Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Ticking is the Bomb

Review By Baynard Woods

Nick Flynn’s “The Ticking is the Bomb,” begins with the juxtaposition of the ultrasound image of his unborn daughter and the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib and it moves in eccentric circles around these two poles. He hopes that it will be a story of “the dark days before she was born, and how her coming was a way of light.”

The book is characterized as a “memoir,” and Flynn certainly has an interesting story, some of which he chronicled in his previous book “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.” His father went to prison and his mother committed suicide. Later, Flynn worked at a homeless shelter and, there, he got back in touch with his father, now homeless.  Flynn traveled and settled in Rome. He loved a lot of women, lied to some of them and would ultimately have a baby with one.

But Flynn’s personal drama is not the great thing about this book. In fact, it sometimes threatens to overwhelm the real story. The obligatory addiction passages sound like a hundred other memoirs (“After I’ve stopped using (again), after I’ve found my way back into folding chairs in anonymous church basements…“). It is the structure of the book rescues it from the clichés of the genre, makes it more intense, more poetic (Flynn is a poet), more real. The short, titled chapters are not arranged chronologically. Instead what Flynn calls “image clusters” allow scenes to gather unexpected gravity as the narrative bits loop around and reflect off of each other.

Flynn’s book begins with a discussion of images—the ultrasound the Abu Ghraib—but it is not about images at all. It is, in fact, about the differences between bodies and images.  Flynn complains that filmmaker Errol Morris’ New York Times articles about Abu Ghraib seem more concerned with the photographs than the reality. The ticking might be the bomb, but the photo is not the torture.

That isn’t Flynn’s only beef with Morris, who recently released the film “Standard Operating Procedure” about Abu Ghraib.  Flynn is amazed that Morris only shows the stories of the torturers, the Americans. Flynn does not talk to the torturers. He goes to Istanbul to listen to the testimony of the tortured.

And yet, he does not tell us their stories.  Not really.  Flynn’s story is not about Abu Ghraib any more than it is about his unborn child. It is about his reaction to these things. This would be a real disappointment if his reactions were not so interesting, entertaining and instructive. “The Ticking is the Bomb” cajoles the reader into feeling the world more deeply and this is what makes it tick.

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