NICK FLYNN'S Another Bullshit Night in Suck City set a high bar for any nonfiction he would subsequently write. Probing, formally inventive, full of pathos and poetry, Suck City stands alongside Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life as an enduring modern memoir. Even though this third memoir's storyline isn't as memorable as Flynn's first, The Reenactments succeeds in other ways. There's the form: a prose poem and vignette montage that alternates scenes with exposition and rumination. There's the subject: the experience of turning Suck City into the film Being Flynn. But the main appeal is the author's sensibility.
Like the best essayists and comics, Flynn sees the everyday in a unique way, so his memoir does what the deep ones do: let us experience a life both like and unlike our own. For all the movies Americans watch, few of us will ever visit a film set, let alone a film based on our life. And what would we see if we did? Likely not as much as Flynn, or at least not in the same way. His experience of movie-making isn't about actors, screenplays, or serving as production consultant as much as an unavoidable dunk into the universal struggle to make sense of our lives. While Julianne Moore and Robert De Niro do their scenes, Flynn finds himself thinking about the nature of reality, truth, perception, and memory, as well as working through his grief.
Qualia, "the sensations of having sensations," form the root of The Reenactments. As Flynn watches his life get lived by strangers who are ostensibly him and his parents, he shows us that we all feel this sensation at some point, the act of watching our lives unfold. The Reenactments doesn't ask, "What's it like to have your life made into a movie?" It asks, "What is reality anyway?" And with the imperfection of memory and many screens of perception, how close can we get to really seeing our lives accurately?
As in Suck City, Flynn explores events through multiple prisms—Samuel Beckett, phantom limbs, neuroscience, homunculus—like watching De Niro shoot scenes, and finds insight in history, television, and literature. Naturally, he uses the film medium as a lens (sorry) into the way we conceptualize reality. "What if [my mother] died before the invention of film?" he says. "Would I still run the movie of her death over and over in my mind, would my mind even be able to imagine it?"
A parallel meditation emerges: What does it mean to turn tragedy into art, and render remembered fragments into documents like memoir? Like the Buddhist concept of the connected self, which Flynn references, this rewarding book is a complex matrix, dense yet not impenetrable. But you have to work for it.
Readers devoted to conventional narrative will grow impatient. They'll think Flynn's harping on memory. They'll tire of the parenthetical remarks, the questions within questions ("(marijuana? the universe?)"). Then again, those readers likely aren't reading Flynn anyway. The gaps between vignettes leave room for errors, which are meant to mimic the incomplete, imperfect nature of reality and memory. For poets who love prose, essayists who love montage, people who want stories that accrue rather than unfurl—The Reenactments rewards because it demands that we think, decode, and piece it all together, which is what Flynn seems to believe we do in life anyway.