I think of George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” (1936) as an almost perfect example of the essayist’s art, despite the fact that there is some question as to whether the events it describes took place as Orwell recalls — or even if they took place at all. Does it matter? On the most prosaic level, perhaps. But there is a deeper level, the level at which art moves us, the level at which experience blurs into story, and the boundaries of truth expand. Three-quarters of a century later, this is the level that’s important, the level that lingers, with its sense of what D’Agata calls “curious investigation, rather than the fulfillment of some arbitrary sense of veracity.” Eventually, Fingal too comes around to this, realizing that the most basic facts — the coroner’s report on Presley’s death, for instance — can’t help but seem contradictory if we look closely enough. “Which … sources,” he asks, “can we trust as ‘the’ authority if they all have demonstrated in one way or another the potential of inaccurately representing what actually happened that night?” That’s another essential question, highlighting the idea that everything is a matter of interpretation, even (yes) “The Lifespan of a Fact.” Echoing the essay at its center, the book is “an enactment of the experience of trying to find meaning” — a vivid and reflective meditation on the nature of nonfiction as literary art.
more from David Ulin at the LA Times here.