In and around Beng Melea.
7:30: You wake in the nicest hotel in Phnom Penh, The Plantation: a place so luxurious you could only afford it because it is in Cambodia. Due to the fact you have to be on a bus by 2:40 to yet another place, you have less than six hours here and in the city itself, a fact the gleaming infinity pool next to the outdoor bar immediately makes you realize was a mistake. The day narrows, expands to a worrying set of choices: what to see, what to do? Worrying the bead of your eternal indecisiveness, you start the day the way you've learned to: with light yoga, which you detest, but is now necessary for your degrading ass muscles. (See: academic ass issues, May 2011, "Packing for the Rapture"). Ass muscles plumped, you go down to the breakfast buffet and eat three small pain au chocolat, each the size of a newborn sea turtle.
8:00: What to do. Trundle down a few blocks over to the Royal Palace, of course. You are immediately bemused by the lack of traffic here, the wide and breezy city streets. So much nicer than Hanoi! A cool breeze wafts up from the river. Tuk tuk drivers putter past, offering their services. You wave them off. What were your friends in Vietnam complaining about the heat for? It's only 70 degrees here! Perfect for walking.
8:20: You want to die. Someone seems to have turned up the volume on the sun, and now sweat streams down the entire length of your body. You stagger into the palace grounds: one big blur of gold and red and white to you in the heat. You think it’s beautiful, but your eyes and face are so filmy with sweat, your brain even now coddling in the heat of your skull, that you have no idea what you are really seeing.
9:30 Tuk Tuk drivers, like vultures, sense your slackening resolve. "Laaaaaady," they croon as you emerge from the palace, woozy and blinking. "You ride with me? You want tuk tuk?" You wave them off, hobble, blearily, towards the river, but once there you realize you are getting nowhere. The sun pounds now, the city blocks seeming to stretch on like your lost infinity pool into the scorched horizon. You check your map. How to get to all these sites into less than 6 hours on foot? And in this heat? Suddenly, a tuk tuk driver wheels his motorbike in front of you. "Hello!" he cries over the sputtering engine. "It is me, Mr. Meth!"
10:00: Mr. Meth drops you off at the Central Market for your first stop: to buy the famous Cambodian scarves a friend at home requested. Once at the market, however, you forget what colors your friend specifically wanted, so you panic, run to the first stall, buy one, two, then ("Fuck it, knock the price down two dollars again and I’ll take this, too.") two more. You know you are supposed to wait, take a look around, but waiting is a problem because you’ve always had poor impulse control, especially with aggressive salespeople. For this reason you won’t ever do heroin or go to an orphanage in Vietnam for fear of suddenly finding yourself the legal guardian of twin babies with cleft palates and Downs syndrome. You know you need to buy something for all those friends at home, SOMETHING as your expression of eternal love for family, friends, God and country, so now you are freaking out and buying three fake Rolex watches. You have no idea who will want these watches, they won’t even work by the time you get home but, hell with it, they’re here, you need to choose something, they’re shiny in the sunlight and maybe for doing this someone will come to love you very very much.
10:50 You drop one of the watches on the cement.
11:00: The pretty girl at the counter now trying to fix the watch is glaring into its delicate, whirring face. The watch is a fake Omega: a stunning gold concoction of spinning gears, whirling little second hands and half-moon size disk cranks. Something about its transparently relentless inner workings speaks to you. The pretty shopgirl beats on a tiny pin in the watch’s metal bracelet, and you glance fondly as the watch gears shudder and spin.
"My sister is supposed to be doing this," she says, smacking at the pin. "But she just have another baby so I run her stall. I work this shop after my sister has her first baby. I studied business. I don’t want this, but my sister needs help with the baby so she asks me. Afterward, she buys a stall just for me." She indicates her stall with a flick of her tiny hammer. You look over towards it past a pile of candy-colored digital watches piled high beside you on the counter.
