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12 June 2024

Sebastian Junger’s chronicle of a death deferred

The American writer’s knowledge of war’s random violence did not prepare him for a profound encounter with mortality.

By Erica Wagner

Life is composed of a series of accidents, a fact Sebastian Junger understands better than most. Perhaps best known for The Perfect Storm (1997) – the book that could be said to have kick-started our current passion for narrative non-fiction – he has spent much of a lifetime putting himself in harm’s way, either for the sake of telling a story or, well, just because. He begins his new book by telling the reader how he “worked as climber for tree companies”  in his late twenties; it sounds like no big deal, but what it means is clambering up into huge trees and sawing off their branches with a chainsaw. He prides himself on being able to drop the branches within the radius of the tree. He is terrified of heights but learned not to look down. “The existential charm of tree work is that your fate is entirely in your hands,” he states categorically: whether you live or die is wholly down to your skills, your judgement.

Junger contrasts this with the random violence of combat – something else he knows well, having covered the war in Afghanistan for nearly a decade as a journalist. War, published in 2010, follows a single platoon through a 15-month tour of duty in the most dangerous outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley; his film Restrepo also came out of this time, a collaboration with the late British photojournalist Tim Hetherington – killed in 2011 during the Libyan civil war.  With studied casualness Junger demonstrates the role of chance in survival. “One day I was leaning against some sandbags at a small American outpost in Afghanistan, and I felt some sand flick into the side of my face,” he writes. Bullets travel at twice the speed of sound: a couple of them had hit a sandbag, missing him by inches.

How much control did Junger really have, up in that tree, despite his prowess? Once he gets a call from a woman who tells him a huge oak has fallen in her yard, its trunk hollowed by ants: “If I’d been working in the tree at that moment, I would have died.” So, despite his earlier conviction, his fate was not, finally, in his hands: because of course it never is.

In My Time of Dying is Junger’s sixth book and perhaps his most unlikely. For all of his adventuring, Junger was, like most of us, held in place by the Covid pandemic. At the age of 58, with a wife and two young daughters, he was spending the stilled summer of 2020 in his house in Cape Cod, a place so remote that the land-line barely worked and there was rarely mobile phone reception. For a time, he writes, he had been troubled by mysterious abdominal pain, “a sudden burning below my sternum that made me stand up straight and push my fingers into my gut”. It’s different from any pain he’s ever felt; “I inexplicably thought: this is the kind of pain where you later find out you’re going to die.” It turns out he was right, or nearly.

On a fine June day a few months later, he suffered an aneurysm in a pancreatic artery. If he had not just cleared his driveway of brush (there’s the chainsaw again) the ambulance might never have reached him in time. The paramedic treating him didn’t recognise the seriousness of his condition – but at the trauma centre two physicians immediately understood that he was “the sickest person in the hospital”, as one doctor will later tell him, although his bleeding was internal and the extent of his injuries wasn’t clear until he had a CT scan. Suffice to say, it’s a close-run thing – if you want more detail, there is plenty to be found in Junger’s account, for he brings the meticulousness of his earlier career to this most personal event.

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And then, just as he’s “getting ready to buy the farm”, in the words of one of the other doctors who saved his life, he perceives two things, very clearly. On his left side, a blackness, a “dark pit” into which he is being drawn; and then his father, dead eight years previously at the age of 89, “simply existing above me and slightly to my left”. “My father exuded reassurance and seemed to be inviting me to go with him.” Yet in that moment the invitation seemed “grotesque”. He told the doctor tending him to hurry. “You’re losing me. I’m going right now.” Thanks to the hard work of those doctors – and his own strange luck – Sebastian Junger lived.

Yet he is haunted by his survival, and this book is an interrogation into his experiences at the edge of consciousness, at the edge of life itself. It is interesting to contrast Junger’s experience with that of Salman Rushdie, nearly murdered in 2022 by a knife-wielding fanatic. Of his own near-death experience, Rushdie writes in Knife, his remarkable memoir of the event and its aftermath, “There was nothing supernatural about it. No ‘tunnel of light’. No feeling of rising out of my body… My body was dying and it was taking me with it.” This comparison tells us that as we all bring ourselves to every moment of our living, so too it must be with our dying. Junger observes that “adrenaline junkies” – people, like himself, who place themselves in situations that have intense consequences – are actually “meaning junkies”, searching for events that give shape to their lives. Perhaps it is not surprising that Rushdie, who has made meaning and wonder in so much of his work while sitting quietly at a desk, met his most pragmatic self in the moment of his near-death.

There is something peculiarly evasive about In My Time of Dying. Rushdie remarks in Knife that writing a memoir is not therapy; yet one wishes for more of the therapeutic in Junger’s book. Once he is recovered, he searches for the truth of what “really” happened during his near-death experience: he makes his quest in the fields of neurology, in cosmology and quantum mechanics, which in varying ways address what we know about consciousness and the world, the universe as we experience it.

Critiquing memoir, this most personal of forms, calls for caution: who is the reviewer to tell anyone how they should write about the most challenging events in their own lives? Yet it seemed to me that In My Time of Dying misses what may be under Junger’s nose. That father – a scientist himself, and one who had escaped not one but two European wars – was “distracted and distant” but reappears, as his son admits, at his hour of greatest need. But “now I find myself reading papers on quantum theory and cosmology, trying to understand what I saw; trying to understand why he was there”. Junger has been dicing with death all his adult life and seeming to do it with preternatural calm; he has lost friends – like Hetherington – and wondered why they deserved to die instead of him. I didn’t need the far end of physics to explain to me why Junger might have been so rattled by his ordinary experience of near-death, or why he might have had the vision he did.

This odd and haunting book is subtitled: “How I came face to face with the idea of an afterlife.” Yet Junger’s actual life was miraculously saved for him to re-enter: it is that life, its choices, its flight towards death and danger, that the reader wishes he had spent more time considering. He may not yet be ready. The past, as Junger clearly knows, can be more frightening than death itself.

In My Time of Dying
Sebastian Junger
Fourth Estate, 176pp, £16.99

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[See also: The insular world of Rachel Cusk]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency