Message in a Bottle
All We Ask Is That You Tell The Truth About Your Lying

Steve Jobs had always been charismatic, to the extent a technology CEO can be, but in the months before he died last fall, when the severity of his illness and his struggle against it became public knowledge, he turned into an almost Messianic figure. Which would make former Seattle resident Mike Daisey his Judas, I suppose. While most of the media world was lionizing Apple’s leader, Daisey was performing a one-man theater piece called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which called its subject on the carpet to answer charges about unsafe and unjust business practices in the foreign factories that manufacture Apple’s sleekly sensuous products. Partly fueled by Jobs-mania, Daisey’s monologues were increasingly successful, earning him thirty pieces of silver and then some. The actor became an activist, leading an industry-wide movement to improve conditions for the Chinese workers who supply the West with its now-essential gadgets. The spotlight he drew upon himself was probably brightest when he appeared on radio’s This American Life to give an abbreviated performance of his stage routine. The broadcast was the most downloaded in the show’s history.

Accounts differ about exactly how things turned out for Judas—he’s most commonly considered to have hanged himself, though there are other stories, some grosser—but all agree that the end wasn’t pleasant. Neither was it for Daisey’s career as a gadfly, which has collapsed after the revelation that he heavily fictionalized the results of his investigations in China and lied to fact-checkers about them. This American Life devoted an entire episode to the scandal, offering a complete retraction that’s a model for how fiascoes like this should be handled. It’s more compelling than the original story, frankly.

Of course, Jobs was never an actual Christ figure, and Daisey doesn’t deserve to be cast into the lowest circle of hell. He’s just a guy whose enthusiasms carry him away, for good and ill. If not for his initial fanboyism regarding Apple products, he wouldn’t have felt it necessary to strike back at the company so hard when he discovered how his toys were made. He established this pattern in his breakthrough monologue for the stage, “21 Dog Years,” which he first performed in 2001 and later published as a book by the same name. In it he recounts his employment with Amazon.com, a period characterized by infatuation with the company and its founder Jeff Bezos, followed by inevitable disillusionment. Speaking selfishly, it would have been nice if Daisey had gotten in touch with his inner activist a decade ago. What of the plight of the oppressed independent bookseller? Where was your pity then, sir?

Enough weeping. The problem in this situation, as it was for James Frey, Greg Mortenson, and all the rest, doesn’t have to do with the content of what was said or written, but with the way it was labeled. Everyone accepts the idea that a story can be embellished or altered to make its point more powerfully, but most of us insist that authors acknowledge their tinkerings with the truth. Uncle Tom’s Cabin roused a nation and legendarily led Abraham Lincoln to call its author “the little woman who started this big war,” but Harriet Beecher Stowe never claimed she interviewed Simon Legree. What’s acceptable as entertainment in a darkened theater needs to have sources and footnotes when it appears in sunlight in the morning paper. The hyphen between fiction and non- is a boundary line that few cross unscathed.

John D’Agata is one of the few, a writer who’s made a career out of dancing back and forth across that line. He’s the author of an influential collection called Halls of Fame, and the editor of two anthologies, The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay, all of which showcase creative nonfiction, a genre that’s frank about its willingness to blur definitions and question the relative value of truth and beauty. His latest book, co-written with Jim Fingal, is a contradictory manifesto that simultaneously calls for the strictest journalistic and loosest artistic standards possible. The Lifespan of a Fact has its origins in an article D’Agata wrote about the suicide of a Las Vegas teenager. The piece was killed by the magazine editors who first commissioned it, but was later printed in the Believer, though not without a good deal of tribulation. The submitted article is at the center of Lifespan of a Fact, while the saga of its reception plays out in the margins. Fingal was a fact-checker at the ironically-titled Believer during the publication process, and he ruthlessly queried D’Agata on hundreds of issues. Their correspondence and conversation about those details and their significance surrounds and overwhelms the original text and forms the bulk of this fascinating book.

How many strip clubs are there in Vegas? Does it take eight or nine seconds to fall to the ground from the observation deck of the 1149-foot Stratosphere Tower? What color are the mountains you’d see in the distance as you plummeted? Why would someone fudge this minutia? Why would anyone care if you did? The argument rages without resolution, with Fingal playing the part of the dogged truth-seeker, and D’Agata belligerently claiming the right of poetic license. The synthesis of their respective opinions is the single best commentary on l’affaire Daisey and on the more general memoir crisis we’re now experiencing. Every season seems to bring another exposé debunking a bestselling, allegedly true tale of nobility or debauchery or both.

The appetites and expectations of the audience may be as much to blame as the authors. Maybe it’s because we’re bombarded by advertising every minute of every day, but we’re craving authenticity, or at least a sense of it, more than ever. When Davy Crockett published his diaries, no one minded that he didn’t really kill him a bear when he was only three, but these days even fiction writers can get in trouble for not being truthful. When JT Leroy’s realistic novels of teenage prostitution and drug abuse turned out not be written by a young man but by a middle-aged woman, didn’t that make their artistic achievement all the greater? Apparently not. It was only the story behind the story that mattered, and Laura Albert was convicted of fraud. Manuscripts that used to be published as autobiographical fiction are now marketed as memoirs that offer the ring of truth from a cracked bell. We can’t seem to get enough of these books, and when we read them we want to say “Unbelievable!” But we don’t want to mean it. So who’s lying to whom?

As usual, Emily Dickinson got there ahead of all of us:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

It sounds counterintuitive, but if pure imagination got more respect in the marketplace, maybe authors would be less afraid to tell us when they tell it slant.

—James

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