"You married? You have children?" she asks. You tell her yes and no respectively, and she nods. "You want children?" she asks and you make the noncommittal shrugging you've mastered since coming to southeast Asia. It's easier than explaining how you'd rather not have kids, but are always open to the possibility, and how are you supposed to explain that in your terrible Vietnamese (or nonexistent Cambodian) to someone whose English is also fairly rudimentary?
"I don't want babies,” the shopgirl says. “Babies already change my life, and they are not even my own." She thwacks viciously at the pin and the bracelet snaps in place. She looks up, narrows her eyes.
"Doctors say old women have hard times having babies," she says, vaguely, as if just passing on information she's heard, rather than giving you a very pointed warning.
"I hear it too," you say, smiling obtusely. And the pile of candy-colored digital watches all begin beeping.
11:45: Mr. Meth whips out a series of tour brochures under the fake leather seat of his tuk tuk. There is time, Mr. Meth says, for art and a nice temple, some shopping, but no genocide museum. Or do you want genocide and nice temple, lunch, but no art? Art or genocide, art or genocide. "Genocide interesting," Mr. Meth assures me. "Many people see it."
You shrug, sighing. "Screw it," you say. "Take me to the genocide museum," and realize, as you finish, this is not the first time this sentence has come out of your mouth.
11:50: As you zip through the city, you take pictures: it’s the only time you’ll have to photograph the city. Somewhere after Turkey, however, you snapped the tiny pin that holds the battery in place, and now to take a photo you have to hold the battery in with one finger, while trying both to focus the lens and snap the picture with the rest of your hand. All this means you can't take any photos quickly. So here are some of the sights of Phnom Penh you might reasonably get with a broken Nikon in a tuk tuk going 20 miles an hour:
A nice gate!
The back of Mr. Meth's head!
Perhaps it's time for a new camera, you think. But you can't quite convince yourself yet.
12:00: At the outside of the Genocide Museum, a man appears. His face and arms are horribly burned: a thin film of flesh has woven over the corners of his lips and one of his eyes. You can see the misshapen blue-white orb that used to be his left eye rolling under the skin, like milk sloshing in a jelly casing. He is begging for money but no one gives him any. That is because it is exactly the wrong thing to do. If you want to help him, donate to an organization. It is the wrong thing to do to encourage this begging. His shirt sags open at his chest and you can see the horrible, chemical-looking burns flaming down his chest.
You give him money.
12:45: Chastened, numbed, the Genocide Museum is exactly what you thought it would be: at once both very dull and very affecting, important to see and yet—in its organization--utterly devoid of context. Over the course of a year, you have seen many war and genocide museums, and it is interesting how each different country treats what, on its most basic level, boils down to a horrifically similar narrative. It makes you wonder anew about your ambivalence about visiting these places, especially as it isn’t always clear—from the museum’s standpoint at least—what the museum is there to achieve. In Berlin, the purpose was part expatiation, part pedagogy. But in Cambodia or in the war museums in Vietnam, they switch between peace advocacy and nationalist propaganda. In dark moments, you almost feel certain museums exist solely to make money off tourists eager to “understand things,” so offhandedly have the displays been constructed. Of course, it is also a question of money. Richer country, better museum. Still, if they want us to be horrified by the dehumanizing impulses behind genocide, why devote a portion of a museum to kitschy display cases of victims’ bones? Why the posters and life-size statues of the tortured? And why the hell did you just take a picture of these things? Is this a museum or a freak show? In the end, you feel a little like you did pressing your money into the beggar’s hand without looking him in the face: willing to acknowledge someone’s pain, but only so far.
1:00 Mr. Meth drives you in silence to a restaurant you read about a year ago in Travel and Leisure, a magazine which, due to its often misguided suggestions in Asia, you are slowly learning to hate. Yumi is famous for its pumpkin dumplings which you find that you can’t eat because it is a thousand degrees and you are stupidly wearing skinny jeans. So you sit stifling over your artfully arranged plate of overstuffed fried foods and order glass after glass of freezing cold sake.
1:15 You get drunk.
