I’d responded again, and then she stopped replying. At my office one day – I help wealthy foreigners exploit loopholes in U.S. immigration policy to become wealthy Americans – I re-checked the message I’d last sent to see if it had been too forward and desperate-sounding. (It wasn’t: “Thurs is good, if it’s good for you. Just lemme know.” Nevertheless, Thurs passed without a word from her. My inclination, for the record, is to say to all women, “Tonight. Let’s hang out tonight. I have nothing to do tonight, and if I did it wouldn’t matter. Just let me go to the gym after work, and then we’ll find something interesting but quiet to do.”)
After looking again through her profile (Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), I browsed my Newsfeed, and paused on, then clicked on, a link posted by a friend I’ve never actually met – the managing editor of a website I used to write for and respect. He was all excited about a book called The Lifespan of a Fact, and linked to an excerpt of it that Harper’s had published online. The excerpt was reasonably engaging, so I looked up another friend, asked if he needed a review of the book for his website, and promptly he replied to say he’d order me a copy.
Feeling quite pleased – it had been a few months since my last freelance assignment, as I’d been busy researching for a long writing project (May, 2013, FSG) – I “liked” one of my waitress’s comments, and then left the office for the evening. She later “liked” one of my posts, and I knew it was on.
For those of us brought up on reality TV and MTV’s “Unplugged” series, The Lifespan of a Fact provides an immediate and familiar thrill of behind-the-scenes voyeurism, and, like reality TV, it quickly turns out that we voyeurs are actually looking at a product carefully manufactured to seem real and raw, but not an actual real, raw thing. What Lifespan is, with a little background: In 2002 a boy in Las Vegas committed suicide by jumping off the city’s tallest building. A writer named John D’Agata, who was living in Las Vegas at the time, wrote an essay in response to the suicide. The essay had been commissioned by Harper’s and then rejected due to factual inaccuracies; it was then declined by The Atlantic for the same reasons; The Believer agreed to publish the essay, but only after it had passed through The Believer’s own fact-checking department. An anal and aggressive fact-checker named Jim Fingal fact-checked the essay, identified hundreds of inaccuracies, proudly tightened his sphincter with each error discovered, and emailed the author often to tell him how wrong he (the author) was. D’Agata acknowledged these inaccuracies, but insisted they were unimportant, that they didn’t compromise the essay’s purpose and meaning – “the facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function as facts, exactly; the work that they’re doing is more image-based than informational” – and he insisted the essay should be published because “essays don’t have to adhere to the same standards, in terms of their relationship to information, as journalism.” With some negligible alterations, it eventually was published. The Lifespan of a Fact is purportedly the email discussion between D’Agata and Fingal, between essayist and fact-checker, that ensued during the fact-checking process. Essentially it’s an argument about whether factual accuracy is or isn’t important in essays.
“American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars” and all those places that cater to guys who suddenly find it important and moral to brew their own beer: consumption doesn’t seem to be about ingesting a satisfying final product anymore, but about partaking, however vicariously, in the process of creation. In Lifespan we tour behind-the-scenes as D’Agata’s essay is vetted for publication. We also get to see D’Agata’s justifications for altering facts within his work, which is a bit like watching an author undress himself. And while he knows we’re spying on him, D’Agata nevertheless reveals more of himself than I think he’d intended to – ankle garters and shit-stained underwear. One of the book’s implicit theses is that his essay – titled “If a Boy Jumps Off a Building in Vegas Does He Make a Sound?” – isn’t nearly so interesting as the process by which it came about, and I’m curious how aware of this he is. (Although he responded to most of my emails, D’Agata dodged this particular question.)
