Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth was a big deal when it came out in Australia in 2004. His previous novels had given him a following, but The White Earth was the winner of the Miles Franklin Prize, Australia’s richest literary award, catapulting him to a new level of recognition. The book is a multigenerational tale in which the generations collide. Young William and his mother are cast from their homestead in Queensland when William’s father burns to death in a farming accident. They are taken in by William’s cranky great uncle, John McIvor, who lives holed up in a decrepit mansion on what’s left of what was once a great homestead called Kuran Station. There is still enough land left at the Station to lust after though, and William’s sickly but greedy mother sets out to make sure that William will be the heir to his hermit uncle. The main action of the book takes place in 1992 and is filled with what I understand to be the political questions of that time, mostly having to do with compensating aborigines for the ancestral land that was taken from him. All of this makes old John McIvor something of a crank, obsessed with protecting his land and leader of a fringe organization whose membership has racist tendencies fueled by fears that cityfolk will allow their farms to be taken away. Luckily McGahan provides flashbacks to the life of young John McIvor so we can see how Kuran Station, taken from him when he was young and regained after middle age, became his life’s obsession. Though not as masterful as other books in this same mold and a bit heavyhanded in the use of certain images (men on fire), The White Earth is an enjoyable epic of the struggle for land Down Under.
Towards the end of The Lifespan of a Fact, a book which presents itself as the transcript of a long-running email exchange over the fact-checking of an essay for The Believer, Jim Fingal (the checker) asks John D’Agata (the checked) what exactly he thinks gives him the authority to introduce falsehoods into a work of non-fiction. D’Agata’s reply – “It’s called art, dickhead” – doesn’t represent him at his most thoughtful or eloquent, but it does roughly capture the spirit of his cultural enterprise. For some time now, D’Agata has been making the case for literary non-fiction’s claim to an artistic status equal to that of the novel or poetry, and for recognizing the right of essayists and memoirists to manipulate and distort the truth as the needs of their work demand. Reading this, in other words, you can’t help thinking that it’s not just Fingal he’s calling a dickhead for his inability to accept that literary non-fiction isn’t the same thing as journalism. John D’Agata, you suspect, is calling us all dickheads.
Certainly, by the time I got to this point in the book, I was identifying so strongly with Fingal that D’Agata might as well have been talking directly to me. From the outset, the young Believer intern has been getting a startling amount of flack for merely doing his job (although “merely” is probably a misleading adverb here, given the monomaniacal focus and intensity with which he carries out the fact-checking process). D’Agata’s essay, an oblique and stylized work of reportage about the suicide of a Las Vegas teenager named Levi Presley, has already been rejected for factual inaccuracies by the editor at Harper’s who commissioned it, and so when it arrives on Fingal’s desk at The Believer, it comes with a health warning, albeit one that’s far too mild.
Fingal’s first email to D’Agata queries a claim in the essay’s opening sentence about the number of licensed strip clubs in Vegas. The essay says thirty-four, whereas the notes D’Agata has passed on to the magazine say thirty-one (as do a number of more reliable sources). D’Agata’s tone is peevish, defensive, and condescending from the beginning.
Hi, Jim, I think maybe there’s some sort of miscommunication, because the “article,” as you call it, is fine. It shouldn’t need a fact-checker; at least that was my understanding with the editor I’ve been working with. I have taken some liberties in the essay here and there, but none of them are harmful.
When Fingal gently presses him on where he got the number thirty-four from, D’Agata’s answer sets the tone for the rest of the exchange: “Well, I guess that’s because the rhythm of ‘thirty-four’ works better in that sentence than the rhythm of ‘thirty-one,’ so I changed it.” With admirable restraint, Fingal thanks D’Agata for his time and mentions that he’ll “probably be checking back with you later on.” This is a technically accurate prediction, if one that is marked by a significant degree of understatement: the battle of fact-checking attrition that followed, we are told, would last longer than the Second World War. (The jacket copy maintains that the exchange lasted seven years, but, as with a good deal else about this book, we’d be well advised to treat that claim with circumspection.)