1:30 And then back into the tuk tuk. You still need gifts. Drunk and shopping! This will go reallyreally well. Mr. Meth speeds you to Street 240, where the hip shops are, taps at his watch to let you know the time. You speed through the shops, gathering up jewelry and scarf after scarf after scarf. In one children’s store, you find a variety of colorful children’s anti-pollution face masks. Sadly, you realize, this would also be appropriate for your friends’ kids back in Salt Lake. You buy three.
At the home store, you experience an intense wave of sadness. You miss your bed, your closets, your books, your cooking utensils. You miss your bathroom and all the towels that don’t flake bits of thread all over your face. But most of all, you miss knowing where your home is or will be. In one of your latest phone conversations with your husband, the possibility of moving to one of his apartments in Salt Lake that would allow you to both live rent-free came up, the two of you batted it back and forth, couldn’t decide, could, talked endlessly about renovating this new place to make enough room for you both, gave up. In the heat of all this endless questioning, you even started a Pinterest account so you could show him your renovation ideas for this possible new home—Pinterest, the Cultural Nadir of Endless Waffling--and now, to your horror, people are FOLLOWING IT. And what have you decided exactly? Traveling place to place and still no permanent place at the end of it all? Will you ALWAYS be moving?
Still drunk, you get teary over the pearlescent bar of soap shaped like a lotus. You want it, but you have no idea where you’ll be putting it and it will just break anyway in your suitcase over the next few months. You hold it in your hand, breathing in its perfume.
“You like it,” the salesgirl behind you says, “we also have a scarf with this pattern.” She holds it up. Blurry pearls of petals.
A scarf won’t break. A scarf can be rolled up. It goes anywhere, no problems.
You buy it.
2:50 LATE! Mr. Meth shrieks to a stop by the bus stop, unloads your burgeoning luggage, speeds off after you’ve been safely escorted onto a mini-van with a Japanese student who, immediately upon meeting you, gives you his business card. It looks like this:
Sweaty, still drunk, the card clutched in your palm, and the Japanese student chattering at you politely in the bus, you fall immediately asleep.
8:00 PM You wake in the bus tilted at an odd angle. The bus has a flat and now everyone is outside, squinting in the pitch black. You get out to join them and are struck by a wave of sticky heat in which slow moths drift like pollen buds. Men rush around, talking quietly but earnestly with the driver about what seems to be the uselessness of the jack.
It is quiet. There are no lights in the countryside and the dark seems to stretch on and on, punctuated at points by the sound of a dog bark, the flicker of a fire going on, smoking out. You stand and feel the world cooling around you, imagining the few people nearby settling into their evening routines—dinner, talk, bed—in as comfortable and uneventful a manner as they can manage. Less than a quarter of a mile away, a whole world of people in the thick of their lives. You are tired and filled, for one moment, with jealousy. And somewhere, you are just the faintest bit disappointed in yourself.
A sudden clatter, like the explosive patter of tap dancers, erupts as two enormous water buffalo trot out of the dark. You and the Japanese student simultaneously let loose a high-pitched shriek. The water buffalo scoot past, astonishingly light-footed. You and the student are both still standing there, gaping into the dark when a female passenger comes to tell you the driver has changed out the flat and installed the new tire. Applauding, you follow her to the tiny circle of passengers watching the driver check over his work. He shines a flashlight over the ground to make sure he hasn’t missed something. On his second pass, he finds one small silver screw pin. He looks down at it, looks up at all of you, grins and shrugs as he scoops it off the ground. It’s a small thing. Chances are, you’ll be fine enough without it. He straightens and waves everyone onto the bus.
“Time,” he tells you. “And now we go on.”
Just off the path towards the north gate of Angkor Wat, a monkey suddenly darts for the bag of a Japanese tourist.
"Yes, lady, you buy some books from me, you get the best price, you get the morning price!"
"I don't want anything," you reply.
"Are you Chinese? You look Chinese."
"No," you reply.
"You really look Chinese. You speak Chinese?"
"No," you reply.
"You sure, lady? You look like a Chinese."
