The Ticking is the Bomb


In this week's paper, I review Nick Flynn's new book, The Ticking is the Bomb. It is, broadly, a memoir about torture and parenthood. Flynn began writing it when the Abu Ghraib prison photos were released in 2004; in 2007, Flynn found out his partner (actress Lili Taylor) was pregnant, and the book expanded to encompass Flynn's feelings about becoming a parent. In his last memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Flynn describes working at a homeless shelter in Boston where his own father is a resident. His father makes another appearance Ticking, as does Flynn's mother, who committed suicide when Flynn was 22. Ticking is an oblique, fractured book, relying more on the repetition of images and themes than any kind of chronological or linear organization, and its brief chapters encompass current events, literature, Flynn's own memories of childhood, the suicide of his mother and the alcoholic decline of his father, and more.

I interviewed Flynn early this week for my article; the transcript of our interview is after the jump.

How would you describe the structure of your book?

I wouldn’t call it a chronological narrative in any sense, although there is a narrative sort of laid onto it. I guess in the course of writing [anything], there will be a chronological narrative happening beside you, even if you’re not writing that. And that turned out to be the impending birth of Maeve, of Lulu [Flynn’s daughter is named Maeve; she’s given the pseudonym “Lulu” in the book]. But the main focus of the book is what I think of as a closed image system, or image cluster. It’s these images that get repeated throughout the book, and hopefully the resonance around them gets deepened as you read. And there’s a cluster of them almost like a constellation of images.

Images like water, boats…

Yeah, swimming, prison—which I think is in all my books, which I hadn’t even tracked; some grad student I think pointed that out. Monkeys….

I didn’t notice the monkeys.

You didn’t notice the monkeys? [The book] was actually called Welcome to the Year of the Monkey originally. It relates back to the My Lai photographs—the My Lai massacre happened in 1968, which is the year of the monkey. And there’s a woman near the end who gives me a little monkey at the reading; my favorite book when I was a child was the The Magic Monkey… maybe this is triggering this thread of images.

Yeah, it is.

[Those threads] recur at certain moments when one works off another, and gets juxtaposed with another and creates a different sort of energy. And you have to find that. The threads have to be found and the structure of the whole has to be found. They sort of come together organically, but you also have to do the work, for them to come together organically. So there’s a strange paradox. It’s already there, the structure of the book is already out there in the world, but you have to do the work to find it. It’s like what I wrote about “Hey Jude”—once you hear it it’s always been there. Anything we do, it takes on an air of inevitability. You found the way it was supposed to be, you found its form. Even if it’s imperfect, that’s the way it is.

You frequently refer to your memory of other texts, rather than the texts themselves. What motivated that decision?

[In one of the early references] to the Inferno, to how I remembered it, when I went back to find that translation of it, I couldn’t find it, which is why in the notes I call it “my translation.” I did live in Italy, I worked with a poet there translating his work, so I’ve done a little work with Italian—it just seemed like the most honest thing was to say it was my translation. All the books are translated, even the ones from English to English—it’s just how I remembered it. And that seemed more important, because the whole book is about how imperfect memory is. Not the whole book, but that is part of it. It’s also about the whole question, the whole larger political [and] epistemological question, about the limits of what one can know. So I think I was trying to embody that in the writing, that there are certain things we can know and certain things we can’t know, and to track that, to make it the experience of the reader as they’re reading.

Did having a child change the way you think about torture?

Before I had a child, people who are pro-torture would say, well, if you had a child you’d understand that we should torture people. If you had a child you’d be so connected to that person that you’d do anything to protect them, even torture someone. And I was like... I don’t think I would. [And now that I have a child], it isn’t that I wouldn’t do whatever it took to get her back. I’m not denying that there are dark forces working within each of us—and I’m using myself as the primary example in the book—and that we’re not sure what we’ll do in certain circumstances, but that’s not the issue. The question that they would frame—what would you do in that circumstance, would you authorize torture? The question of what I would do in that circumstance has nothing to do with whether I think torture should be legislated and legitimized. That’s a totally different question. What I imagine in my darkest moments, I actually don’t want to be law. I used to drive around drunk, you know? I’m sort of glad that’s illegal—that there’s a consequence for it. It’s not something like, well, hell, I can imagine doing it, let’s all drive around drunk! That doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

Can you explain the chronology of the writing of the book?

The [Abu Ghraib] photographs came out in 2004, that’s when I began the book—we were pregnant with [Maeve] in 2007, and that’s when I went to see the Iraqis [former Abu Ghraib detainees]. I’d done a lot of research on torture and I actually felt that I’d finished the book—then there was this moment of going to see the Iraqis, which was presented to me, which just happened to coincide with the pregnancy. The photographs came out at the same age my mother had been when she committed suicide. I was at a very lost moment in my life, and the photographs felt to me like a representation of how lost the country was, also. Like a mirror. It’s an odd thing to feel very lost, because it’s usually a very isolating experience, but then to look around and think my god, the whole country’s lost. It wasn’t that torture had happened. That didn’t surprise me. That Cheney authorized it, that was no surprise. The thing was that it was justified and accepted and legislated several years later, that was the surprising thing to me.