The Lifespan of a Fact dramatizes a clash of sensibilities – a conflict between an aesthete for whom the rhythm of a number is more important than its accuracy and an empiricist for whom facts are, whether we like it or not, facts. A lot of D’Agata’s adjustments to the actual do seem, in themselves, fairly harmless. For much of the book, the conflict between the checker and the checked reads as a conflict between two equal and opposite forces of fastidiousness: fastidiousness about fact, and fastidiousness about art. When D’Agata mentions a “small idle fleet of purple dog-grooming vans,” Fingal pulls him up on the color, pointing out that, in the notes he has provided, the vans are identified as pink. D’Agata’s rationale for the change is, again, purely aesthetic: “I needed the two beats in ‘purple,’ so I changed the color. Again I don’t think it’s that big a deal.” There’s a sense in which he’s right, of course; who cares whether the vans were pink or purple? D’Agata continually accuses Fingal of being excessively fussy, and he’s undoubtedly got a point – even though excessive fussiness is the exact failing you would want in a fact-checker.
But he himself is guilty of a more insidious form of fussiness. If a writer sees a pink van and changes it to purple because he “needs” an extra beat in the sentence, is that something we should forgive, or admire? And what else is he likely to need that things as they are fail to provide for him? (Quite a lot, as it turns out.) It’s not the unreliability itself that’s troubling about this so much as what lies behind it: an aesthetic over-scrupulousness, amounting to a dissatisfaction with the awkward dimensions of reality. Okay, sure: it’s called art. I get it. But I also can’t help thinking of James Joyce who, when he was writing what was arguably the 20th Century’s greatest work of literature, tormented his brother Stanislaus with letters from wherever he happened to be in continental Europe, requesting that he measure, say, the precise amount of time it took to get from Sandymount Strand to the National Library on foot. Joyce’s unwillingness to compromise in his fidelity to reality was his way of refusing to compromise his art. (It’s grossly unfair, of course, to compare any writer to Joyce, but if a guy was ever asking for it, it’s John D’Agata.)
Van paint jobs and strip club statistics are one thing; the facts about a teenage boy’s suicide are another, and there’s something unsettling – even slightly creepy – about the way in which D’Agata insists on changing details about Levi Presley’s death. The coroner’s report, for instance, states that when Presley threw himself off the top of the Stratosphere Hotel, he fell for a total of eight seconds before hitting the concrete below. D’Agata increases this to nine seconds, because his lyric mysticism requires him to have the number nine running through the essay. And the problem here, of course, is one that we wouldn’t be faced with if this were a work of fiction: a writer changing the facts of a real tragedy because those facts, with their awkward shapes, don’t fit snugly into his aesthetic framework. Which is to say that we’re teetering on the edge of an extremely slippery slope, with a very heavy burden in our arms, and it’s a long way to the bottom. If D’Agata were to write a lyric essay about, let’s say, Auschwitz, would he claim the right to change “Zyklon B” to “Zyklon W” because he needed those extra two beats in a sentence? (I’m well aware that if bringing Joyce into this is unfair, bringing the Holocaust in is unforgivable. But I also think this is the kind of conversation D’Agata wants us to have. So if we’re going to talk, let’s talk.)
John D’Agata is a gifted writer. About a Mountain, the book that evolved out of the essay for The Believer, is an object lesson in the possibilities of its genre, and a proof of D’Agata’s own claim that literary non-fiction is as much an art form as poetry or fiction. He occasionally errs on the side of grandiosity, but there’s no doubt that the book is a strange and moving piece of work. A good deal of its power, though, is the result of what might be referred to as a poetry of fact. He fills his work with striking figures and startling fragments of information, building an imposing, stylized structure of significance out of the particular. Despite D’Agata’s claims to the contrary, the work in general loses a non-trivial amount of its power when the reader is given cause to disbelieve these specifics. I haven’t re-read About a Mountain since finishing The Lifespan of a Fact, but I suspect that it might be a different experience, and a diminished one. The poetry of fact is inevitably less poetic when the facts turn out to be counterfeit.
There’s a tightly compressed irony to all this, of course, and to the significant media controversy this book has caused. D’Agata deliberately exposes his own fakery here (although that is presumably not a word to which he’d grant any legitimacy in a discussion of art, even “non-fiction” art). In that sense, he’s dictating the terms of the controversy he has provoked. That’s one of many obvious differences between D’Agata and the haplessly duplicitous likes of, say, Mike Daisey (for whom I might have had slightly more respect if he’d responded to the controversy over the fabrications in his This American Life story with “It’s called self-promotion, dickheads.”) Surprisingly few reviews have mentioned the fact that The Lifespan of a Fact is, itself, a heavily fictionalized version of the emails that were actually sent during the fact-checking process. The “real” D’Agata is almost certainly nowhere near as irritating a person as the character he presents here. The fact that he’s willing to cast himself as the villain of the piece – or, at any rate, by far the less likable of the two interlocutors – indicates the seriousness of his commitment to his side of the debate, and to bringing that debate to a broader cultural arena.