"Fuck it," you sigh. "Ni Hao."
"Oh, I am so tired of waiting for him," pouts the French woman to the other French woman. "This heat! If he doesn't come soon, I will murder him myself."
"He is buying souvenirs over there, I think," the other woman replies.
"From those vendors? Then he is already being murdered."
"Lady," says the Cambodian boy from behind the pile of stones. "You want to buy a temple rubbing?"
"No, thank you," you reply.
"You want to see the big spider?"
"No, thank you, I don't really like spiders, I OH! OH! OH! OH MY GOD! THAT IS A REALLY BIG SPIDER!!!"
"Lady, you want to see the big snake?"
"NO! NO, I DON'T WANT TO SEE THE BIG SNAKE!"
"Whatever we see," mutters the French woman to her husband, "I just hope there aren't any monkeys."
"I mean," says the 60 year-old American tourist to his friend as they hobble down the stone steps, "can you imagine having to be the Minister of Tourism here? What a nightmare that would be? I mean, talk about an image problem this country has. Especially the restaurants."
In the jungle just behind Angkor Wat, two young white men with dreadlocks are strolling, one of them idly strumming a guitar, the other reading out loud from his notebook.
"I think you pay too much for your tour," the Chinese tourist says, in English, to the Japanese tourist sitting beside her in front of Angkor Wat. "Twenty-five dollars for the short route is too much. Our hotel pays in advance: we get the tuk tuk for thirteen dollars, the whole day."
"It is a good price," the Japanese tourist replies. He sits on his knees, watching the sun finish rising. He doesn't look at the Chinese woman but concentrates on the temple.
"What?" she asks.
"I said it is a good price," he repeats.
"What?" she asks again.
"Very cheap!" he says loudly.
She smiles. "Now," she says. "How much do you pay for your hotel?"
The French tourist leans into the stone window ledge. Because he heard you asking his tour guide a question in French, he tells you now, in French, about the tree growing into the stone. "It covers a face," he says. "The face of a god."
"Which one?" you ask.
He shrugs. "The face of the god we see in every temple."
Russian tour guide: "Russian. Russian Russian Russian Russian."
Russian tourist: "Russian Russian Russian?"
Tour guide: "Aha! Russian Russian Russian Russian!"
Tourists: "Ha ha ha ha!"
"I'd be more inclined to be Buddhist if I didn't always have to pay for every joss stick," grumbles the British woman.
"Lady, you want to buy a cold drink from me?"
"No, thank you."
The vendor squints, tilts her head as she looks at you.
"Lady," she asks suspiciously. "You Chinese?"
"When will it end?" asks the American tourist, collapsing on the steps in the shade. His wife, ignoring him, glares at her camera as she flips through the recorded photos.
"Nothing ever comes out the way I really see it," she complains.
Around the corner of another temple come the two dread-locked men again, the guitar- wielding one still strumming and singing. "Oh," the Australian woman next to you sighs. "I'd really hoped the monkeys had gotten the two of them."
"Lady!" cries the young female vendor, holding up a row of checked scarves. "You want one? They are very popular in America!"
"I'm Chinese," you say, brushing--as politely as possible--past her.
An elephant covered in a red and gold blanket trundles past; on its back, two grinning female tourists.
"They look like morons," hisses the middle- aged Canadian man with the enormous red maple leaf stitched on his hat, his backpack, his back shorts' pocket. "I mean, don't they know they look ridiculous?"
His companion, wearing a matching maple leaf cap and shirt, shrugs.
Red dust kicked up from the passing motorbikes and groups of tourists. The smell of stagnant water, cooking smells, something like exhaust and honeysuckle. Even the vendors have stopped selling now, having moved off to sleep in the hammocks strung up between the trees. One by one, you all head home. You watch yourselves, gathered in lines for the tuk tuks and buses, sway--like elephants--on your feet.
