Staff Sergeant Will James fiddles with the bomb like an IT tech on methamphetamine. He works quickly despite his seventy-pound bomb suit and, as he labors on one IED, discovers five more hidden nearby in the sandy dirt of an Iraqi road. Later, on another mission, he and his explosives team fail to find a way to separate a repentant suicide bomber from his timed explosives. James apologizes and leaves the anguished man alone in a town square. When the bombs do blow, they do not make the fiery tangerine typical of Hollywood explosions, but rather dusty, ugly clouds.
As James struggles to make sense of and then disarm Iraq’s many bombs, he regularly breaks protocol. He takes off his protective suit while working on one particularly puzzling IED because, he reasons, if he must die he “wants to die comfortable.” He is a kind of cowboy artist of explosives, and has channeled all his gifts not into making a home rocket or getting a law degree but into defusing the bombs that would kill him. Instead of collecting old Macintosh computers, James keeps parts from bombs that he has disarmed in a box under his bed.
Each of these scenes is tense and startlingly precise. They feel real. The Hurt Locker’s forensic, formalist style aligns it with documentaries or biopics. But it is defined as a fictional action movie by its screenwriter, director, and studio.
Yet The Hurt Locker is rooted in an original piece of nonfiction published in Playboy in 2005, by Mark Boal, titled “The Man in the Bomb Suit.” It wasn’t a piece that I had heard of, but when I got a copy of it, finally, it was a pretty terrific article, full of deep reporting. (As of this writing, Boal’s original isn’t even archived on the Playboy Web site.) Boal wrote the screenplay for the movie, too, and the correspondence is striking. Many of the details in the film—the predilections of the central bomb tech, for instance—are based on the bomb-squad guy with whom Boal had embedded.
This seems to be part of a broader trend: an increase in the blurring of neat and certain categories of “fiction” and “nonfiction” into something that we might call “true fiction.” Wherever I look, some of the best films and books are bending the categories in this way. There is Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, a heavily reported graphic novel, out in August, with multiple stories of loss and recovery in that city. There is a new nonfiction book, Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, which was heralded for its use of fictional techniques. In The New York Times, Timothy Egan described the middle third of the book as “an odyssey with the quality of an unpleasant dream” that “reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic fiction, with the added bonus of proper punctuation.” Eggers defined his previous book, What Is the What, about the life of a real Sudanese “Lost Boy” named Valentino Achak Deng, “fiction,” because he altered some of the facts. But it is equally grounded in reporting. All of these books and films—2008’s Waltz With Bashir, about a soldier/director’s memories of the invasion of Lebanon, is another—bring fictional techniques to nonfiction and nonfiction’s techniques to fiction, and are not clearly aligned with one genre or the other. There is even a new anthology just out, The Lost Origins of the Essay, that attempts to argue that some works long considered fiction are actually closer to this hybrid form. In his own contribution to the book, its anthologist, John D’Agata, asks, “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?”
Such works belong to a category thatl iterary critics might call hybrid or even “liminal”—between things. The genre seems to thrive at transitional historical moments like ours. It is worth noting, too, that these hybrid works are arising outside of an avant-garde or “high” literature. I am talking about writers like blockbuster memoirist Jeannette Walls, who terms her new book, Half Broke Horses—the story of her grandmother’s hard-luck life in a dirt dugout in west Texas—a “true life novel.”