Nick Flynn & the Art of the Memoir

I just completed Nick Flynn's second memoir, The Ticking Is the Bomb. It followed his breakthrough book, the fabulously titled Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (innocuously renamed Being Flynn for the so-so movie version starring Robert De Niro). ABNSC was so vivid, vibrant, playfully sardonic, and poetic, -- so audacious -- you had to wonder if Flynn had simply caught lightening in a bottle, never to happen again. (I wrote about ABNSC here last year.)

Well, Ticking is nearly as good. This is because Flynn has a method that really works for him: He dispenses with the need to tell his story in chronological sequence, opting to create short chapters that form constituent parts or modules that can be arranged in any number of ways, depending on the resonances among themes that he wants to create. This also dispenses with the need or compulsion to tell about everything that happened — a fool's errand if there ever was one. This is how Dylan approached his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, in which he looked at three discrete periods in his life, none of which deal with the period of his greatest fame. Critically, by working with small units, Flynn can use inventive prose without overwhelming the reader. Some of his short pieces are really prose poems. By varying the types of writing and length of chapters, Flynn creates a musical or symphonic feel.

Ticking centers on the years just after the invasion of Iraq when the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib became public. As the reports of these crimes against humanity mount, Flynn straightens out his complicated love life, gets married, and has his first child, a girl. One of my favorite passages in the book shows how these seemingly irreconcilable themes can reside together.
Bewilderment as a way of entering the day. My terror with being a father, with having a child, if I can name it, is not the threat of some abstract maniac snatching her — it is that I will look at her and not feel a thing. That she will appear and that nothing will change. That I won't be able to take her in, I won't be able to enter the day, not fully. That I might simply get in my car one day and drive, away from her, away from myself, that I won't remember. My fear has always been with myself, it has always been the fear of my own shadow.
When I first heard about the premise of the book I thought that it sounded like a stretch. You mean he's going to write about torture and becoming a father?* Why not choose one and treat it well? But life really is such that strong, seemingly (but not truly) opposite concerns can coexist within us. In fact they always coexist within us. My concerns ping pong all over the place everyday, just as they do in Ticking, where references can extend from The Wizard of Oz all the way to the Story of O, from his mother's suicide to the My Lai massacre, and it doesn't feel forced. And why should it? It isn't just Whitman who contains multitudes.

As scenes and memories accrue, themes of trauma, of bodies, of fear, of reconciliation, of honesty and self-deception, of birth and death emerge. Come to think of it, Flynn's book pays homage to that other landmark poetic work, the one told in songs of innocence and experience.

* The connections are concrete for Flynn since he received a grant to go to Istanbul with other artists to interview victims of torture. So Flynn's writing on this topic is more than conjecture.


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