Today in Saigon I saw an amazing show at the San Art Gallery (Binh Tanh District: if you go, prepare to take a cab and have the driver get lost and then very very angry at you). The show was small: two videos by a Japanese artist named Meiro Koizumi, the first entitled "Human Opera XXX" and the second entitled "My Voice Would Reach You." Both were brilliant examinations of the ways we manipulate sentimentality through narrative, as well as the problematic nature of telling "the truth," whether in art or in life, a line which, much as we like to insist on it, Koizumi suggests probably doesn't exist at all.
The first video, "My Voice Would Reach You," focused on an actor who, in real life, recently lost his mother. Koizumi asked this actor to write his mother a letter, then filmed him standing on a crowded street in downtown Tokyo, calling his "mother" on a cell phone to ask if she'd like to go to a hot springs with him that weekend. There are two twists to the video. The first--outside of the fact that his mother is dead, thus the person he's calling is a total stranger--is that the initial call he makes is totally scripted. The actor speaks to a dead cell line, acting out the dialogue he has created for this call based on his letter, his unresolved feelings concerning his mother's death, his attempts to find some sort of cathartic resolution for how they never connected when he was a child. The second twist is that he then randomly cold calls numbers to invite whomever answers--be it bank teller or store department manager--to the hot springs using the exact same dialogue that he established at the beginning of the video. Regardless of what his caller says in reply, he never deviates from his initial script. In fact, he cries in the exact same places, makes the same pauses, chokes up the same number of times. He does this over the course of an entire day. What's surprising to me is that, instead of finding this numbing, I remained moved. When I'd watched the first performance of the phone call, I cried. Though I didn't continue to cry during the video, and though I knew the set-up was a fake, the emotions behind it still seemed unremittingly true. Which was why I was willing to sit through the rest of the film, knowing that the actor was playing little more than an elaborate prank on us.
Except that he wasn't. This is what I found so fascinating: the fact that the actor never gave up the script or broke character regardless of what anyone did reveal two truths could exist simultaneously: 1) the actor DID experience real emotion and 2) these emotions themselves were totally formulaic. And yet the formulaic element of the actor's grief, the frustrated attempts to achieve and maintain catharsis, were no less poignant by the end of the piece. I was more cynical about the actor's gestural attempts to grieve, but I was no less convinced by his need to do so.
Something similar was at work with "Human Opera XXX," in which a Dutch man is invited by Koizumi to share, on camera, a very sad personal story. The man arrives to find himself part of a vaguely insane stage set, full of weird toys and spinning lights and something that looks like an enormous aluminum duct attached to a wall. The man, at Koizumi's urging, proceeds to tell his sad story, but never gets further than a few sentences, because each time he reaches a crisis point (the place where the little girl he loves might suddenly die, the point at which his marriage goes horribly wrong, a terrible event caused by his alcoholism), Koizumi interrupts to give the man increasingly bizarre items to hold or to paint on his face. By the end of the man's "sad story", we see a man covered in crazed ink markings, bits of tinfoil clotted around his chin and ears, a banana stuck in his mouth and Koizumi himself standing behind a wall beside him, screaming through the aluminum duct work. The man is still gamely trying to tell his "sad story" (even with a banana stuffed in his mouth) but of course the story is now unintelligible: Koizumi has not only interrupted the man's narrative of suffering, but the man's very attempt to make a narrative out of his suffering, and he does it by forcing the man (and us) to pay attention to the (literal) bells and whistles that define his "artistic production." The brilliance of the piece is that it not only calls into question the arbitrary constraints art would put on catharsis, it reveals also how much the man himself has relied upon forms of art to express his "sad story." At the beginning of the piece, the man shows up with a poem he wants to read about his sad story. Koizumi refuses to let him read it, insisting he wants something "more in real language." But when the man starts the story again, this "real language" starts to sound just as formulaic as a sentimental poem: there's a natural progression of feeling that the man exploits and which Koizumi, sensing it, immediately disrupts. It frustrates the man (at one point, I thought he was going to hit Koizumi) and it certainly frustrates us. No one ever knows what the man's "sad story" is. But knowing's not the point. The point is that the art behind "artless" self-expression may be hard to perceive, but it's there nonetheless.
