by Nick Flynn
304 pages, W.W. Norton and Company
Review by Marie Mundaca
About a third of the way through The Ticking is the Bomb, author Nick Flynn is at a Buddhist retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. The famed Buddhist monk, says “it is a mistake to say ‘the rain is falling,’ to say ’the wind is blowing.’ What is the rain if it is not falling? What is the wind if it is not blowing? The falling is the rain, the blowing is the wind.” The next day Flynn brings this up to some others at the retreat. “He’s talking about impermanence," someone says. Really? Because he’s not. He’s talking about the intrinsic nature of things. Rain cannot not fall, wind cannot not blow, at least here on earth. However, ticking is not intrinsic to the bomb, is it? I guess if it’s set to go off.
And thus we have the major problem with The Ticking Is The Bomb: Flynn, whose previous book was the highly acclaimed Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, is trying to write a book about disparate things that go together in his life: complicated love affairs, torture, his mother’s suicide, and the birth of his first child. These things may be intrinsic to Flynn, but they have nothing to do with the rest of us, making for a confusing, self-indulgent memoir, albeit one with drop dead gorgeous prose. Although The Ticking Is The Bomb doesn’t really work as a memoir, I have to concede that Flynn’s prose is enticing enough to keep me interested for an entire book.
I’m guessing that because these subjects are so important to Flynn, he doesn’t understand that they may not be important to the reader. He makes no attempt to tie the any of these topics together, other than talk about both of them in short, provocatively titled sections (“a box of dolls,” “sheepfucker,” “the inventor of the life raft”) with quiet sentences. It’s a beautiful book prose-wise, but it really fails spectacularly at what it’s trying to do. Which, to be honest, I don’t know what that is. I only know that it doesn’t really do anything.
Flynn’s discreet sections within chapters have very little connection to each other, other than recurrent symbols and themes like monkeys, lava, imprisonment, and torture. It’s not until he brings his father into the book that the themes of family and torture really start to coalesce—his father claims to have been tortured while in prison in the US, and Flynn discovers that he may not be lying—the CIA experimented in what they called “light” torture (standing for days, sleep deprivation--little fun things like that.) in two of the prisons that held his father. But his father is prone not only to criminal behavior but to hoarding and disconnection to reality, so Flynn never really knows.
The use of Inez as a pseudonym for his real partner, actress Lili Taylor, is strange. It’s not like their relationship is a secret. He’s writing a memoir, or so it says on the cover. He wants the reader to come into his life and find an identifiable emotion, like his hatred of torture, his implied (but not well conveyed) ambivalence over having a child, his screwed-up parents, but when it comes to the mother of his daughter he tells readers to stand back. Even though he tells readers many personal things about their relationship. Perhaps it was a desire to keep the memoir out of the realm of gossip, but, really, how many people out there are hungry for juicy details of Lili Taylor’s life?
Every so often at the end of a section Flynn will attempt to bring things together: the torture, the mother, the women, the daughter. He’ll pose questions about how far would you go to get back a kidnapped daughter, or write about the differing reactions his stepfather and his real father have about the birth of their granddaughter. But little gestures are too subtle to come close to binding these big subjects. The bomb isn’t ticking after all.