Nick Flynn’s second memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb, is a darkly elegant, bizarre exploration of what it means to embrace life in a culture of death.
Like Flynn’s first memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, the author establishes two competing concepts and then strings a cat’s cradle between those two ideas, rhythmically weaving words, metaphors and ideas into layered loops that bridge and soften the cognitive dissonance.
In Suck City, (currently being developed into a film scheduled for release in 2012), Flynn mined the tension between a younger Flynn and his alcoholic, sporadically homeless, shit-talking father who, it turns out, occasionally shouted truths within the torrent of lies and delusions. In Ticking, the author attempts to reconcile images of abuse and torture leaked out of Abu Ghraib and first leaked to newspapers in 2004 with finally becoming a father himself. In other words: what does it mean to bring another person into this terrible world?
Flynn, who has published two collections of poetry and has won big-time writing fellowships (such as the Guggenheim) is what they call a writer’s writer, to be sure. He favors the e.e. cummings-style of lowercase titles for sections that can only loosely be called chapters. These vignettes are spliced between more traditional and narrative chapters that read like short stories and can stand alone but gain new depth when taken in context of the whole book. Overall, it feels like the book wasn’t written as much as it was assembled into a narrative pastiche glued together by re-occurring metaphors.
Flynn’s now-signature non-fiction style might weird out readers who crave a classic story arc. The dateline jumps. Anecdotes sit beside meditations, which spiral back and forth. For readers who love a challenge, it’s worth the work to feel the poet’s head-on collision with reality. Flynn’s obsessive nature may force his locomotive mind off the rails, but he dutifully and beautifully records what’s illuminated by the sparks, what’s written on the walls. It’s an addictive and deeply satisfying ride.
The central metaphor that Flynn repeatedly invokes is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In the tale, prisoners live inside a cave and have never left it. A fire that blazes at the mouth of the cave tricks prisoners into mistaking the shadows it casts on the wall as reality rather than a reflection of reality. One of the points of the allegory is that the world of ideas is more real than the material world, which makes sense in a book that takes us deeper into Flynn’s head than anywhere else. Flynn goes on to invoke the fire as both source of illusion and cause for alarm throughout the book. For Flynn, illusion and alarm are one and the same.
In a brief, two-paragraph chapter, Flynn considers reasons why his mother, whose suicide scars Flynn in ways he only begins to explore here, used to get in the car and drive him toward house fires in the neighborhood. Flynn writes, “Maybe my mother simply wanted to practice, like other families practiced fire drills, so that when the sirens came for her I’d know what to do. To get in the car and drive, toward that sound, whatever it was — fire or heart attack, car crash or suicide…But where do you drive when the siren is outside your own house?”
(It’s interesting to note that another recent book that used the Plato’s Cave to find its center is Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, which also explores the effect war images flickering on television sets have on us, though from a more overtly political, rather than existential, lens.)
Flynn’s a guy who’d rather know truths — all of them — than live with lies. In Suck City, he sifted through his father’s ramblings for unlikely truths. After Flynn’s mother shot herself to death, he interviewed all of her ex-boyfriends on film to try to find answers. In Ticking, he travels to Istanbul to interview the soldiers in those awful photos and beat himself up or watching the twin towers crumble on a television screen in Manhattan as the real buildings full of real people collapsed behind him.
“But how did we end up in a cave, how did we end up, hour after hour, day after day, staring at shadows on the wall. And why don’t we simply look away?”
Meanwhile, as Flynn becomes more devout in his study of torture, what’s going on in real life is that his girlfriend — named Inez in the book but in real life is actress Lili Taylor — is already pregnant.
The clock ticks as Flynn obsessively analyzes himself, relationships, love, the media, family and life itself and then wonders whether living so deeply in his skull has choked his heart in a monstrous way. He worries he will feel nothing when his baby is placed in his arms.
Ultimately, Flynn knows this world is tragic and yet he brings a new life into it anyway. Why? The answer lies before the first page, really, in the title. The title references the classic ethics debate of the ticking-time bomb scenario that questions if torture is ever OK. The hypothetical goes something like: does torturing one person who knows about a bomb that will kill thousands of others make torturing that person into confessing the bomb’s location OK? How many lives is one life worth?
By the end, his daughter is born and Flynn and Inez are living what seems like a simpler life, thrown in the whirlwind of parenthood and forfeiting the luxury of thinking too hard about it. Flynn may remain too tortured by his own demons to live happily ever after, but he’s living and loving his own small angels, and after pumping the reader through his heart’s grimy ventricles, blood dark as ink, that may be about the best he — or any of us — can hope to do.