When the lights came up on the evening performance of The Lifespan of a Fact at Studio 54 in Manhattan’s manic theatre district on Tuesday January 8, 2019, it was 8.53pm (I checked my phone as we shuffled out of the theatre and back onto the frigid street).
The play is in its final week on Broadway, stuffed with talented magnetic performers (Daniel Radcliffe is as different to Harry Potter or Alan Strang as a man so famous for the parts he played as a teen could hope to be, a comfortable Cherry Jones, and a consistently delightful Bobby Cannavale), and wrestling with a question that all of America seems utterly fixated by.
How are facts and truths different and how much do each of these things matter?
The play, inspired by a book that came out of the ashes of the brutal (and brutally long) fact-checking process, of an essay first written in 2003 and ultimately published in 2012, never really gives the audience an answer.
Which is, of course, intentional.
We don’t learn that the five-day fact-finding mission ended with the piece being pulled unless we decide to delve on our own into the truth. (Although is that how it ended or is this a conflation of the knock back from Harper’s and the eventual—seven-years-in-the-making—publication in The Believer, I can’t be sure.)
On the street outside we walk over a block to Ninth Ave and down two more, before slipping into a small Thai restaurant for a late dinner of chicken pad kee mao and red beef curry.
When we sit, it’s 8.58.
I keep looking at the time because of Donald Trump. He’s due to start talking any minute now, addressing the nation for the first time, with his own blend of words, his own narrative non-fiction to bend to his will and submission. I flip my phone over so I can’t see it.
We get curry puffs too, since they’re always reliable, and then one of my companions slips out to buy beers. I had tried to be the one to go, so I could check the news on my phone. I lost the struggle, in large part because I was sitting on the wrong side of the table, and he was quicker to rise.
I flip my phone over and see it’s 9.05. I have a message.
This speech is a joke.
In the restaurant, we are still talking about the play. The small bendings of fact to pursue a ‘deeper truth’ at the heart of the writer’s argument (Cannavale) seem monumental to me, and not anything an editor would ever entertain. A girl’s method of suicide is changed, events are mis-ordered to fit a numerical style flourish, locations are mis-described for the artistic effect and with each small erosion a larger one occurs.
I worked as a fact checker for two years in Australia. As part of the ABC’s Fact Check Unit. We went rounds over the words we decided to use to designate the statements we checked. Was something incorrect, or was it wrong?
Aren’t those two things the same?
Well, no. Not if you consider the emotion of language. Incorrect sounds clinical, like maybe someone had mixed up a 5 and a 3 in a statistic, the information doesn’t square up, but there’s no intent to deceive. Wrong, on the other hand could be emotive. It could be construed as deliberate. It could be a stand-in for lie. And a lie, well, in 2013, a lie seemed diabolical.
According to The Washington Post’s fact checkers, Trump lied, on average, 39 times a day in the lead up to the mid-terms. From inauguration until December 30, 2018, the man made 7645 claims the Post says are false.
Says are false.
How can a fact be subjective? I hear that little voice too. Either something is fact or it’s not. There’s nothing in between. But we know, don’t we, that truthiness is the beloved weapon of the persuader. And sometimes, there’s truth in the grey-area between the facts and the things they mean.
The curry comes out and even though the place is billed as ‘one of the best Thai restaurants in New York’ in the reviews I perused before the play, it’s watery and low on fire, and the only accompaniment to the beef is lumps of pineapple. I wouldn’t call it a red curry, but that’s what the restaurant says it is. I might still call it one of the best Thai restaurants in New York, but that’s a different issue.
I think about a fight we had in the Fact Check office over a statement about refugees. About how the figures had been picked and plucked to appear to tell one story, when the whole picture reveals another. We drink IPA and drown mounds of rice in pineapple and beef. I pick up my phone again, this time because we’re talking about how Scott Morrison is wearing photoshopped sneakers in a picture on his website.
