Charles Bock invites you to be outraged. This past Sunday Bock reviewed John D’Agata’s new nonfiction book, “About a Mountain,” describing the material this way:
The mountain that John D’Agata is ostensibly concerned with … is Yucca Mountain, located approximately 100 miles north of Las Vegas. … [S]ince the mid-1980s, the United States government has been doing back flips to bury the country’s entire reservoir of spent nuclear waste — some 77,000 tons of apocalyptic yumminess — deep inside Yucca. In the summer of 2002, the summer after D’Agata helped his mother move to a Vegas suburb, Congress was proceeding with plans to make the mountain a nuclear dump. Also that summer, 16-year-old Levi Presley jumped to his death from the observation deck of a third-rate Vegas hotel. These subjects, disparate though they are, animate D’Agata’s sprawling narrative.
But Bock doesn’t want to direct your outrage toward government backed destruction of the environment, youth suicide, or even sprawling nonfiction narratives. No. He wants to direct your rage to a few of D’Agata’s footnotes.
Yes, that’s right: the footnotes.
With such weighty material to discuss, it seems ridiculous to zero in on footnotes but perhaps these are some outrageous footnotes, deserving of the full weight of our scorn. D’Agata writes nonfiction, you see, and he acknowledges in one of his naughty footnotes that he conflates the dates of two key events in his story by three days. MY GOD.
Bock uses inflammatory language, calling the material referred to by the footnote a “lie.” He goes on to charge D’Agata with playing “fast and loose with a verifiable historical date.” I suppose this is true if by “verifiable” Bock means that he had to read the footnote where D’Agata presents the discrepancy. But I wonder if adding footnotes to nonfiction really deserves the “fast and loose” qualifier that’s typically employed to discuss immoral women, or deviant sexual behavior (as fun as those things can be!).
To be fair, Bock speaks highly of D’Agata’s work:
Rarely does D’Agata betray his emotions or reactions to an event; rather, he works by establishing a scene, introducing tangentially related elements, building layers of complexity and scope, then jump-cutting or circling back at just the right moment, guiding the reader safely — and unexpectedly — to a destination D’Agata had in sight the whole time.
And Bock understands the bigger picture. He knows what D’Agata is trying to do with creative nonfiction, not just in this book, but in the whole of his career:
As D’Agata himself writes, in his introduction to “The Lost Origins of the Essay”: “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art? It’s not very clear sometimes. So this is a book that will try to offer the reader a clear objective: I am here in search of art.”
But ultimately Bock finds D’Agata’s voice lacking, having lost nothing less than his “moral authority” by conflating these dates. Although D’Agata offers no explanation for this conflation, Bock helpfully tenders a reason of his own: “for the sake of a tight narrative hook.” I don’t know. I haven’t read the book. But even knowing that the date of this child’s suicide has been conflated with some important back room vote doesn’t make the hook of this hard-to-grasp story much tighter for me. In Bock’s own words, the hook seems built on “layers of complexity and scope”; it does not easily give itself to a quick one line summary: this boy dies, that deal done. But even if we concede that a tidier hook is the reason for the conflation: Is it worthy of our scorn?
I’d argue that all of creative nonfiction suffers when we—writers and readers of creative nonfiction—allow journalists to manipulate us so easily. We do have to be wary of authors who pass off their fictions as truth. But do we need to be so dogmatic that a footnote raises a larger cry from us than anything found in our texts?
Of course, Bock can evaluate the book and the writer in whatever way he chooses. And calling into question the veracity of nonfiction is (sadly) the norm these days. I do want to know if the nonfiction book I’m reading has been made up. I just get tired of journalists revving up the scorn machine to score a point.
If John D’Agata can lose the moral high ground for footnoting his work, what does that say about us as readers and writers?
After recently reading that Oprah has apologized for rebuking James Frey, I felt encouraged to write up my thoughts about Million Little Pieces, Frey’s controversial memoir about drug addiction that includes many fabricated details. I hadn’t done it earlier because, frankly, I didn’t want to be in the James Frey apologist camp. I find the fact that he made up so many details about his recovery incredibly sad. I say this because he offers such an accurate and compelling portrait of a certain type of recovering addict—almost an archetype—that has been in every treatment center I’ve ever been in. And I’ve been in a quite a few.
