The Ticking is the Bomb by Nick Flynn

Flynn’s obsessive nature may force his locomotive mind off the rails, but he dutifully and beautifully records what’s illuminated by the sparks.

The Ticking Is the Bomb: A Memoir

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Length: 283 pages
Author: Nick Flynn
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-01

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.