Whether you agree with his insistence upon his right to manipulate facts, you have to agree that he has succeeded in provoking a cultural conversation on the topic. I found myself taking issue with a lot of D’Agata’s arguments, but the ones I was most uncomfortable with were the ones that I couldn’t easily discount. At one point, for instance, Fingal suggests that “people are going to get upset when someone wins them over with a powerful argument, and then reveals that they employed fraudulent evidence to do so.” It’s a solid point, and one whose truth has been firmly established in the last few weeks, not just by the Daisey affair, but also by the whole grim farce around the Kony 2012 campaign. And yet D’Agata’s answer is difficult to dismiss:
What we’re dancing around here is the idea of a moral responsibility in nonfiction. And that’s why this sort of conversation always gets me peeved – and why the conversation also always ends up in circles – because the moment we start judging a form of art in terms of its “moral value” is the moment we stop talking about art.
There is, of course, a faint but unmistakable whiff of sophistry off this stuff. It’s hugely problematic to present a piece of writing as non-fiction (“literary” or otherwise), and then to cry foul when it’s criticized for coming up short of that measure. Holding such writing to a standard of truth is not the same thing as manhandling it out of the pantheon of art and hustling it into the press tent. But at the same time, the point can’t entirely be shrugged off. The work D’Agata does is vastly different to the kind of thing Mike Daisey and the Invisible Children people tripped themselves up over. If you consider literary non-fiction art – and there are no good reasons not to – then this question of moral responsibility is not an easy one to bracket off.
It would be negligent on my part not to point out that the book itself – as distinct from the argument it has succeeded in provoking – is, mostly, a bore. For roughly its first hundred pages, it’s a tedious back-and-forth over endless minutiae, punctuated by the occasional amusingly juvenile outburst from the “D’Agata” character. There’s very little entertainment or enlightenment to be had in following Fingal’s line-by-line stress testing of a piece of writing. The book’s intellectual substance is almost all contained in its last thirty pages or so. Judged purely as a self-contained text, therefore, it’s not up to much. But to say that it’s mostly boring is to miss the point, a bit like saying that a Molotov cocktail is mostly boring because it’s just a bottle of petrol with an old rag stuffed into it. The point of this book, in other words, is not the experience of reading it, but the cultural debate that has flared up around it. D’Agata has got himself a little singed in the process of igniting that debate, but that may have been part of the plan.
It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that, in its early years, Twitter suffered from a lot of internal turmoil. After all, the company has cycled through three different CEOs in four years. But the power struggle depicted in Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal is likely far greater than anyone could have imagined. Culling from some 65 hours of interviews with current and former Twitter employees, in addition to employee emails, IMs, and confidential legal notices, Bilton has used all his access to write a compelling exposé of Twitter’s cofounders — a startup soap opera for the Valleywag age.
From the ruins of the stalled podcasting startup Odeo, Twitter emerged in 2006 as an idea then-nobody programmer Jack Dorsey had about “status updates.” Later that year, he, Evan Williams, and Biz Stone would dismantle Odeo to work on Twitter full time, which is more or less where the good times ended. The company would struggle under Dorsey’s “incompetent” leadership as CEO, Williams would take over, and later be replaced himself by current CEO Dick Costolo, with Dorsey also being brought back onboard. Costolo and Stone are mentioned throughout the book, but remain largely background characters. Bilton centers Hatching Twitter around the relationship between Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams because that’s where all the melodrama is.
The book seems to generally come down harder on Dorsey than it does on Williams, but Bilton discovers an interesting divide in what each cofounder believes Twitter should be. Dorsey sees Twitter as an outlet to express oneself outward, while Williams’s vision is based around telling stories about people. These philosophical differences influence the site’s technical development as well. (Dorsey, for example, believes in focusing on mobile while Williams believes more time should be put toward the website.) In one of the book’s best moments, Dorsey and Williams are arguing about whether the pre-populated question in the status update box should ask the user “what are you doing?” or “what’s happening?” Bilton writes:
To many this might sound like semantics. Yet these were two completely different ways of using Twitter. Was it about me, or was it about you? Was it about ego, or was it about others? In reality, it was about both. One never would have worked without the other.
Here, Bilton is accomplishing several things at once: he’s remarking on the thoughtful subtleties that made Twitter so powerful, illustrating the conceptual divide between Jack and Ev, and developing their irreconcilable relationship to the reader.
