‘This is where we try to make a coherent narrative out of chaos’ – The Ticking Is The Bomb by Nick Flynn

Nick Flynn is a poet, but is perhaps best known for his previous volume of memoirs, Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, which earned him a PEN award and dealt with his years as a volunteer in a homeless shelter, his relationship with his father, and his father’s own life on the streets. The Ticking Is The Bomb is a further exploration of love and dislocation; in it, Flynn examines addiction, suicide, belonging and fear in the context of his impending fatherhood and his growing outrage at the tortures perpetrated and authorized by the US government and documented at Abu Ghraib prison.

A savage blend of the personal and the political, The Ticking Is The Bomb rails against an administrative system that advocates the imprisonment and torture of innocent people and denies the victims a voice. Ricocheting between Flynn’s visits to the Middle East to bear witness to the testimony of the Abu Ghraib prisoners, and incidents from his private life, this memoir plunges the reader into the heady turmoil of a man’s search to find his defining place in the world. As well as his commentary on Guantanamo Bay, we hear about his childhood as the son of a single mother who struggled with addiction, his volunteer work with the homeless, and the years he spent stumbling from one doomed relationship to another. Flynn’s dislocated lifestyle, moving from place to place, from woman to woman, living on a boat and in a barn, reveals the emotional dislocation of a man who fears to commit to a position of potential vulnerability. The story returns over and over to his mother’s suicide and his father’s mental instability; having reached the age at which each of their lives fell apart, Flynn is forced to re-examine his own life in the context of world events and his own impending fatherhood. He meets with the torture victims just as his child is due to be born, and the ‘ticking’ of the title refers both to the threat of violence implied by terrorism and torture, and the countdown to his daughter’s birth.

This isn’t standard autobiography, a chronological series of revelations, but a series of mini-essays, leaping through time and space; interlinked and repetitive reflections on incidents and observations from the writer’s life, loosely following the progression of his girlfriend’s pregnancy. Flynn’s poetic skill is manifest in his use of the short form the book is a collection of almost aphoristic snippets of information and meditation. He manages to successfully engage the reader with his own personal journey, as well as propelling him into the full horror of the Guantanamo Bay tortures. Using such brief ‘chapters’, I think he ran the risk of under-developing his themes, but instead these miniature sections work like poetry – they invoke and evoke the desired depth of meaning and response through repetition and alteration. He gets the reader thinking about memory and reliability; the contradictions of his own testimony (did his mother overdose, or did she shoot herself?) echo the uncertainty of information extracted from prisoners under torture. His disinclination to believe his father’s prison tales is shaken by the stories he hears from the Abu Ghraib prisoners, and the reader is then compelled to question the truth of any ‘accepted’ narrative, including the US government’s pronouncements on interrogation techniques.

The way Flynn reveals information, both personal and political, very slowly and circuitously, maps out his struggle to understand the world around him. His language is steady, poetic, calm, and constantly thoughtful. He says towards the end that ‘this is where we try to make a coherent narrative out of chaos’, and this is what the book sets out to do – to find a coherence in the writer’s life, amongst death and addiction and loss, and also in the world outside, where innocents are snatched from their beds and tortured by the military police in a strange, and to Flynn, alien, battle against the ‘collateral damage’ of hypothetical terrorist threats.

Flynn’s abhorrence of the regime that resulted in the Guantanamo Bay atrocities does not stop with politicians; he confronts other writers and filmmakers and exhorts them to re-examine their beliefs and their work. His website is bursting with corroborating material for the book interviews, email exchanges, articles written by pro-torture advocates and the testimony of those involved with the Abu Ghraib incidents. He entreats PEN to reconsider its award of a medal to a writer whose book supports torture, and engages in an extended debate with that writer, all documented in PDF transcripts on the website. It’s worth digging through, once you’ve read the book some of the content is truly chilling. Flynn’s political stance is assured, and his persistence to get answers is dogged, but he’s never shrill, simplistic or polemical. The political content in the book is juxtaposed with his own personal story and that of his family, and so the narrative as a whole stands as a mature and honest reflection on how to retain one’s humanity and the capacity to love in an increasingly violent world.

Any Cop?: This is a thought-provoking and enthralling memoir; if you’re squeamish you may not enjoy it, but as an exploration of the political zeitgeist of this decade, it’s a must-read.

Valerie O’Riordan

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