Two left feet in radiant white. What was wrong with the cream and blue shoes they replaced? Are the photoshopped ones a lie, or is it true enough that either way, the Prime Minister was wearing running shoes that day?
Of course it’s not. The little deceptions undermine and rot the foundations.
I want to look at the reaction to Trump’s speech, but my theatre companions implore me to put down the phone. Conversation turns to the shutdown.
No one is getting paid, one of my companions tells me. He knows a guy who is ‘essential’ but the people who do the payroll aren’t, so even if you’re supposed to be getting paid, you’re not.
Everything is a veneer. Pick at something and it will pull apart.
Intent matters, facts matter, truth matters. But none of those things mean the same thing.
How many lies does it take to break someone’s credibility? If they are a news outlet, it takes just one. If they are a politician, the limit does not exist. Donald Trump is not credible to many, but to others, he is the only one who is.
We scrape the last of the bland but fine noodles from the plate they were served on, and the waitress rushes out to clear our things. We pay the bill and walk to the 50th Street subway where I descend to the lowest level to wait for a Queens bound E train.
I scroll Twitter. Everyone is already fact checking Trump, and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi’s response. Some people are already annoyed by the fact checks themselves.
If you Google ‘Trump claims national address’ at 5.07PM on Wednesday January 9, EST, you get ‘about 429,000,000’ results.
‘This needs context.’
The first three rulings in the New York Times’ fact check.
I get on the train and read a book while we shunt from Manhattan to Queens underground in a broken-down system struggling to cope with its age. At Court Square I get off and change for a G train to Brooklyn.
I’ve stopped paying attention to what time it is, but let’s say it’s 10.13.
At Greenpoint Avenue I get off the train and walk to the bank. I need to get cash to pay for my laundry, which I need to pick up at the laundromat on my way home. I scroll Twitter some more, but the commentary there is all noise.
Everything is noise.
Australians are frustrated by Bari Weiss’s observations about Summer in Sydney.
Americans are simmering over the shutdown.
A young Saudi woman is stuck in a Thai hotel room, hoping for asylum.
Some things do matter.
John D’Agata’s essay that turned into a book that turned into a play was split into nine sections. It was nine, the fictionalised writer tells us through the vessel that is Cannavale, because it took nine seconds for the boy that was the centre of the essay to fall from a tower in Las Vegas.
Except it only took eight seconds, according to the coroner, Radcliffe’s Jim Fingal rails.
Nothing is true unless it has meaning, seems to be D’Agata’s central point.
Nothing has meaning unless it is true, is Fingal’s.
But these are not the men themselves. And this play is not the world. And since 2012, the relationship between truth and lies and facts and flights of fancy has changed significantly in the world.
When I get home, I put my washing away and I decide against opening my laptop. Instead I get into bed and keep scrolling news on my phone.
People are making memes out of Schumer and Pelosi.
Which means it’s 2.27 on a hot Summer afternoon, AEDST.
I’ve cracked my window to let a little moisture into the air in my room, desert-dry from the turned-up radiator. Outside the sky shakes and shatters and spits a heavy patter of rain down on us.
Water is wet.
Winter is cold.
Summer is hot.
And yet it is possible for it to be Summer and Winter, and night and day, and raining and dry all at once.
I think, having read the full transcript of Trump’s address, still mulling the play’s message, that truth is sticky. It’s hot and sweaty and slippery and inflamed.
Facts are cool, cold, even-tempered. No room for embellishment or artifice.
There are no easy truths.
There are plenty of simple facts.
Sometimes they contradict each other.
But if we start with facts, and use them to build truths, the foundation will last a lot longer. The Lifespan of a Fact largely deals with the original wording of one paragraph of D’Agata’s essay. But when I read that paragraph in its published form, it wasn’t diminished for being true. In fact, it held a more considered, powerful weight. The power of stepping out of the way, and letting the facts tell the story. It’s not something the President is likely to do anytime soon, since the facts do not serve him well.
But they do serve us, and we would do well to seek them wherever we can.