Lifespan, boiled down: Jim Fingal believes that material published about real events should be factually accurate, lest even very small inaccuracies discredit the integrity of the larger piece. John D’Agata believes that essayists have the right to smudge and fudge so long as it’s in the pursuit of a larger Truth. The book prods readers into taking sides, and I will not affect objectivity: I’m with D’Agata. (The book tilts its hand toward D’Agata, too. It wouldn’t have been published if it were about a fact-checker asserting that true-seeming essays should be factually true.) I think it’s fine for essayists to make stuff up, and it didn’t take much retro-reading to realize that all my favorite essayists – David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi – do. It’s pretty widely known that Woolf, for example, had never visited or really even been near Oxford or Cambridge, despite using them to evoke a real-seeming men’s college “Oxbridge University” in A Room of One’s Own. Wallace’s essays are conspicuously populated with characters who just happen to embody the exact opposite of the narrator’s (presumably Wallace’s) opinions, providing suspiciously evocative counterpoints and thematic contrasts that set Wallace’s true arguments in sharp relief.
But, as I read Lifespan (and as my recently immigrated waitress continued not to respond to my Facebook messages, and as my roommates continued, in our living room, to fret about how worthless their data might be even as they gathered more data), I developed the conviction that John D’Agata should be disallowed from ever writing essays.
In applying his theories, D’Agata is condescending, vain, and hypocritical, his writing is resultantly unconvincing, and diverges sharply from anything resembling capital-T Truth. Essaying for him seems not to be what he calls “an enactment of the experience of trying to find meaning” so much as an attempt to prove that ideas he’d long ago decided were right are right. He is his own religion and evangelist.
“I’m tired,” D’Agata writes of essays,
of this genre being terrorized by an unsophisticated reading public that’s afraid of venturing into terrain that can’t be footnoted and verified by seventeen different sources. My job is not to re-create a world that already exists, holding up a mirror to the reader’s experience in hopes that it rings true. If a mirror were a sufficient means of handling human experience, I doubt our species would have invented literature. What I’m doing by taking these liberties is in fact making a better work of art. A better and Truer experience for the reader than I could have if I’d stuck to the facts.
Fine, but what’s annoying is that, when it’s convenient D’Agata exploits the power of data. He gains narrative authority – he wins the reader’s trust – not from the strength of his argument, and certainly not from the strength of his prose, but from the strength of glinty, steely information.
Speaking of the hotel the boy jumped off:
There was, before its opening, the hotel’s stock price of $14. And then, once it opened, its price of 2 cents. There was the $35 million it was supposed to cost to build, the $500 million it actually cost to build, and the $800 million it accumulated in debt. There was the hotel’s bankruptcy.
Essentially this is data porn. The essay is full of paragraphs teeming with objective-seeming information. And this data is interesting, and it’s interesting because it tells an interesting, indisputable story. At some points it’s clear that D’Agata is invoking proper nouns and statistics in order to show how inane and absurd facts surrounding a death can be. Nevertheless, he puts on his hardcore reporter’s hat quite often and wants to dazzle us with information – not to show us it’s stupid, but to keep us interested in his essay.
And, just as often, he gives us what seems to be undiluted data, but which is actually manipulated for his purposes. One might say he exploits the syntax of reportage: “On the day that Levi Presley died,” he writes in the book’s second sentence,
five others [in Las Vegas] died from cancer, four from heart attacks, three because of strokes. It was a day of two suicides by gunshot as well. The day of yet another suicide from a hanging. We know that when Levi Presley jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel at 6:01:43 pm – eventually hitting the ground at 6:01:52 pm – there were over a hundred tourists in five dozen cars.
One of D’Agata’s more delightful omissions comes in this line, as we learn from Fingal that, on the same day, another person in Las Vegas had also killed himself by jumping off a building. “Yeah, I remember changing this,” D’Agata says. “I wanted Levi’s death to be the only one from falling. I wanted his death to be more unique.” (Also, there were eight heart attacks that day, not four; D’Agata liked “the effect of those numbers scaling down from five to four to three, etc. So let’s leave it as is.”)
In his conversations with his fact-checker, D’Agata’s go-to move is to justify his manipulations on aesthetic grounds. The first example, in the essay’s first sentence, is when D’Agata writes that there are thirty-four strip clubs in Las Vegas, when in fact there are thirty-one: “The rhythm of ‘thirty-four’ works better there than the rhythm of ‘thirty-one.’ So I changed it.” Later on he describes dog-grooming vans that were pink as purple because “I needed the two beats in ‘purple,’ so I changed the color. Again, I don’t think it’s that big a deal. You have to allow for a bit of poetry.”