It’s unfortunate that we don’t see more of this throughout the book. Later, it becomes clear Bilton is interested in painting Dorsey as a tragic figure, a 28 year old who came to Odeo to work with industry role models and friends, whose creation of Twitter would ironically sever those ties he sought so desperately to make. It feels like a stretch, especially at the end when, in a moment of loneliness, Dorsey dramatically checks Twitter.
In fact, the entire theme of loneliness throughout Hatching Twitter comes across as particularly facile. Bilton attributes a shared sense of isolation as the genesis for Twitter:
It could be a technology that would erase a feeling that an entire generation felt while staring into their computer screens. An emotion that Noah and Jack and Biz and Ev had grown up feeling, finding solace in a monitor. An emotion that Noah [Glass] felt night after night as his marriage and company fell apart: loneliness.
In a book where Bilton touts the accuracy of what he details in an author’s note, Hatching Twitter still feels like it’s constantly making leaps when it comes to its subjects’ motives and emotions. Many of these sections are notably light on quotations in a book that is otherwise so abundant with them.
It’s disappointing to watch Bilton commit to such an obvious trope: the despair of the lonely computer nerd. Dorsey is drawn as a caricature of a developer, a man-child whose desires have the maturity of an early high schooler. There’s a moment, too, when Dorsey’s relationship with Odeo founder Noah Glass is sullied when he becomes jealous of Glass’s friendship with another coworker named Crystal Taylor. Dorsey’s infatuation is solidified early on when Taylor teaches him what “texting” is — making a crush literally the inspiration for Twitter.
The moment reminded me of something Mark Zuckerberg said after seeing The Social Network. According to Zuckerberg, the most inaccurate part of the movie is the way it’s framed. Aaron Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg is motivated by getting back at an ex-girlfriend; in real life, Zuckerberg had been dating the same girl since Facebook’s inception.
“It’s such a big disconnect from the way people who make movies think about what we do in Silicon Valley — building stuff,” Zuckerberg said. “They just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.”
Similar comments were echoed by Dorsey’s boss at Odeo, Tony Stubblebine, in a Quora post about the accuracy of Bilton’s adapted excerpt of Hatching Twitter from The New York Times Magazine. Is the notion that Dorsey just wants to be in control of a product he’s created so unbelievable or so unconvincing that his motives need to be supplemented by adolescent jealousy?
And yet while the characters featured in Hatching Twitter feel more like archetypes than actual humans, it’s hard not to eat this stuff up. Aspects of Dorsey’s behavior are hilariously juvenile. After being ousted from the company, he continued to take any and all interviews about Twitter, feigning authority when answering questions he did not know the answer to. Dorsey would also set up meetings with his @twitter.com email address as a bait-and-switch to talk about his new startup Square (he would have his email address revoked).
Bilton has an excellent sense of pace, and there are several scenes — in particular, the chapter where Dorsey gets fired — that are exciting enough to be lifted word-for-word into a film adaptation. Of course, this all depends how exciting you can find a chapter cliffhanger that ends with someone calling Mark Zuckerberg. In the final pages of Hatching Twitter, I questioned whether the book really had anything meaningful to say about Twitter, its founders, or even any of the tumultuous things that transpired between them. Bilton is less concerned about what Twitter is and more interested in the human drama between its founders. The company itself is just the battleground for an ego-driven power struggle, and as gripping as it is to see some of the smartest minds in tech tell each other to go fuck themselves, I couldn’t help but feel like I had just read nearly 300 pages of privileged white men yelling at each other.
The Known World feels like a book that took a long time to write. The writing proceeds at a slow but churning pace. Jones meticulously ties each character to one another, to the land, to the curious circumstances of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. We are taught in school that slavery was a black and white affair, but Jones takes great pains to describe a human landscape where such distinctions are blurry: the most powerful man in Manchester County, William Robbins, dotes upon the two children he has fathered with his slave, Philomena; Oden, the Indian, exaggerates his cruelty towards blacks to maintain his tenuous superiority; and Henry Townsend, the gifted young black man at the center of this novel, acquires a plantation full of slaves from which discord flows, imperceptibly at first. The lesson is the messiness of slavery made real by the vivid lives of each character. Over the course of the novel, Jones sketches out each character, from birth to death, using deft flashbacks and flash-forwards that are scattered throughout like crumbs and give the book a marvelous depth. In this sense, the book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book ends before the Civil War begins, and so the triumph of good over evil is not allowed to mitigate the brutal picture of slavery that Jones paints. Perhaps because it was so assiduously researched, this novel feels like history and it feels like life. Here’s hoping that Jones’ next one doesn’t take ten years to write.