I'm thinking of these things now because, in part, of the whole crazy D'Agata mess that's appeared on blogs and in the New York Times and on NPR and Slate: the problems of writing facts versus writing art, whether nonfiction has some sort of inherent duty to represent truth first, what nonfiction's relationship is to journalism and art respectively. I haven't read The Lifespan of a Fact, but I'm fascinated by the pedagogical shitstorm it seems to have kicked off, in no small part because--when reading the reviews of Fact--I was immediately on the side of the journalists. I, too, am initially inclined to believe that certain facts are inviolable, that art should play no part in telling a story that, due to its sensitive and ultimately private nature (the suicide of a young man in D'Agata's About a Mountain), is ultimately not the author's. And yet, having said this, this is not the way that I have acted myself as an author.
For the last seven years, I've been obsessed with Edward Curtis, famed photographer of the North American Indian tribes west of the Mississippi. Those who know his work know he was the brilliant, self-taught, highly controversial photographer who wedded the aesthetic demands of Pictorialism with the rigors of the ethnographic documenter. As you can imagine, the two forces counteracted each other in surprising, sometimes illuminating ways. To get the shots he wanted, Curtis faked scenes, had his subjects dress up in native costumes they would never have worn, act out Pictorialist tableaux, etc., etc. Essentially, to tell the story that he wanted to tell about American Indians--that they were a doomed race, but also noble savages--he had to manipulate the facts he struggled mightily (over 40 years of his life!) to learn about them. He knew many of their languages, songs, customs, histories. But he was willing to accept or even promulgate certain inaccuracies in order to represent them in a way he thought would make most white Americans pay attention.
And they did pay attention. Edward Curtis' photos are so iconic that people today who don't know his name can immediately recognize several of his most famous portraits. Curtis worked between genres--between documentary and art, between ethnography and storytelling, between fiction and nonfiction. And frankly, I think it damaged his photos irreparably. They are more interesting to me because of these flaws, but they are without question flaws.
Because I was obsessed with Curtis, I started writing a long project that wedded memoir and fiction about him, and the one thing I swore I wouldn't do was, of course, just what I ended up doing: writing fictional snapshot perspectives from one of his native guides, a Crow named Alexander Upshaw who had been sent to Carlisle for many years and moved back and forth between the white and Crow worlds. I didn't want to do this for obvious reasons: 1) I'm not Crow, nor American Indian and this wasn't my story to tell and 2) I was pretty sure that I was going to end up Curtising myself by writing Upshaw's story solely to defend an argument I wanted to make about modernity, representation, mixed race families and assimilation. So I wrote a draft that didn't focus at all on Upshaw, and when I finished I discovered that, unfortunately, I'd been scooped: another writer had written on Curtis and had focused, like I had, on his long-suffering and suicidal wife Clara. It was either scrap the project entirely or save it by going back to the drawing board and finding that other element that would make the project work.
Unfortunately, that element was Upshaw. And it worked much better with him as one of the focus points. Except that there weren't a lot of facts known about him. There were more towards the end of his life, but he didn't leave a huge paper or photographic trail, and what he did leave was contradictory. I knew how many children he had, and that he went to Carlisle, and who his various employers over the years were. Those kinds of facts I had. But the facts of what he felt or knew, how he was raised or what he believed, I had to guess.
So I made up things in his fictionalization. I strung together details between the facts and letters I could unearth and what the photos of him that I could find told me.
Like I said, I knew that this was not my story to tell. I am not Crow, Upshaw has no relationship to me, what happened to him (murdered outside a bar on a reservation where he was working for native rights) is not to be taken lightly. These facts were more important, I knew, than my personal ambition to make this story publishable. So I was interested, reading the D'Agata debate, and feeling slightly enraged that he would--as the various reviews have repeatedly stated--change the name of the bar in which a certain ancient bottle of sauce was found, or misstate the number of strip clubs, or even change around some of the events surrounding the suicide itself for artistic convenience, even knowing that, when push came to shove, I did much the same thing as D'Agata or--more to the point--Curtis, which I acknowledge in the book.