I agree that it’s not that big a deal, but what kind of guy changes “pink” to “purple” in order to get an extra syllable into a sentence? (“In an otherwise empty parking lot there is a small, idle fleet of purple dog-grooming vans.”) Does the alteration turn boring reality into interesting art? Is the sentence more poetic with purple than it would have been with pink? Does that matter? Doesn’t this reduce to mere vanity? Can we trust someone who makes trivial yet deliberate changes like this to lead us to some “deeper meaning”? (“An interesting and unexpected consequence of this book,” D’Agata emailed me, “has been seeing how many different ways bright young writers like yourself have missed the point entirely.”)
Conversely, does it matter that “pink” was changed to “purple”? If he’d left the facts as they were, the essay wouldn’t be any better, either – so what does it matter? Should he have stayed with pink just to rack up integrity points? Without Lifespan, we’d never have known D’Agata changed the color in “If A Boy Jumps.” Now that we do know, the question “so what?” arises, and answering it is more difficult than saying just that lying is wrong.
My problem with Fact-Checker Fingal’s role is that he’s a true Santa Claus-killer – “empiricism!” he shouts – while, contrary to my instincts, contrary to my values, I’m unconvinced that I (and a lot of people, I’ll meekly, parenthetically submit) really do crave truth. Most of my life, I think, is based somewhat more fatuously on wanting to believe. Barack Obama, the Importance of Literature to Society, the Minnesota Vikings’ 2013 playoff chances, the notion that Judaism can be practiced on strictly cultural terms and without a relationship to God, the Atkins Diet: The Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s not being lied to I hate, but being prevented from believing in something I’d believed in – I don’t want to know my convictions are shallower, hollower than I assume them to be. I react strongly whenever my beliefs are challenged, although many of them are eminently challengeable. I’m not sure how to square this with liking behind-the-scenes reality television stuff – my obsession with seeing others in their alleged natural habitats, acting naturally … even when this ‘naturalness’ is transparently manufactured. Maybe faith is a human necessity, something I require to survive. But if I’m going to be challenged, maybe I want at least to be converted to something else, to exchange one faith for another that’s more stable. Fingal points out inaccuracies, but stops there – he never makes a cogent argument about why D’Agata’s fabrications matter, about why they’re actually wrong. Truth for the sake of truth might be valueless, a typewriter with no keys.
I’m not so scandalized that D’Agata changed pink to purple so much as I am by the fact that he uses Art as his shield top parry criticisms of his technique. If he’d just said, “it’s not really important either way,” I’d probably be less peeved. But when D’Agata appeals to universal ideals – Art – as justification for his very personal preferences, his argument becomes trivial: “Nothing here has been ‘manipulated,’” he says, “only interpreted. And yes, I did it for literary effect, which is something that artists do.” “It’s called art, dickhead, and it’s not an ‘excuse,’ it’s how I approach the genre.” (The exchanges where D’Agata and Fingal call each other stuff like “Dickhead” reveal that Lifespan is actually a pretty good practical joke – it’s apparent the name-calling didn’t actually happen, but was inserted to Botox otherwise-dry quibbles about factual accuracy into alluringly pouty-lipped beings.) “It’s not that I’m claiming there’s no meaning in this flood of information, but rather that the more important thing to highlight here is my search for meaning. And an integral part of my search for that meaning is this attempt to reconstruct details in a way that makes them feel more significant.”
Purple feels more significant?
