by Erik Noonan
Published by WW Norton, 2009 | 283 pages
Nick Flynn’s second memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb, is a wild, dizzying ride through Flynn’s tortured past and the daunting but necessary exploration into our fears about ourselves and the world. Spawned from his 2008 same-titled feature in Esquire magazine, Flynn delicately weaves short, prose-poem like snapshots of his life with narrative journalism. A series of quick, fragmented chapters, Flynn guides us through the old neighborhoods of his life, expanding on his first book, Bullshit Night in Suck City, and we follow him overseas to Istanbul, where he interviews Abu Ghraib detainees. Poetic gestures of collage, repetition, anecdote and aphorism echo throughout the entire, disjointed narrative, to keep the book and Flynn’s life from coming completely unthread.
Flynn shatters the expectations of a traditionally coherent, narrative arc. It’s as if he placed his entire life, every thought he’s ever had, in front of mirror, smashed it, and then made a beautiful, multi-colored sculpture out of the most interesting pieces. There’s never a feeling of what next? Rather, there’s only the incessant ticking, Flynn peering unflinchingly into the eternal present, flashing moments of insight and question from each moment as it explodes, and then submerges itself again into another layer of sense making.
In the opening chapter, Flynn stacks a description of an ultrasound image of his unborn daughter with the infamous torture photographs from Abu Ghraib, about which Flynn writes, “by now we’ve all seen them, by now we’ve all held them in our hands, but they also have the texture of dreams.” And from there, Flynn is constantly turning back, looking forward, and then turning back again, like the methodic and meditative hand of a clock. As the impending birth of daughter and his struggle to confront the madness of suicide and torture collide, a beautiful book emerges, singing with a desperate search to find redemption in language, hope and the birth of his daughter.
Flynn splices excerpts from Abu Ghraib interviews and articles with his own interrogation of why, how, who advocates torture and why torture is still believed to be a useful, necessary tool in national security. He revisits his childhood with his drug-addicted, suicidal mother, insisting, “all I want is to ask her one question, one small question.” We see Flynn at nineteen in New York, retelling tales of his misspent youth to a new friend, claiming, “I don’t know what it is I’m capable of transforming into.” And yet, in one of the most touching scenes of the book, Flynn tells Amir, a former Abu Ghraib detainee, that his (Flynn’s) first daughter will be born in a few months and Amir, “narrowed his eyes and smiled, as if I had just come into focus.”
Although so much disjunction can sometimes leave the reader with bit of shadowy confusion, reading this book is like watching someone cut his life into slides and hold them before a light bulb, turning the pieces over delicately with his fingers. And then, as dutiful memoirist, he reflects on what he sees, just long enough for a bit of truth about himself, about all of his, to shine through, before dropping it to the floor and rising with another image, where we can learn a little bit more about the world and life we find ourselves struggling in together.
Patrick Haas is an MFA student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.