Which all leads me back, oddly, to Koizumi. On the surface, they don't have much to do with each other--Curtis, Koizumi, D'Agata. But in a way, they are all arguing about the nature of facts, and all three show us that, at heart, a fact is rarely stated dispassionately. It is a fact that the actor in the Koizumi video lost his mother, as it is a fact that the Dutch man has a very sad series of events that took place in his life. Curtis, too, knew lots of facts about the people he was photographing, even as he torqued and twisted and skewed the representation of these facts into a narrative he thought would be more palatable to his audience. And D'Agata knows the facts about the events he's written about, and has chosen--like Curtis, or the Dutch man in the Koizumi video--to make them a little more aesthetically pleasing. Essentially, all three artists know that facts are often expressed as narratives: in fact, perhaps it is a singularly modern obsession we have with not only being able to determine what a fact is but to rely on "factness" at all, since for many years some of the most important facts we relied upon were likely expressed primarily within art or within genres that were artfully constructed, such as philosophy or literature or church writings or history. But what Koizumi gets particularly right is his unpacking--or dismantling--of the scaffolding that goes into expressing "the facts," dismantling the narrative behind the narrative. The artist is certainly suspect, as he or she is the one who carefully orchestrates the set-up in which sentiment and fact are supposedly "truthfully" revealed to us. But at heart, aren't all of us actors and artists as well, going through the self-constructed motions of feeling, constructing and reconstructing the same gestures until we get the response that we want?
In that sense, aren't we all a little like Edward Curtis? Or James Frey? I would never make the argument that some facts AREN'T just facts (numbers on a page, a specific date, a time, a location), and that respectful attention must be paid to them. But then how well do we actually listen to facts? Perhaps the gesture really is what we want to hear.
Perhaps this is why the actor in Koizumi's video keeps calling: ten, twenty, 200 hundred different numbers. It doesn't matter who listens. He himself doesn't even listen to the responses. His numb recital of his invitation to his dead mother continually loses and regains its power in the repetition. Watching the videos, I began to wonder whether the problem that D'Agata raises is less a problem between nonfiction and fiction but between different art media as a whole. For instance, does Koizumi as a video artist have better means at hand to show the inherent manipulation behind his work than a literary writer like D'Agata? Because part of D'Agata's final "trick" in the book (as I understand it) is to have fabricated much of the dispute between himself and his fact checker. If this is true, he could have taken the Pale Fire route and slowly revealed himself to be an unreliable narrator. Perhaps he did. But it strikes me that if he wants to keep the integrity of the argument intact--to keep the book centered on the fierce debate between the aesthetic and the factual impulse behind nonfiction writing--then he has to play it straight, which also means (in this case) playing it false. Koizumi--with his jump cuts, and careful sound editing and multiple camera angles--gets to play it both straight and false, and the brilliance behind his production is in his ability to let his viewer into the many layers of his (at times joking, at times angry) inquiry into form and expression. In this way, perhaps video can more effectively do what writing wants to, and the real problem with D'Agata's book is that it's not a film.
In the end, having written and flailed through two memoirs (or one and a half memoirs) myself, I am increasingly at sea as to what we mean by "the truth" in writing, even as I am becoming more and more desirous of finding it. I want and believe in a factual truth even as, when writing, I'm sometimes loathe or unwilling or even unable to hold myself to it. How to judge an artwork like D'Agata's, or Curtis', is hard. Without Curtis' images--flawed as they are--we would have far less of the tribes that he (sometimes inaccurately) recorded. Is the suicide in D'Agata's book somehow turned back into a person through his work? Or does he get further lost in D'Agata's inaccuracies? It's hard to say: to me, these works are processes of recovery as well as of art. Perhaps we might say, in judging them, "we should let the facts speak for themselves." But Koizumi makes it pretty clear we almost never do that.