The real problem, though, is that the essay is not at all an essay, but a manifesto with a fake beard and large sunglasses, whispering surreptitiously into its fist. “If A Boy Jumps Off A Building In Vegas Does He Make A Sound?” is not at all about suicide, but about factual fungibility, a subject linked directly, we learn in Lifespan, to D’Agata’s method of writing. Throughout, he slowly builds an argument that facts are dumb, which then acts as a self-justifying, tautological reason for him to make up facts within the essay in the first place. Interestingly, the very word facts, when it appears in the essay, has in every instance been misleadingly used. “When I asked the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department whether I could read some of the statements that the witnesses [of Levi’s death] had given, Police Sergeant Steve Barrea explained, ‘You don’t want to read any of that, man. That stuff is just facts.’” (Fingal: “The ‘facts’ part of that sentence seems to be an insertion by John. Also, he changed the officer’s name.”) “‘The truth is no one wants to hear the real facts about suicide’” (a quote from a woman whose name and organization and words D’Agata fabricated). “‘If there’s a touch of reality that isn’t pretty, then we want to get rid of it. You don’t want to come in contact with reality if you’re here [in Las Vegas] for fantasy.’” (Another D’Agata original, attributed to a newspaper.) “There is no phenomenon to which one in desperation might try to attribute the disparity of facts that surround this particular death’s most blunt fact: that Levi Presley’s body had been found ‘relatively intact’; or that Levi Presley’s body had been found ‘splattered to a million pieces’; or that parts of Levi’s body had been found a day later, sixty feet away.” (The “intact” comment is from the official coroner’s report; the “splattered” and “day later” comments D’Agata made up on his own. Essentially, the ‘disparity of facts’ D’Agata is emphasizing, and whose irreconciliable nature this essay is about, is a disparity he made up.)
This isn’t art, or even artifice, but cowardice. D’Agata doesn’t trust the reader to side with him, so he presents his own thesis – “Facts are unreliable” – through the more objective-seeming mouths of others. But for all his proselytizing that an essay is “an attempt,” or “a search for meaning,” it becomes clear that D’Agata wasn’t on any sort of hunt. Rather, he brought his own fully-formulated thoughts to his writing desk and pretended that these thoughts belonged not to him but to the people he interviewed (or conjured), because objectivity is more authoritative. The piece would be more interesting, probably, if he toughened up and explored his own struggle with believing in things, rather than presenting a general statement that things shouldn’t be believed.
What Lifespan does give us, though, is something much better than an essayist successfully arguing the validity of his method. In fact, what we get might possibly be termed art. Here we’re presented with a hubristic man who clings to his belief that believing in facts is worthless, unable to see that his mode of manipulating facts is equally worthless: A man unable to see that his handling of information cheapens and melodramatizes our already cheap and melodramatic world, rather than enhances it. Lifespan is footage of the emperor in his dressing room, trying on his clothes, still thinking they look great.
“‘If A Boy Jumps’ isn’t, as you claim, a ‘deceptively tautological essay about essay writing,’” D’Agata emailed me. “And it isn’t about ‘factual fungibility,’ either. That’s just the mode. The essay is what it seems to be – my response to a suicide. Nor is the essay meaningless without Lifespan to clarify it. I’m not going to spell out for you the things I’ve stated explicitly in the book, things that are self-evident in the essay. I don’t see how any interview you do could possibly be interesting if the questions you ask are answered verbatim in the book.”
Our correspondence, which spanned a couple weeks in early March, consisted of infrequent emails and two brief G-chat conversations. D’Agata, at the time, was traveling in Southeast Asia for a Harper’s piece, and wasn’t “lugging around [his] laptop through the jungles.”
“But your response to the suicide is that facts can’t always be trusted,” I wrote back. “I mean, what kind of response is that? And it seems to connect pretty directly with Lifespan, which, as I understand it, is about how it’s okay to disregard or distort facts if it’s in the pursuit of Truth. Maybe the issue is in aligning Truth with your response to Levi’s death, and your conviction that these are inseparable. There’s a lack of self-doubt, of self-questioning, that undermines your projected certainty. Anyway, as I said before, what I find more interesting than your writing and your ideas on writing is how you’ve laid yourself bare. There’s a kind of palimpsest thing going on, where we’re able to see your thoughts and justifications (the book) overlaid over your work (the essay). We really – readers – feel we get to know you. Your character is absolutely revealed. And I’m curious if that was your real intention, because that aspect of this essay/book is what allows us to see what’s between you and what you produce, and it’s actually very cool.”