Frank Bascombe, the narrator of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, must be the most eloquent real estate agent on God’s green earth. Indeed, he once was a writer, as those who have read the other two Bascombe books, The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1995), will recall. The latter garnered Ford some impressive hardware, both the Pulitzer and Pen/Faulkner awards, and put Frank Bascombe on the literary map. So, The Lay of the Land is like a delicate piece of urban planning, with Ford endeavoring to expand on the Bascombe legacy while avoiding the pitfalls of largess and sprawl.What is the Bascombe legacy, after all? It’s a question that Bascombe himself is forced to confront from the first pages of The Lay of the Land, because he is now 55 years old and has recently had radioactive BBs fired into his cancerous prostate. The prospect of death from within is all the more troubling because it is from within, exclusively, that Frank Bascombe’s life on the page has been recounted, with solipsistic alacrity. A great part of the Bascombe legacy, then, is his voice, honed to near perfection over the course of three books: funny with a sardonic edge, searching and unsure, eschewing lapidary truths, reveling in life’s persistent ambiguities. Wives, ex-wives, and other women have passed before his eyes, children, too, both dead and living; great professional successes and profound failures have been endured, all recounted by this voice, which in the end (and it is probably the end: Ford has said that this is the last of the Bascombe books), and like many great literary voices, is both unique, and, somehow, universal.What emerges is a struggle to separate the permanent from the protean. Frank Bascombe has now entered into what he calls life’s “permanent period,” where the forks in the road have all been taken, and what’s left is to sort out what it all means, and, simply, how, or even if, he will be remembered: “But very little about me, I realized – except what I’d already done, said, eaten, etc. – seemed written in stone, and all of that meant almost nothing about what I might do. I had my history, okay, but not really much of a regular character, at least not an inner essence I or anyone could use as a predictor. And something, I felt, needed to be done about that.”It’s soulful stuff, with a definite Eastern orientation – the enduring quality of the soul – hinted at during Frank’s often humorous interactions with his business partner, a Tibetan with the unlikely name Mike Mahoney (make money?), who has given Frank a book on the teachings of the Dalai Lama, but who also displays a framed picture of Ronald Reagan above his desk.Frank has fled the formerly idyllic township of Haddam, New Jersey, now a phantasmagoria of suburban development gone awry, for the seaside calm of the Shore. His house faces East to the open ocean, from whence he, and all others, came. Haddam is a not so shining example of change, as it’s now devoid of the less-spoiled innocence of the Shore, bloated, a mockery (The place where his ex-wife lives. In his own, old house no less.) And Frank, as a purveyor of land, is in as good a position as any to make observations about Haddam, though he sometimes sounds like he’s dictating a real estate primer. The implication is that, unlike that of the human character once it has reached the permanent period, the lay of the land, that which is observable, ownable, is in a constant state of flux. Uncertainty reigns over the American landscape. It is, finally, The Year 2000, and, after the great millennial let-down, the country must now watch the disputed presidential election play out (Frank voted for Gore, the apparent loser.)And perhaps the economic boom of the last decade is ready to go bust? And perhaps other storm clouds are brewing, misfortune of a different sort set to make landfall in the not-too-distant future? It is a deep source of interest, setting the book at this pivotal time in American history, and Ford evokes the turmoil skillfully, the problems inherent to “progress” as described by an older and undeniably crankier Frank Bascombe, with just enough veiled reference to future events to make the narrative seem retroactively prescient without being (too) smug.But, with a nod to almost every aspect of modern American life that you can name, the book is ultimately about death. And one cannot discuss America and death without discussing violence, too. Surprisingly, violence plays an important part in the narrative. As a device, its presence seems meant to allow Frank to cross that last hurdle, to allow the lay of the land around him, so troubling at times, fraught with worry and doubt and misfortune, to fall away, his body just an ephemeral shell, his essence, his greater consciousness, which is all that the reader has had all along, taking finally its proper place as all that is permanent.Frank Bascombe has always been obsessed with the notion of “disappearing into your life.” It is a condition borne in on an existential riptide that sucks men into obscurity, nothing to show for themselves at the End save for the mundane details: the family, the career, the political affiliations, the kind of car you drove (a Chevy Suburban, in Frank’s case, one of many little ironies from the sometimes impish Ford). These contours in life’s landscape, this glorious topography, is not mundane when lived, of course, only when surveyed from a distance, a process for which Frank Bascombe has a singular talent. He recognizes that this territory has been negotiated before in past American lives, where second acts are hard to come by, if for no other reason than because it is damn near impossible to lower the curtain on the first.