There are two things missing from Mike Daisey's “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” a play being billed as “the most notorious and controversial play of the decade” by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where it’s now being staged.
“Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory,” an excerpt from the show, was the most-downloaded podcast in the history of “This American Life.” And it provoked an accordingly mammoth controversy when it turned out that Daisey had made up crucial parts of it. The guards with guns outside the factories. The pre-teen workers Daisey said he met. The Apple worker with a withered hand who called his iPad “a kind of magic.” Ira Glass published a public retraction and dedicated a whole episode to Daisey’s fabrications. And Daisey made a point of inviting everyone who had ever said anything about his work (positive, negative, getting it confused with something else entirely) to the show’s opening. So there I was, to see what he had to say.
One of the things missing from the play is St. Steve Jobs.
It seems a bit odd that a play dedicated entirely to the cult of Jobs would neglect to mention the apotheosis of its central figure. Jobs perished nearly a year ago, yet Daisey several times referred to him in the present tense. To omit from this kind of constantly modified story (Daisey added a few minutes to address his own fabrications) Jobs’s martyrdom last year, his disappearance into the luminous Cloud of collective memory, leaves something of a hole in the middle of the play. In a play about the constant hankering for the Latest, Shiniest Update, the omission made the show feel dated.
The other thing missing is trust.
Daisey’s whole point about Apple is that because the things it makes are so beautiful, we do not pause to consider how they are made. A lover of Apple products or of good sausage, as the saying goes ...
Of course, this principle cuts both ways. Daisey’s criticism of our failure to examine the magic things that we are handed goes for his storytelling, too. He’s a master craftsman. He speaks loudly. He speaks softly. He knits together lovely words. He yelps at you suddenly and pounds his glass of water down on his table. When you are caught in the toils of this kind of magic, it does not do to look too closely at how it was put together.
Never mind that some of the most powerful things Daisey said last time did not happen, Daisey argues. What matters is that things like that happen all the time, and unless Daisey tells you about them as though they happened to you, you might not agree.
O ye of little faith.
Chris Klimek at the City Paper asked Gene Weingarten for comment on this kind of narrative trick, and I think Weingarten’s response nails it: “Think about the underlying reality here: Mike Daisey has such contempt for his listeners that he is willing to invent facts — powerful, evocative, central facts of his narrative —t o make people believe what he thinks they should believe. He is saying: I, Mike Daisey, believe a certain truth about the world. I want you to believe the same thing, so I will distort reality to make you believe it, and not tell you I am doing that.”
Perhaps there are, as Daisey argues, no reliable narrators. David Copperfield, for all we knew, could have been followed around that entire time by a life-sized bear, and it simply slipped his mind.
There is always the difference between the story-truth and the truth-truth. Sometimes the truth is different from what actually happened. And then what do you do?
For Mike Daisey, the answer is simple: You lie. And then you explain that we live in a world constructed entirely of beautiful lies. That we lie to ourselves constantly. That nonfiction, as a genre, is a glorified lie. Perhaps you agree. Daisey has the storyteller’s gift of being able to lie more convincingly than others, in great lighting, and, at least, amusingly.
It’s a good show. It’s an entertaining few hours. It’s a kind of magic. As long as you don’t study too closely how it was constructed.