On this particular exchange I didn’t hear back for a couple days (“It’s not that I was thinking long and hard about what you said. I was just in Laos”), but my waitress did finally get in touch. She apologized sufficiently and explained she’d been “working crazy double shifts all week.” Eventually we met at a bar in Fort Greene. Although we’d worked together for almost two years in the insta-intimacy of a busy restaurant, we now entered into the hunch-shouldered time warp of nervous drinking. Throughout the evening, though, as we made our way in and out of a couple bars, our deltoids relaxed. She is the type of person for whom biking is not a means of transportation, but a way of life, and her calves bulged roundly against the tight denim of her jeans. On the way to her apartment we kissed on Washington Avenue under a blinking streetlight.
We didn’t have sex; it was one of the nightlong spooning-and-confession sessions I’m adept at facilitating. These nights, at least, are less stressful to me than nights when there’s actually sex taking place. Before getting in bed she checked her email to see if any of the branding firms she’d applied to had gotten back to her. Lauryn Hill was on her iTunes, cooing out through the laptop’s crappy speakers. On her bedroom’s wall she had a framed Radiohead poster signed by Thom Yorke – an enlarged version of their OK Computer album cover, a copy of which I’d taped to my bedroom wall in junior high.
“I used to have that poster,” I said. “Not signed, though.”
“God, it was my sister’s,” she said. She slid under the covers beside me. Her pajamas were men’s basketball shorts. “Now I put it up everywhere I move. I don’t even like Radiohead.”
“Yeah, I never really got into them the way my friends did,” I said. “I mean, they’re fine. But I don’t know why I had their poster. I also had a Godfather poster before I’d ever seen the movie. Apparently I wanted to be very masculine and alternative in high school. And Italian.”
“What about now?”
“Well, now I am masculine and alternative. No doubt you’ve been noticing this all night. I think I’d prefer to be literary and compassionate, though. I have a Paris Review print on my wall that Larry Rivers did, if you know Larry Rivers.”
“I’m those things, too, though. I am masculine and alternative, and literary and compassionate. It’s important to define yourself, I think.”
“You keep saying that.”
I shrugged in acknowledgment.
“I am a waitress,” she said.
“But you want to be a branding something.”
“I’m going to be a branding something. I don’t really want to be.”
“You’re a reluctant aspirant.”
“I am. I am twenty-eight. I am tipsy. I am warm.”
She pulled her bedside lamp’s chain, but her computer still glowed, turning the room blue-ish. We spoke about Minneapolis, and the News Room – the restaurant we’d worked at – and she updated me on the staff I knew who were still there, and the kids they’d had or not had, and who’d been fired recently and why. We kissed and snoozed. In the morning we agreed to meet up again, knowing we wouldn’t; she’d admitted earlier that she was sort of dating a bartender or waiter she worked with.
“The point of my projects was not personal revelation,” D’Agata said when I next heard from him. “You’re imposing narcissistic motivations on me.”
“But that’s the whole thing,” I said. “Have you read Lifespan? You come across as incredibly narcissistic. That you wrote Lifespan in the first place points to narcissism. You could have proved your point in four words. ‘Virginia Woolf did it,’ and you’re done. But instead you felt the need for this whole book. And you refer to yourself half a dozen times as an artist, which seems – it seems vain to me. Not that you’re not an artist. But declaring yourself as one seems kind of exhibitionistic. It comes off, and you must know this, as ‘I’m an artist and therefore I can do what I want, because I’m an artist, and that’s what artists do.’ I think the greater art is something you have less control over than you think you do. It’s in letting readers see what’s between the information you manipulated and your rather unconvincing reasons for doing so. Those reasons say a lot. And doesn’t this intrigue you? Are you curious about why you’re so adamant about your freedom to distort facts? Discrediting facts is much more important to you than anything else you purport to uncover about Levi’s death. Why do you feel the need to explain and justify what you’re doing (essaying) in addition to just doing it?”
