Over at Washington City Paper today, a critic weighs in on whether Mike Daisey should be bringing his show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs—for which he traveled to China to investigate labor conditions at a factory that makes Apple products, then made up a bunch of dramatic details that were later exposed as false—to the Wooly Mammoth theater in D.C.
The critic, Chris Klimek, goes through the regular cycle of emotions on the subject—his initial admiration for Daisey, his outrage that Daisey lied so thoroughly to so many people when the stakes were so high, not just for him but for the story itself—and then comes down on the side of Daisey continuing to run his now-edited and more-truthful version of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
Honestly, I'm weary of this whole fiasco. It's a free country and Daisey and theaters can do what they like—but now that the story is more about Daisey than labor conditions in China, the choice to keep touring it (especially when there are so many public documents about the show itself and the situation in China), seems to put everyone involved squarely in Barnum territory: Sell tickets, give 'em a show, let the rubes gawk at the freaks.
Which is not what The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, as a monologue, is about—or at least not what it was supposed to be about. (If you're curious to hear about another artist-journalist who goes to disturbing far-off places but vets his facts with the seriousness they deserve, take a look at this week's books piece about Joe Sacco.)
We have the New York Times "iEconomy" series and other newspaper stories to give us an honest, on-the-ground view of labor conditions in China. It would be more interesting to hear from Daisey about what happened after the exposé. (Though, of course, first-person stories about difficult experiences lose a lot of their moral and emotional ballast when we know that whole sections might be fiction—it's why compelling fiction is so much more difficult to write than compelling memoir.)
Fortunately, the City Paper story has quotes from an upcoming show called The Orient Express, about a trip Daisey took with his wife (and director, who he says he also deceived) after the blowup.
In one quote directly to the paper, Daisey says it severely strained his marriage and his mental health: "At different points during the course of this, pretty much every option that people would consider was on the table. The idea of not ever performing again was on the table. The idea of divorcing was on the table. The idea of killing myself was on the table. But the idea of continuing but not working together was not."
Quotes from The Orient Express are below the jump. They do not seem to be the words of a repentant man—which might matter if you're a person who is personally invested in the individual named Mike Daisey. Or, if you are only interested in his work, might not.
Either way, watching his response to other people's response to the fiasco might be interesting.
Before we go any further, I wanted to tell you—just this once—that I am an unreliable narrator. I am made of dust and shadows. I am telling you things now, and I will tell you more things. You will never know my secret heart. You will think you hold it in your hand, that you know the depths of me. And you know nothing. You will never know me. And I never wanted you to. That’s not why we’re here. That’s not why we ever came here to this place. And you should know the truth: That there are no reliable narrators.
I looked into [Ira Glass’s] eyes and what I saw was fear—which made sense. I’d endangered everything. I’d endangered everything he had. I looked into his eyes and I was certain that I was the story. I was the story. And he is a very good storyteller. I’m very familiar with how much power a storyteller can have. They can make a whole universe. They can erase it, too.
To reliably narrate a travel story is to talk about horrendously boring shit. The art of travel narrative is in the excision of reams and reams of pointlessly dull material, removed to only allow the glassy pebbles of a perfect experience to sit next to each other.
I don't believe all of this. I don't go to theater to learn nothing. (I can do that very well on my own, thankyouverymuch.) I don't believe Ira Glass worried that Mike Daisey could single-handedly endanger everything Ira Glass has. I don't even believe that Mike Daisey believes he could single-handedly endanger everything Ira Glass has.
But we may be getting an entry-level view into a writer building himself, after his first edifice has been demolished, into something new—a writer who has to up the ante, since (again) insightful and compelling fiction is much more difficult to write than compelling memoir. Or, for that matter, compelling journalism.