“What’s more frightening at age thirty: a rebel checkpoint or a job interview for a life you don’t want?” -Sebastian Junger
A World Made of Blood is Sebastian Junger’s first stab of fiction, in the form of a short e-book based on an event that happened in his young journalistic career. I would probably have been able to guess that this was a) his first fictional piece, and b) based on a true-life event had I not already been made aware of these facts. This is not necessarily because the piece itself is bad, but because it falls prey to a lot of common habits of first-time fiction writers who are used to staying firmly in the realm of fact.
A World Made of Blood is the story of Daniel, a young journalist (and stand-in for Junger) and his more seasoned photographer, Andre. Daniel and Andre find themselves in the middle of Sierra Leone with a militia unit who are, to put it lightly, ambivalent about the presence of journalists in their ranks. The story takes place within the span of twenty-four hours, and reads like a day-in-the-life of a relatively green foreign war correspondent with the addition of a devastating (and quite literary) conclusion. This is good and bad: good, because Junger uses his well-honed journalistic prose skills to evoke an almost frighteningly vivid sense of place; bad, because in doing so, he manages to leave out quite a bit of narrative detail. Junger manages to simultaneously explain too much and too little. The story is peppered with generally unnecessary journalistic asides (“Andre’s the photographer” is a prime example of the kind of just-the-facts-please sentences that populate it), while neglecting to develop its characters in any meaningful way. Junger, so good at writing for characters that exist in real-life, seems to shy away from applying the same deep insight his fictional characters. This is probably because the main character is based on himself. It’s a great tool for beginning fiction writers, basing a main character on oneself, but it tends to lead one to take all sorts of things for granted. A lot of the relatively short span of the story seems like it is spent setting the stage; we get a great sense of where Daniel and Andre are, but not why they’re there, and who they are, and what they want. This is a shame, because main characters don’t get much more interesting than conflict-seeking journalists, but for some reason Junger stops short of fully exploring the ethos’ of his main characters the way he would of his non-fiction subjects.
The source of this, as with the story’s other, smaller problems, is likely Junger’s self-consciousness. Putting yourself out there in fictional form is always intimidating, but it’s especially intimidating if you are known for non-fiction. When you’re used to journalism, fiction feels like cheating. All the weird, godlike positions fiction writers have to take, like assigning motivations and physicality to their characters, shifting around timelines and flat-out inventing facts, do not come naturally to writers used to maintaining the hard line of journalistic ethics. This becomes even more complicated when you’re writing about an event that had a profound effect on your own life, as Junger is here. You can feel his self-consciousness in his resistance to plumb too deeply into his characters, and his prose, which wavers between his own elegiac, descriptive quality and a strange, formless staccato that seems meant to evoke Hemingway. A lot of writers want to write like Hemingway, and it’s no wonder—his spare, mournfully stoic prose is a thing of beauty. But just like you can’t paint like Picasso until you’ve learned to draw a proportionate human face, you can’t write like Hemingway until you’ve splayed out your characters like cadavers, taken them apart and put them back together, spraying a lot of blood on the table in the process. Eventually, you can clean it up into clean, workmanlike sentences. But you can’t do that until you get a little messy. Here, it seems Junger was afraid to get to messy. It’s no wonder: this is a story based on a complicated, traumatic incident. It’s not easy to revisit those, fictionally or non-fictionally, and the effort Junger makes to do it here is admirable. Still, in the end the story reads less like a fully-formed narrative and more like a race to the finish line of catharsis.
Fittingly then, it’s at the end where he finally finds his writerly feet. The lead-up to the climax and conclusions feels a bit like a hastily constructed tent, but once we get under it there is something well worth seeing:
“Scattered in the packed red dirt, their belongings looked pathetic, almost embarrassing. Dead bodies look pathetic in the same way, Daniel thinks. HE hasn’t seen very many, but on some level there’s always the smug thought, ‘I’m alive, you’re dead.'” There’s no greater gulf between two people, no greater inequality.”
“The killers would move on up the road toward the rest of their brutal little lives while the three of them stayed where they were, unrecognizable in their last agony, forever unconcerned with the affairs of men. The shadows would lengthen and it wouldn’t matter and the sun would set and it wouldn’t matter and finally dusk would creep in—the birdcalls, the sudden agitation of the forest—and still it wouldn’t matter.”
This kind of beautiful prose, occupying the fraught tension point between grief and fear, made it well worth reading A World Made of Blood until the end. I just wish he would have taken his time getting there.