“All these psychological motivations you’re pinning on me are just that, Max – psychological. They might be there, they might not, I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. I can say, though, that they weren’t overt. I wrote the essay from a place of true curiosity, which is the starting place for all my essays. I had just moved to Las Vegas, was there temporarily, and on one of my first days in the city Levi killed himself in a rather spectacular way. Spectacular even by Vegas standards. It was covered for exactly thirty seconds on the news, and that was that. No one talked about it, and that seemed bizarre. I’m not sure if there’s willful media suppression of this stuff because Las Vegas is a tourist town, or if there’s a deeper denial going on, or something else entirely. That’s what I was after, though, and that – not myself, and not my aesthetic, or my process – was what was interesting to me. My process is the least interesting thing in the world to me. And I might say to you, with equal psychological underpinnings, that you seem strangely obsessed with this being about personal revelation, that you’re keening to have my work be much more personal and narcissistic, more involuted, more introspective, than it is.”
“I do think you’re more interesting than what you’re saying. I mean, just generally, people are probably more interesting than their beliefs. Why people believe in things is more interesting than what those beliefs are.”
“And to an extent that is what my essay’s about. And the book, too. The belief in data, the absurd pedestal data has been placed on, both within the context of essaying and in the larger world. It’s become a religion, and that’s dangerous.”
“It’s true,” I said. “You can’t watch a football game without learning how effective each team is on third-and-thirteen when it’s two degrees outside, and the ducks flying above the stadium are migrating south at a velocity of…”
“Exactly. It’s the ESPN thing, but on a larger societal scale.”
“And so somehow all this stuff about facts, and art, led me to think about faith. Was that a deliberate subtext in either the essay or the book?”
“Deliberate is a strange word in this context. Nothing I do is very deliberate. It was a natural subtext, though. Like I said, it’s the situation where we can have absolute faith in facts, because they’re indisputable. And people seem to replace their faith in more important things with faith in facts.”
I asked what those More Important Things might be to him, and he gave me, understandably I suppose, the internet equivalent of the middle finger.
“Well, there is your faith in the uncertainty of facts.”
“I’d say its more their incompleteness than their uncertainty. They can be certain, but they’re always incomplete. And the artist’s job, in my view, is to supplement that incompleteness. To make whole things out of partial things.”
“Even though the world is comprised of partial things, and whole things may not be the most accurate interpretation of that.”
“Yes. Yes, exactly.”
In my next email, I tried to convince D’Agata of his changes’ triviality. “Purple,” I wrote. “Pink.” But soon I realized that I was more concerned with proving him wrong, or with getting him to contradict himself, to recant and apologize, than in eliciting an answer from him that was sincere and interesting. (Actually, this is a frequent problem of mine in interviews.) So I deleted what I’d written and thanked him for his various pockets of time.
Although they have five years to graduate from their master’s program, and have only been in school for three, and the matriculation fee is nominal so long as they’re not taking classes, my roommates were upset to learn their study was not just poorly researched, but actually copied almost criterion-by-criterion a study of Facebook activity that had been conducted two years earlier, also at CUNY.
“These two Indian dudes,” one of them said.
“You don’t know that,” said the other. “Their names are just Indian. Arvin Something. Something Rai. I don’t know. I don’t care. They suck and I hate them.”
“These two very likely Indian or Bangladeshi dudes.”
We were sprawled on our couch, an L-shaped thing of deepest brown suede, six dirty-socked feet on the coffee table. I was drinking with them because I, too, was undergoing a disappointment, if a more expected one – the waitress had confirmed, in a text message with a full stop at its end, that things were “getting real” with her coworker. My brain had rationalized the rejection days ago, but my stomach, never a precocious learner, right now felt it viscerally. Approximately once per minute I checked my phone to see if she’d changed her mind. I asked my roommates what their next study would be; they were unsure. I suggested that if their initial study had gone well, then my relationship with the waitress would have gone well, too.
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It does,” I said. “These things are related.”
I said I didn’t know. “Something between this. Another thing between that.” My phone buzzed in my pocket but then it turned out it hadn’t.
“No, that doesn’t make any sense at all.”
I quit trying to explain, I couldn’t explain, but was nevertheless convinced of what I’d said.
Max Ross‘s writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Star Tribune, The Harvard Review, and The Rumpus. He lives in New York.