I started using heroin when I was 17. When I was about 23, I made my first attempt at inpatient treatment and over the next four years I participated in five more attempts. These included stays at different types of inpatient facilities, including the secular and religious; hospital and farm; big city and rural; 12-Step and Therapeutic Community. To understand where I’m coming from, you have to understand something about how treatment works. Each facility might have a different approach (sometimes wildly different), but there seem to be two constants across all programs:
These are the cardinal rules.
Of the two, the rule about violence is probably the greater issue because this sort of behavior has the potential to affect the whole environment. You can’t foster the emotional depth required to right an upturned life, if everybody is attacking one another. The other rule prevents individuals from getting lost in the heady experience of a new relationship or just junking out on sex.
Now here is the interesting thing about these rules, or any rules: The disingenuous among us can often find ways to use the rules themselves to gain an advantage they otherwise might not be able to achieve. As you might expect, this is especially problematic in drug treatment. Once, during a stay in a religious facility in Syracuse, I met a young man who claimed to regularly receive prophecies from God. The facility was a charismatic Christian operation, and prophecy and other gifts of the spirit were part of the inpatient milieu. This young prophet was about eighteen, from a wealthy family, and handsome. He wore his hair feathered back like Bon Jovi and only received transmissions from God right after lunch, during the long, hot catechism classes that followed. His messages were almost always harmless aphorism. The first time it happened, I thought he was having an epileptic fit. We were all sitting at our desks and he began to shake, making his chair rattle. Soon he began speaking in an other worldly voice. You knew it was God speaking through him, because he used words like Verily and Thou.
I glanced over at Miguel, a drug addict from the Bronx about the same age as me, and rolled my eyes. The proctor, a slight man with soulful eyes, would wait patiently for these prophecies to end, his hands folded on the lectern. What else could he do? In this facility, Jesus was A-1 and to prophesy was not only condoned, but encouraged.
Religious institutions may offer unique occasions to subvert the rules, but the no violence rule offers a similar opportunity for everyone. Going into inpatient treatment can be an intimidating experience, especially your first time around. You’re suddenly thrust into the middle of hierarchy, where previously you may have never even understood a hierarchy existed. In an inpatient facility with strict rules about violence, you can’t just beat one another down to determine the Alpha. Instead, it’s all done with stories. Instead of uttering prophecy, a person might exaggerate his credentials. This might involve the kinds of drugs one used, the types of crimes one committed, or the length of time spent in jail. Because of the rules about violence, there isn’t a good way to sort out the liars. Typically this behavior comes from young men of wealthy families, during their first stay in treatment. Most of the time, it’s just ignored. With the rules in place, the risk of one client beating up another is nil. The greater risk is that clients posing as thugs will never come to understand themselves with any amount of depth.
This seems to be exactly what happened to James Frey.
Ignoring the two cardinal rules of treatment, Frey describes his treatment experience as a lot of tough posturing and a relationship. As I read Million Little Pieces, I kept thinking Frey had written a memoir from the point of view of an unreliable narrator. He seemed to have really captured the frightened little rich kid, desperate to prove his own worth. In treatment usually what happens is that the bona fide tough guys (you just know), start to openly explore their own fears and inadequacies. This is often enough to get the most hardened poser to come around and start being honest with himself (and everyone else).
I kept wondering when Frey, the recovering addict and author, would throw back the cape, renounce all the bluster and swagger, and show us who he really was. But I got to the end of the book, and it never happened. Maybe Frey couldn’t throw back that cape, because he had never had that experience in treatment. Maybe he never came to realize his own limitations.
Until Oprah hammered him on national television.
You can’t go through treatment six times without developing some empathy for people who fuck up spectacularly, especially other addicts. One afternoon in Syracuse, the Bon Jovi Prophet started to offer pointed messages critical of our entire class. The proctor listened calmly then asked him to remain after class for a private conversation. I have no idea what was said, but from that day forward the prophecy stopped. One assumes the proctor disabused this boy of the notion that he could speak for God.
What else could be done?
There is almost always a comeuppance in store for the addict who bends the rules too far to meet his own needs. Some of us just need a little more of a push to get to a more productive place.
Last month Holly and I got to see David Sedaris at Elliott Bay Book Company here in Seattle. He was promoting his latest book, When You are Engulfed in Flames, which is a collection of previously published essays and some new material. The most enjoyable part of the evening had to be the Q&A session after he read, and this is only because David Sedaris is so witty and fast on his feet. The truth about David Sedaris is that he is arguably one of the best American humorists writing creative non-fiction today, but he has also been criticized for stretching the truth in his work.