The Ticking Is the Bomb: A Memoir
by Nick Flynn
Reviewed by Julie Babcock
Nick Flynn organizes his second memoir, The Ticking Is the Bomb, into the same short, piercing moments that won him a PEN award for Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. This time Flynn leads the reader through the shifting landscapes of present-day Istanbul and New York as well as his swiftly changing sense of his own past, present, and future. The memoir refuses the expectations of the genre, and Flynn warns the reader of this before the narrative begins with a disclaimer: "This is a work of non-fiction, but it is also full of dreams, speculations, memories, and shadows."
The two governing tropes of the book are the anticipated birth of his daughter and his travels to Istanbul with an attorney and a handful of artists to witness and record testimony from torture victims who were ex-detainees of Abu Ghraib. Flynn meditatively moves around these powerful tropes to try and understand how these things -- one so beautiful and one so bitterly ugly -- can coexist. Then he goes further than that to show how such beauty and ugliness are linked.
Memories of Flynn's own troubled past haunt the narrative. Memories of his mother and her suicide and of his past love relationships bring pain and love together, and transform one into the other depending on the moment. The figure of Proteus, the god who has the answers to all questions but who changes into terrifying shapes when someone tries to grab him, recurs through the book. In some ways, Flynn's memoir is an attempt to pose just the right question for Proteus and hold on to him long enough to get an answer. In the linked moments of this book the reader comes face to face with this profound attempt to exorcise the shadow of fear and replace it with a ray of light.
There are many recurring images in the book, but each time they appear in a different context, so it becomes impossible to fix or assign any easy anecdote. In the title chapter, about halfway through the book, Proteus makes another appearance, this time in an interrogation setting. He is tied to the chair and "you" and "I" are the interrogators. We place our fingers around his neck and ask our question over and over again. We rationalize our methods as Proteus chokes. Then, as the section continues, the point of view moves closer and closer to Flynn's own until Flynn himself realizes that he is both the torturer and the tortured. He keeps harming himself, "as if the answer exists, inside the maniac, inside the prisoner, inside the beloved, inside my mother, inside my father, inside me."
Photographs display a similar dual nature. The memoir begins with the ultrasound pictures of Flynn's baby. Then it moves to snapshots taken of Flynn at the PEN awards, and also to the infamous photographs taken at Abu Ghraib, images he mercifully only mentions in passing. Light and shadow flicker throughout. The process of photography itself, the capturing of light from the subject, of the frozen moment, is a fitting point for Flynn's meditations. The Ticking Is the Bomb deftly demonstrates how photography is both a document and a creation. Looking at the one photograph of his mother, Flynn is unsure whether the small foot at the edge of the frame is his or someone else's. The seemingly banal photographs of Flynn with another PEN author take a troubling turn. The ultrasound photographs of his daughter seem unreal, like "holding a photograph of a dream." A year after he is tortured an ex-detainee of Abu Ghraib looks at the photographs of himself from that time and asks Flynn, "I cannot recognize myself as that man . . . Can you?" Flynn keeps coming back to these lights and shadows; they remind him of what was, what might be, and what is now.
This memoir has no traditional narrative arc. It does not move chronologically from event to event. Rather, it mimics the way the mind slips through time and builds circuitously. In many ways, Flynn's memoir reads as a series of prose poems, in that it focuses more on moments of being rather than narratives of it. None of the sections are long. Part of the power is in the white space -- the bridge or the jump to the next section. How did I get from there to here? Flynn keeps posing this question for himself and, in proxy, for the reader. And then, finally, there is a promise of peace.
The Ticking Is the Bomb is a book from which it is impossible to look away. It is both mythic and deeply personal, both timeless and political. Reading it is a harrowing and yet hopeful experience, and it is a deeply human one as well.