The Rise of True Fiction

Some of the best new films and books live between genres

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.”

Thinking about these distinctions brought me to the past of the nonfiction/fiction form, though not quite as far back as Daniel Defoe. I revisited Norman Mailer’s magisterial Armies of the Night and, even better, his The Executioner’s Song, a “true life novel” that is a thousand pages long and “takes for its incident and characters real events in the lives of real people,” as Joan Didion put it. The book is based on heavy reporting on the crimes and 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah. We all know that Orwell or Capote or Mailer would create composites, compress time, put themselves in the action as a character—like the character “Mailer” in Armies of the Night—and yet imagined their work to be a certain kind of journalism.

But in the last few years, writers seem to be backing away some from categorizing things as “true,” even as they are also rethinking what nonfiction is and can be. Contemporary conditions may have something to do with this, including a reaction to exaggerated and falsified memoirs, like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. The wariness of the nonfiction label surely has something to do with Frey being unmasked by Oprah, and maybe all the subsequent memoirists whose veracity was questioned down to the smallest details have made writers more circumspect about the “nonfiction” appellation. (And then there was also Frey’s later abject and culturally demented half-redemption as a novelist.)

The rise in works of true fiction may also have something to do with the sense that the category “nonfiction” no longer has the frisson it once did or the assurance that a book or film will sell. “The newshole for narrative nonfiction is shrinking,” says Andrew Pitzer, editor of Nieman Foundation’s Narrative Digest. “You have to have a lot of dazzle to get it published at all. Letting the work go over a little to fiction lets it be more salable.”

Now that almost anyone can write or film or blog or photograph their own life and reflect their own experience, journalists may feel the need to up the ante with fictional techniques, stirring up storylines and sharpening their works’ emotional truth with a light dose of creative license. (What good is reality, they might ask, now that “reality television” has made the word itself into a kind of fiction?)

One result, to me, is that the reportorial richness of nonfiction is turning up in places where it hasn’t tended to thrive before—like The Wire and other television and film works, including The Hurt Locker, written in part by journalists who jumped the platform. They use composites and half-fabricated back stories; they give their subjects other names or refer to them by only their first names.

The Hurt Locker’s Boal wrote the script for another strong Iraq war film, too—In the Valley of Elah—based even more directly on another of his articles. For Hurt Locker, he told me in a phone conversation, “The milieu and the specifics of the job of being a bomb tech came out of my firsthand observation. There is no way I could have written that screenplay without having been to Baghdad and had a nuts-and-bolts view of how bomb techs do their job. This was not public information. There was no other source material to draw on in terms of research, and there really were guys in 2004 who behaved like the men in the movie.”

In fact, Boal shot amateur video in Iraq when he was writing his article for Playboy, and it got him thinking that the story would make a compelling film. When the time came to write the screenplay, Boal’s conception of character was shaped by detailed reporting.

It’s the same with A.D., the graphic novel, which portrays seven people from New Orleans who either stayed in the city during the flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or fanned out to other cities around the country, eventually returning to the city in dribs and drabs. A.D. emerged from another hybrid form, reported comic strips, and first appeared on the Web site Smith. It’s not the first book that has combined reportage with the graphic form. Joe Sacco helped pioneer the genre in the 1990s with his award-winning Palestine and Safe Area Goražde. And there is a host of excellent graphic memoirists, like Alison Bechdel and my friend Laurie Sandell, who wrote and illustrated The Impostor’s Daughter, about her con-man father. And don’t forget Waltz with Bashir, the animated film which was adapted into a graphic novel this year.

But A.D. is certainly one of the most rigorous in its storytelling and the most journalistic. Like Boal and Eggers, Neufeld is not “really” a journalist or “just” a journalist but something else: a nonfiction artist? A story architect? A.D. is “reality based,” formed from Neufeld’s interviews with the people of New Orleans, like Abbas, a small-store owner who wound up on the roof during the deluge; Denise, who was in the Convention Center where people were dying; and a comic-book collector named Leo, who left in the nick of time, abandoning his 15,000 books to drown at home. A.D.’s panels are brightly colored, from yellow to green to red, seeming to emulate the mental states of the characters as they intensify their struggle to survive.

According to a positive New York Times review, A.D. “is a novel, not a documentary: Mr. Neufeld edited parts of the survivors’ stories and combined some characters.” Larry Smith, publisher of Smith, who originally commissioned the strips for his online magazine that ultimately became A.D., argues against the Times’s reading, saying that the “categorization or description of A.D. as a ‘novel’ or somehow novelized is incorrect.” In Smith’s telling, A.D. is actually journalism in a new guise.

“We worked really diligently and methodically to make sure we got everything right,” Smith says. “I did the first interviews, in person, with Josh on our first trip to New Orleans. We recorded everything, and Josh double- and triple-checked his notes with the characters themselves before we put up a new chapter. A handful of times, a character would read the comic and say, ‘You know, I wouldn’t have worn that type of sweatshirt; it’s not my style,’ so Josh made the adjustment when it came time to make the book. Neufeld has said that he used whatever method necessary to make “the emotional truth of the stories much clearer” and was going for a novelish feel. Of course, the survivors’ tales were edited, with additional characters removed from certain scenes when the scenes became too confusing. That alone could trouble its position as simply nonfiction.

Still, in films like The Hurt Locker and books like A.D. and other reported graphic novels, we are seeing nonfiction freed from its rigid constraints. “I think it’s a journalistic sensibility, with a fictional aspect,” Boal says. He cites Eggers’s fictionalized nonfiction and journalistic fiction both as prime models. These may not always be purely “true,” but they are some of the most emotionally accurate stuff out there. It’s the mashup genre not just of the present, but also the future.

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Alissa Quart is a CJR columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of two books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her third, about American outsiders, comes out in 2013. She is also senior editor of The Atavist and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.